In 1707, the 22-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach began his position as the organist at the Lutheran church of St. Blasius in Mühlhausen. His arrival was just months after a devastating fire which destroyed a quarter of the historic town.
Mühlhausen had been one of the most important cities in central Germany during the later Middle Ages – an independent and Freie Reichsstadt and a 13th century republican self-ruled member of the Holy Roman Empire.
But just months before Bach’s arrival much of it was devastated by the enormous fire.
A pastor, perhaps sensing that the fire was the result of the Lord’s judgment for the sin of the town, asked Bach to compose a cantata based on Psalm 130: Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths have I cried unto thee). It was the perfect choice of text for JS Bach to set to music in which he used a sparse instrumentation of one violin, two violas, a bass instrument, oboe, bassoon, with the choir and soloists. The ‘depths’ are represented by low, mysterious voicing.
1 Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.
2 O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.
3 If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?
4 For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.
5 I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.
6 My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.
7 O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.
8 And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins.
Johann Sebastian Bach only remained organist of the church of Divi Blasii (as it was also known) until the following year of 1708, This great gothic church founded by the Teutonic Knights is said to have influenced the design of Brooklyn Bridge by John A. Roebling who grew up in Mühlhausen.
However, Bach’s short tenure was enough time to be appointed consultant for the rebuilding of the organ. His exacting specifications have remained today in the present instrument which dates from the 1950s.
And despite the great fire of 1707, Mühlhausen today still has one of the largest medieval city centres remaining in Germany.
Hear Bach, wonderful setting of this text along with other interpretations by some of his contemporaries in Out of the Depths performed by the Oxford Bach Soloists on 16 July at New College Chapel, Oxford.
Schütz Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, SWV 25
Purcell Remember not, Lord, our offences, Z 50
Charpentier De profundis, H. 189
CPE Bach Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir
(formerly attributed to JS Bach BWV 745) JS Bach Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131