In May 1707 a fire ravaged the town of Mühlhausen, where a young twenty-two year old Johann Sebastian Bach was employed as the organist at the Lutheran church of St. Blasius. Fires, as you might imagine, were devastating to the inhabitants of a city. Fortunes and families alike were often wiped out (we don’t know to what extent Bach was personally affected). The Mühlhausen fire seems to have destroyed nearly a quarter of the town. A pastor in the town approached Bach and asked him to compose a cantata based on Psalm 130. Perhaps this pastor sensed that the fire was the result of the Lord’s judgment for the sin of the town. Bach notes on the score that the work was composed for an event of mourning–perhaps some kind of ‘memorial concert.’
Bach used sparse instrumentation for this work: one violin, two violas, a bass instrument, oboe, bassoon, with the choir and soloists. The cantata (interlinear German/English text here) begins with the first two verses of Psalm 130. The words “Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you (Aus der Tiefe ruf’ ich, Herr, zu dir).” The voicing is intentionally low to represent the “depths.” In the “ruf”/”cry”, one clearly hears the dissonance and the word is lengthened. The quicker rendition of the second line may intend to show a glimmer of hope: “Lord, O hear my calling, incline your ear unto my voice and hear my prayers (Herr, höre meine Stimme, lass deine Ohren merken auf die Stimme meines Flehens).”
Tragedy can inspire. Bach knew personal tragedy like few of us, yet he seemed to always grow stronger in his faith. Many of his cantatas were composed out of a right response to tragedy and sorrow.
Bach composed several hundred cantatas over his lifetime, of which only 209 have been preserved or discovered.
Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.