Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Isabella van Elferen (University of Nijmegen, Netherlands)

“Seuffzen und Thränen”: of sighs and tears in Bach’s vocal works

Contrary to modern belief (“ein deutcher Junge weint nicht”) German men (and women) did cry in the 18th century. There were many sorts of tears to be shed. Most common were tears of mourning, tears of contrition, tears of love and the sentimental tears of the early Empfindsamkeit. During the 18th century weeping became a necessary and even fashionable habit of emotionally well-developed individuals. Tears should therefore no longer be suppressed in order to demonstrate Christian-stoic control of emotions, but they should rather flow in order to illustrate the weeper’s capacity to feel lively emotions. Religious and secular crying seem to have similar functions in this development.

This paper will explore poetic and musical tear imagery in Bach’s vocal works. As most of Bach’s work is religious, weeping in his work is restricted to mourning and contrition. Theological and devotional traditions that underlie such works as the penitence cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199), the scenes expressing Peter’s contrition in Bach’s Passions, the closing chorus “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244/68), and the mourning aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” in the St. John Passion (BWV 245/35). Which musical themes are employed to express these themes? How can the abundance of tears in these works be placed in the development of public self-expression noted above? In other words, what role do tears play in Bach’s vocal works?

Last updated on 10 May 2004