In 1705 Bach was given leave from his duties in Arnstadt for a month long stay in Lübeck to meet and perhaps study with Dietrich Buxtehude, one of the finest organists in Northern Germany. The visit was to last four months! During his stay, Bach is sure to have heard a number of Buxtehude’s vocal compositions, as well as his organ music. Indeed, our cantatas of the last two weekends (BWV 106 and 131) were written not long after this experience and are stylistically indebted to Buxtehude and his generation of composers.
The text of Sicut Moses comes directly from today’s Gospel, John 3:14 - 15. The opening Sonata for instruments introduces the upward motive of a fourth (mirroring the text images of literal and spiritual uplift), first in the Adagio, then in a delightful three-voice fugue. The entrance of the vocal line is striking. Buxtehude colors the word ‘exaltavit’ [lift up] in two ways: first, as an exalted upward scale, then as serpentine melisma, the instruments taking on mainly an imitative role. A brief set of variations over a ground bass follows. Triple meter is introduced appropriately for the ‘Son of Man’. The text ‘May not die’ and ‘but have eternal life’ is always separated by a jazzy, syncopated motive in the instruments. A busy, lighthearted ‘Amen’ concludes the work.