Aria: Komm, du süsses Todesstunde
from Cantata BWV 161
for alto/mezzo (bflat - f''), two recorders, organ and continuo
Bach’s church cantata BWV 161, Komm, du süsses Todesstunde, was written for the Lutheran liturgy for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, but was also used for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. It was first heard, at Weimar, on 6th October 1715. The cantata is from Bach’s period in Weimar, and belongs to the first cycle of cantatas for the church’s year, which he was contracted to produce. The cantatas in this series show characteristics derived from the Italian style which Bach had begun to adopt.
The text of the aria Komm, du süsses Todesstunde, is by Salomo Franck, the court poet at Weimar, who provided many of the texts that Bach set. The theme of welcoming death is a joyful rather than a sombre one. Its relevance to the Feast of the Purification may lie in the account of the aged Simeon’s joyfully embracing the child Jesus, whose coming is for him a sign that he may now take his departure from life. The reference to the honey in the lion’s mouth is to Samson’s discovery of a hive of bees in the carcase of a lion, as recounted in the book of Judges, 14: 8,9.
This lovely aria has a notable feature in that a solo stop (‘sesquialtera’) on the organ is given a choral tune which Bach skilfully – one might say miraculously – weaves into the already complex texture of the music. The tune is a familiar one, often referred to as ‘The Passion Chorale’ because Bach used it in the St Matthew Passion. But Bach’s congregation were more likely to associate the tune with an earlier setting, of the words ‘Herzlich tuth mich verlangen’ (My heart is filled with longing to leave this world in peace), which accords with the theme of this aria.
Text and translation
Komm, du süsses Todesstunde,
da mein Geist Honig speist
aus des Löwen Munde.
Mache meine Abschied süsse,
säume nicht, letztes Licht,
dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
Come, sweet hour of death, that my soul taste honey from the mouth of the lion. Make my departure sweet, do not delay, last light, that I may kiss my saviour.