Most – or all – of Bach’s motets were written as memorials to the recently departed, but the radiant, brilliant, almost celebratory quality of many of them seems to belie anything funereal. The Lutheran idea of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life’s suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own. The 18th-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children.
The words of the first part of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, come from the longest of the Pauline Epistles, Romans. One of Paul’s themes stresses the insignificance of worldly suffering when contrasted with salvation though faith in Christ. The motet was hastily composed in October of 1729. There is evidence that parts of the piece may have been adapted from previous material. More surprising is the suggestion that the motet may have been conceived as purely biblical - the closing chorale (with a text by Luther) intended for a different part of the burial service. Whatever the case, this chorale seems to have been lifted from another piece – perhaps a lost cantata – and transposed (from its usual key of G major) up a third to B-flat major. Of all the motets Der Geist hilft is the lightest and most gracious. The piece opens with feathery cascades of sixteenth notes on the word ‘Geist’[Spirit] that seem intended to surround the listener with the comfort and aid of the ‘Spirit’. Written for double choir, Bach exploits the antiphonal possibilities to both dramatic and virtuosic effect. The tentative and insecure quality of the second line of text, ‘For we do not know what we should pray,’ is beautifully captured in the staggered entrances of each choir. As the text becomes more confident and affirming, the two choirs become less independent. In the final fugue, Bach dispenses with the double choir idea altogether, bringing the piece solidly down to earth for the first time.
It is impossible to imagine this piece without its closing chorale. It is one of Bach's most ravishing harmonizations and fits the gracious tone of this motet perfectly.
© Michael Beattie
From Program Notes April 25, 2009