The present translation is offered to listeners, interpreters, and performers as a guide to the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Virtually the complete corpus, it includes the texts of lost compositions, but does not include untexted chorales. In not being intended primarily for singing, it differs from the two best known translations: Charles S. Terry, J. S. Bach, Cantata Texts (London, 1926; reprint, 1964) and Henry S. Drinker, Texts of the Vocal Works of J. S. Bach (New York, 1942-1943). 

Two lessons from antiquity have influenced my approach to the translation of the works of Bach. The first has to do with the reliability of translation; the second, with the value and purpose of translation. One of the greatest concerted efforts of literary translation in antiquity was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called Septuagint. Its value today rests partly on the fact that the sources it translates are older than any extant Hebrew versions. But the Septuagint had a certain negative result in the Greek-speaking Jewish and early Christian communities: Naive confidence in its reliabitly tended to suppress knowledge of the Hebrew (or Aramaic) original. Legends grew up about the veritably divine inspiration and miraculous agreement of the 72 (or 70) scholars thought to have been summoned to the island of Pharos near Alexandria by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (308-246 B.C.) for the task of translating the Jewish Law. Even though I have attempted to adhere closely to the word-order, metaphorical language, and sense of Bach's original texts, I would not tout the literalness of my translations. For my intention is not to leave readers content with the English version but to encourage them to consider the original. 

The second example, from somewhat later antiquity, suggests to me the efficiency of translation as philology, by which I mean literary interpretation in the broadest sense. Lucius Apuleius, born c. 123 A.D. in North Africa in a Greek-speaking family, explaining in his Introduction to the Metamorphoses that he first studied in Athens and then went to Rome to learn Latin, continues: "Behold I first crave and beg pardon lest I should happen to displease or offend any of you by the rude and rustic utterance of this strange and foreign language. Indeed this very change of language corresponds to the inconstant (i.e. changing) subject matter we undertake with our pen: we begin here a Grecian tale; reader attend; you will be delighted." In 1566 Apuleius' translator William Adlington writes: "But as Lucius Apuleius was changed into his human shape by a rose, the companions of Ulysses by great intercession, and Nebuchadnezzar by the continual prayers of Daniel, whereby they knew themselves and lived after a good and virtuous life: so can we never be restored to the right figure of ourselves, except we taste and eat the sweet rose of reason and virtue."(1) The transformation of Lucius from human to ass was for the purpose of enlightening the human. Apuleius implies that this movement through change to self-enlightenment is akin to his treatment of a Greek tale: its movement from Greek through the "rude and rustic utterance" of Latin for the purpose of illuminating the Greek mind of the author. To parody Adlington, a foreign language is the "sweet rose of reason" which returns Apuleius to his original form. Thus with this translation of the vocal texts of Bach the purpose is not to supplant, certainly not to upstage or obscure, but to enhance the original. And therewith let it be hoped that these translations of Bach's works may offer some service not only to the American or English or Japanese but even to the German listener, interpreter, or performer. 

Several general problems posed by Bach's texts deserve special attention. First, their stylistic and formal variety: not only do they spring from over a dozen known and probably as many unknown poets, they also have the internal variety of their Biblical texts, chorales, recitatives, and arias. Second, many of the texts themselves, such as the hymns of Luther and Biblical passages, are translations from works which are known to English-speakers in other versions. A related difficulty is posed by the fact that at every moment Bach is himself translating these texts. Bach's music helps the translator understand the text, but in attempting to translate both the text and Bach's own musical translation of it I have been persuaded to depart sometimes from the most idiomatic English in order to maintain Bach's treatment of key words, the original meter, accent, and word- and phrase-breaks. I have thought the observance of these features more essential than the preservation of the rhyme-scheme, except in some of the secular cantatas. In the Evangelist's narrative in the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio exact syllabic equivalence with the original is impossible without doing violence to the familiar English form of the Biblical text. In the Latin texts of the Masses, without attempting syllabic equivalence with the original, I follow the style of the American Book of Common Prayer (1928), but translate directly from Bach's text since it differs occasionally from the Missale Romanum.

The spelling throughout is modern American (e.g., Savior, not Saviour). The vocabulary is contemporary but the style affects Handelian English. German Du and Ihr and related forms are translated throughout with the appropriate forms of Thou and Ye, but verbal morphology varies between such forms as "giveth" and "gives," depending upon metrical requirements. Punctuation frequently departs from that of the original without changing its meaning.

The translations are primarily based upon W. Neumann, Sämtliche von Johann Sebastian Bach vertonte Texte (Leipzig, 1974). They are numbered and ordered according to the catalogue of Schmieder (BWV) or, in the case of works for which the music is lost, according to Neumann's Roman numerals. For historical and critical information on each work I have consulted both Neumann's edition of the texts and his Handbuch der Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs (Leipzig, 1971); also Alfred Dürr's invaluable Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach (Kassel, 1971) and the Critical Commentaries (Kritischer Bericht) of the NBA. The original texts are reproduced from the Kritischer Bericht. But when the Kritischer Bericht supplies no transcription from the printed texts of lost works, I give one in the original orthography (with corrections of obvious typographical errors, mostly of punctuation). These transcriptions will provide, I hope, an interesting contrast between original and modernized styles of German spelling.

In the introductory material to each work, the following information is given: 1. Occasion; 2. Author, if known, printed source, if any, and facsimile, if available; 3. Biblical texts, hymn texts (with modern printed source); 4. Date and place of first performance and of revised versions, when known; parody relationships; 5. BG and NBA editions. A Table of Occasions lists the Epistle and Gospel lections for each sacred occasion and all works performed on each occasion. The translation occasionally includes such subtitles as Drama in Music, Dialogue, or Serenata. It also gives any Dramatis Personae, with Bach's vocal assignments in parentheses. In chorale cantatas the number of the verse of the hymn used verbatim is given in square brackets (e.g. [Verse 7]). Biblical texts which establish a principal theme for a cantata are indicated, as they frequently were in the original printed editions, with the Latin word Dictum in square brackets, preceded by Bach's musical treatment of the text and followed in parentheses by Bach's vocal assignments as follows: 1. Chorus [Dictum] (S, A, T, B) or 3. Aria [Dictum] (B). The assignment of character, when known, is given as well: 2. Aria (S, B) Soul, Jesus.

While the translation itself is intended to constitute a commentary on the original, I explain in footnotes many proper and place names, historical allusions to persons and events. Mere enthusiasm for the texts has inspired me frequently to note subtle intentions of the poets, rhetorical figures, or parallel passages both from within Bach's corpus and from without, especially from such classical authors as Vergil, Horace, and Ovid.

The inspiration for this whole undertaking came from Professor Christoph Wolff. Since first suggesting the project in the late summer of 1979, he has helped me generously in both broad design and many details. I hope that others will yet find solutions to those passages in which I have not been up to the philological ideal he represents. Finally, I must confess that I would not have accepted Professor Wolff's challenge to wander awhile from the mainstream of classical studies without the encouragement of my companion in music, Professor Jane Ambrose. To her I dedicate this book.

The University of Vermont
Whitsuntide 1984
Burlington, Vermont

1. Reprinted in Apuleius, The Golden Ass, being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, revised by S. Gaselee (Cambridge, U. S. A., and London: The Loeb Classical Library, 1915), p. xvii.

© Copyright   Z. Philip Ambrose

Back to top