Bach and Care Ethics

Has Bach got anything to do with care ethics? Yes, indeed, so I will argue. Although he was a composer of the Early Eighteenth Century, living in the context of protestant Germany, his sacred vocal work can be understood in a way that from a care ethical point of view still has significance for people in present-day society.

When I took part in the rehearsing and performing of cantata BWV 48 of Johann Sebastian Bach, the relation between Bach and care ethics occupied my thoughts. The title of the cantata was: Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen, which can be translated as: ‘Most wretched of men, o who shall deliver me’ ((1)).
In this blog I will try to tackle my own question as a soprano singing in the choir of Bachcantatas Utrecht and being educated as a care ethicist at the Master of Care Ethics and Policy, located in Utrecht too. In addition, I want to introduce myself as schooled for giving spiritual care, starting from and based on the humanist tradition. I am highly interested in what can be called ‘performative humanism’, which is what I would describe as the practical efforts to contribute to dignity in human existence and co-existence that are being upheld within any spiritual tradition.
My reflection will be mainly based on the opening chorus of cantata 48, listen to it here ((2)):

A devout Lutheran

The musical style of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) can be described as a summation of the late Baroque. When he composed cantata 48, he had just started to serve as cantor of St. Thomas’s School and Music Director in Leipzig. He had to compose music for the principal Lutheran churches of Leipzig, a position of considerable importance in the Lutheran world of that time.

For now I want to put forward his religious conception of the function of music. To Bach music was intended for the pleasure and edification of his fellow men and above all to the glory of God. At the end of all his cantatas and Passions he wrote the initials S.D.G., the abbreviation of Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be glory). His church music was meant for the spiritual enhancement of the faithful worshippers that received his ‘musical sermon’. The texts of the sacred cantatas consisted of biblical passages, church liturgy, verses taken from or modeled after well-known chorales together with sacred poetry made for a musical setting, often characterized by a Pietist leaning.

Cantata 48 was meant for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, with a prescribed gospel reading about Jesus who forgives and heals a paralyzed man (Matthew 9: 1-8). Bach provided it for its performance during the Lutheran church service of 3 October 1723. The poet of the libretto is unknown. The cantata is a so called ‘choral cantata’. Bach set two so called ‘chorales of penance’ for it, one in movement 3 and the other in the final chorale.

Generating ‘deep feelings’ by technical perfection

Bach’s church music sought to bring its religious meaning home to the individual worshipper. Bach was capable of imagining thoughts and ideas in a musical translation. His aim was to give expression to contents in such a way that it would be in accordance with his composition. As a result in his music the Lutheran thought of the time finds an intense expression.
In my view this explains why the contents of his cantatas somehow show to be ‘true’ when you are open to the music, especially when you sing it yourself. Bach leads you to believe that there is a ‘truth’ enclosed that is beyond doubt. ‘This is just the way it is’, that is the awareness that enters your mind and mood. I will give some examples of how this works.

The cantata is in the minor mode. The key is G minor (except in the fourth movement). At the time of Bach every key had its own, well-described character. G minor was considered as almost the finest one: of considerable seriousness and graveness, the key through which one best expressed sadness and tragedy, along with sweetness and even happiness. As we shall see, this key is most fit for expressing the Lutheran thought and inner world of that time.

In movement 1, the opening chorus, the strings continue to play the same motif. It consists of a four times repeated line upwards, each time a little higher, followed by a groaning and moaning falling down with a so called Seufzer-figure that sounds like a complaint by its short sobbing repetition of tones followed by a lower one:

This motif is the instrumental scenery of the opening chorus. It might be interpreted as illustrating the condition humaine in the Lutheran view, dominated by our propensity for sinning grievously, again and again, and therefore our inclination to saddle ourselves with illness and physical suffering as the punishment we deserve: our fall down. Are we unable to resist temptations and is our body the source of this ever repeating evil, though we are desperately trying to stop it? Such associations must have fed the self-evident interpretation of the auditory of Bach and as such it would have constituted  the background for the singing that starts after twelve bars.

Then respectively the sopranos, altos, tenors and finally the basses, one following the other in canonic imitation, start singing an urgent appeal, raised in a plaintive tone of voice: Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom Leibe dieses Todes? It is a cry of distress that can be translated as: my life is dominated by death, o who shall save me from this unfortunate situation? Actually this appeal is repeated in the final movement, in other words and then explicitly directed towards Jesus: ‘Lord Jesu, Thou Thy mercy show’st, do Thou Thy comfort send me’.
The text of the opening chorus is sung by the four separate voices for as much as seven times. The first movement consists entirely of this constantly repeated question. Each time it starts with the sounds ‘ich’ and ‘e’ on the interval that is used as well in the beginning of the aria Erbarme dich (‘Have mercy on us’) in the St. Matthew Passion. It is the minor sixth, known for its dramatic force and therefore just right for this cry of distress, exclamation or crie de coeur. Also for convincing the listeners of the gravity of the suffering expressed by the lamenting ‘I’ of the cantata. Look at the image at the top, a part of the sheet music, to see how this works. Each minor sixth has got a red marker.

However, suffering does not get the last word in cantata 48, because the message to draw comfort from is that ‘Lord Jesu’ indeed shall be our Savior. For it is God in his infinite mercy who shall deliver men from the body of his death – if that is in his will at least. And so, in spite of our sins, cantata 48 does have a happy end, so to speak.
These insights might explain Bach’s choice for the key of G minor, characterized by tragedy and joy at the same time. Likewise we hear the herald of joy already in the first movement of the cantata, when tragedy is still dominating. For as soon as the sopranos have sung Ich elender Mensch (‘Most wretched of men’), we hear the melody of the chorale used in the final choral. The trumpet starts it, followed by two unisono playing oboes that repeat this melody line (a canon at the fourth below). Thus, though the appeal in the raised question is not yet even completed, as a forerunner the answer in the end is already there: even in apparent desolation, there is no proper reason to lose hope. And because this message is so ingeniously incorporated in the composition, as a listener you are easily convinced of its ‘truth’; you already begin to feel hope indeed.

The ‘I’ of cantata 48

The first word of the text in the opening chorus is the German Ich – ‘I’ in English. As I learned in my care ethical education, based on the variant that understands care ethics as a political ethics, a word like this has to draw my attention immediately: what is the position of this ‘I’? Whose inner perspective and lived life is brought to the fore in terms of political phenomenology? Of which group of people the ‘I’ is part of and what other people are excluded in that order of the political? What thoughts about his or her social relationships with others are being displayed here?

In this case, the answer to questions like these speaks for itself: obviously the ‘I’ refers to the individual Lutheran believer, worshipping the 19th Sunday after Trinity and begging for delivery and comfort. The cantata dives deep into this ‘I’, whereas care ethics often refrains from this, for giving good care is about taking the position of the other one and looking over his or her shoulder instead of such ‘soul searching’. Yet this is not an hyper-personalized ‘I’ as we know it from Late Modernity. It represents a certain position: that of the Christian in general (as seen in the Lutheran theology) as a wretched man or woman before ‘Lord Jesu’, to say it in terms of the final chorale; that of the Christian in the presence of, or before the face of, God (coram Deo).

The emergence of good care

I am not a theologian, but I think it is not appropriate to speak of God as ‘a good caregiver’ because of the comfort he might send to the worshippers begging for delivery. It sounds anthropomorphic and therefore out of place.

Now I want to shift the focus from the ‘I’ to the one that is addressed. Does it have to be (only) God who is addressed in men’s lamentation? Maybe this call can (also) be understood as addressed in another direction. What about an interpretation that makes from the ‘I’ a care-searcher in the position in front of you as a fellow man and potential care-giver? Then the ‘I’ directs an urgent appeal to you as his or her neighbor ((3)).
To become a care-giver in the broad sense of the word ‘care’, you will have to give an adequate response to the care-searcher who can consequently emerge as a care-receiver. To find out what is the matter at stake, you should have to interpret the meaning of the moral appeal that originates with the complaint of calling oneself ‘most wretched of men’. Just like the German elender, the word ‘wretched’ can have different meanings.

We may understand ‘being wretched’, like I did before, in line with Lutheran thought of Bach’s time in a sense of blaming oneself. Then ‘most wretched’ contains a very negatively loaded moral evaluation of acts that are seen as despicable sins. As an aside, when this is accompanied by blaming one’s body for it, as was usual in Bach’s time, this conception of bodilyness is far from the current care ethical notion.
However, as a second interpretation, we may also understand being ‘wretched’ as an evaluation in a more compassionate sense. This is what happens if we see living (in the tradition of Aristotle) as a kind of praxis and being ‘most wretched’ as the result of not having lived according to the destination (the telos) of life itself. This may prevent one from finding his or her calling in life. Then one’s misery is deplorable, which is a pity.
As a third interpretation, instead of understanding ‘being wretched’ in a normative way, it can be understood in a more descriptive way as well. That happens when the expression refers to the destiny of finding oneself in a deplorable and unfortunate situation, longing for deliverance out of that misery.

In all cases ‘delivery’ understood as ‘good care’ can emerge in the context of everyday life. That is why the call ‘o who shall deliver me’ may be understood as an appeal directed to you. It calls for living an ethos of solidarity by giving good care or, at least, by creating conditions that are helpful in bringing good care into being.
One could say that whenever this happens, Christians actualize the devoted expression with which cantata 48 rounds off: ‘Thine am I now and ever’. To them this purpose implies a special comprehension of the position of being citizen. It is different from the commonly held notion of citizenship and is maybe best described as ‘being citizen in a kingdom not of this world’. That has to be understood in a radical, I think even revolutionary way of doing that will serve the emergence of good care.
Some in care ethics and in political theory will object to using political theology at all. To my mind, however, this is a venue to see sharply the necessity for decentering one’s ego, since for good care the caring persons have to put labor into decentering themselves in order to be able to see which are the concerns of the people they want to assist. I think the Christian aim to love your neighbor as yourself (as a ‘saying’) ought to be realized in a lived morality (as a ‘doing’) that can be described in secular terms as well: helping others and yourself in perpetuating life. And as far as I am concerned, the actual realization of this aim is formulated well as ‘bringing God into existence’. ‘Doing God’, as one might put it.
Either way, what matters most in relation to providing care are not the ‘sayings’ but the ‘doings’ of people, their ethos. So what matters is their contribution to the emergence of good care, be it from the position of a potential concrete caregiver or – let us not forget that – the position of a policy maker, manager, CEO or politician because of the influence on the opportunities to develop care at all.


1.  I am making use of the translation of Mevanwy Roberts for the sheet music published by Breitkopf & Härtel
2.  Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen, BWV 48: I. Coro. This is a recording of Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe and placed on YouTube.
3. This suggestion was also the idea that was handed to us by the speaker who introduced the cantata on October 7, 2018, Wim Faas.


About the author: Brecht Molenaar

Brecht Molenaar

Brecht Molenaar (1965) has master’s degrees in Ethics of Care, Humanistic Studies and Dutch Linguistics and Literature. She has been working as a humanistic spiritual counsellor for twenty years in the domain of healthcare. Developments in the field and her profession became a matter of concern to her. Ethics of care became her primary interest, in particular the presence approach as a care ethical way of approaching people in giving care, social work and education. She is involved in a foundation that aims at contributing to this kind of practices (Dutch: Stichting Presentie). Her focus is on teaching people in such care giving and in leading such practices. She also writes and gives lectures about (religious) humanism, critical ethics of care, relational care giving and caring policies.

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