In 1723, Bach was appointed as Thomaskantor (director of church music) in Leipzig, where he was responsible for the music at four churches and for the training and education of boys singing in the Thomanerchor. He took office in the middle of the liturgical year, on the first Sunday after Trinity. In Leipzig, cantata music was expected on Sundays and on Feast days, except during tempus clausum (the silent period) of Advent and Lent. In his first twelve months in office, Bach decided to compose new works for almost all of these liturgical events, known as his first cantata cycle. The year after, he continued that effort, composing chorale cantatas based on Lutheran hymns, including Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, for these occasions. The choice of hymns to use in the series of chorale cantatas was probably made to the wishes of a local minister, who based himself upon the prescribed readings and his plans for sermons.
In the 16th century Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, emphasised the importance of hymn singing in church services and at home, authoring many hymns, including "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin".
Bach composed an early chorale cantata on a hymn by Luther, Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, probably in 1707. During his chorale cantata cycle, Bach used nine hymns by Luther as the basis for a chorale cantata. He performed Christ lag in Todes Banden again during that cycle.
In the following table, the cantata number links to the cantata, the following column leads to the hymn, followed by the liturgical occasion and the date of the first performance.
Bach used Luther's hymns in other works during his career. He had included "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" earlier in a cantata for Advent, Alles, was von Gott geboren, BWV 80a, which he reworked much later as a cantata for Reformation Day (BWV 80). He finally composed Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany in 1735.
Bach followed a specific structure for most of the cantatas in this cycle. He deviated from using the strophic hymn text and tune in all stanzas (per omnes versus), as he had in Christ lag in Todes Banden. Instead, he retained the original text and melody only in the outer stanzas, typically treating the first as a chorale fantasia and the last as a four-part chorale setting, while the inner stanzas were reworded by a librettist as the basis for recitatives and arias, often with music independent of the hymn tune. Andreas Stübel (1653–1725), a former headmaster of the Thomasschule, may have been this librettist.
During Bach's time in Leipzig, three Marian feasts were observed and celebrated: Annunciation (25 March), Visitation (2 July) and Purification (2 February). The prescribed readings for the Feast of the Purification, (German: Mariae Reinigung), were the book of Malachi's, "the Lord will come to his temple" (Malachi 3:1–4), the Gospel of Luke's version of the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which includes Simeon's canticle Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:22–32).
When Luther wrote his hymn on Simeon's canticle ("With peace and joy I depart in God's will"), he devoted one stanza to each of the four verses of the biblical text. The first verse discusses peaceful acceptance of death (Luke 2:29), the second gives as a reason for that the meeting with the Saviour (Luke 2:30), the third is focused on Christ's return for all people (Luke 2:31), the fourth sees the Second Coming as a light for the heathen and glory for Israel (Luke 2:31). The lines are of different length, with a metre of 188.8.131.52.7.7, stressing single statements.
The tune first appeared in 1524 in Johann Walter's choral hymnal Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn. Luther wrote commentary on his hymn:
As [Simeon] means, Praise and thanks be to God that I have lived to see this day, I will now gladly die, now my death will be delightful, because God has fulfilled what He called me to do. Why will you so gladly die, dear Simeon? 'For my eyes have seen your Salvation.'
(Als wolt er [Simeon] sagen / Gott sey lob und danck / daß ich diesen Tag erlebet habe / ich will nun gerne sterben / nun soll mir der Tod lieblich seyn / denn es ist erfüllet / das mir verheissen war. Warum wiltu aber so gerne sterben / lieber Simeon? 'Denn meine Augen haben deinen Heyland gesehen.')
Bach first used the hymn as part of his early funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (Actus tragicus), the alto singing the first stanza, juxtaposed to a bass arioso, "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein". He returned to it twice for his first Leipzig cantata cycle. The first stanza was the basis for his piece for the 16th Sunday after Trinity of 1723, Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95 along with the first stanza of the funeral hymn "Christus, der ist mein Leben" in the opening movement for tenor. The second occasion was in 1724, in the Purification cantata, Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, BWV 83, which he closed with the fourth and final stanza, "Es ist das Heil und selig Licht".
For Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, a librettist kept the first and the last stanza and paraphrased the two inner stanzas in four movements. The second movement, based on Luther's second stanza, is focused on Simeon's perspective as a means of how to anticipate one's own death. The third movement interweaves Luther's complete text with a free recitative. The Bach scholar Klaus Hofmann notes that the librettist had room to add his own text because Luther's hymn is rather short. The allusion to "light for the heathen" from the gospel and the hymn refers to "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). Luther's third stanza forms the basis for the fourth and fifth movements. The fourth movement refers to Paul's teaching about the grace of God, ("Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God") (Romans 3:25). It declares the Lutheran teaching of justification "by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone" even more clearly than Luther's song.
Bach led the first performance of the cantata with the Thomanerchor on 2 February 1725, in the morning service in the Nikolaikirche and reprised it in the vesper service in the Thomaskirche, as was usual in Leipzig on high holidays. Bach performed it at least one more time after 1735.
Bach structured the cantata in six movements. The first and last are set for choir as a chorale fantasia and a closing chorale. They frame alternating recitatives and arias with the text arranged by the librettist. Bach scored the work for three vocal soloists (alto (A), tenor (T) and bass (B)), a four-part choir, and a Baroque instrumental ensemble: horn to support the chorale tune sung by the soprano in the outer movements, flauto traverso (Ft), oboe (Ob), oboe d'amore (Oa), two violins (Vl), viola (Va), and basso continuo (Bc). The title page of the original parts reads: "Festo Purificat: Mari[ae] / Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin etc. / â / 4 Voc: / Travers: / Hautbois d' Amour / 2 Violini / Viola / con / Continuo / di / Sign: / JS. Bach". The duration of the piece has been stated as 24 minutes.
In the following table of the movements, the scoring follows the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. The keys and time signatures are taken from the book by Bach scholar Alfred Dürr, using the symbol for common time (4/4). The instruments are shown separately for winds and strings, while the continuo, playing throughout, is not shown.
The opening chorus, "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin in Gottes Willen" (With peace and joy I depart in God's will), begins with a concertante ritornello, in which the flute and the oboe play opposed to the strings. A motif in triplets has first a leap of a fifth, related to the first interval of the chorale tune. The fifth and the triplet motion dominate the entire movement.
The soprano sings the cantus firmus in long notes. Hofmann notes that the Dorian mode within the instrumental concerto in E minor adds a "slightly archaic flavour". The lower voices participate in the instrumental motifs for lines 1, 2, 3 and 5, but lines 4 and 6 are treated differently. In accordance to the text, "sanft und stille" (calm and quiet) and "der Tod ist mein Schlaf worden" (death has become my sleep), they are performed softly (piano), in homophony, chromatic, and modulating to distant keys. Dürr notes the movement's "extremely dense, highly expressive texture" with motifs independent from the hymn tune but derived from its beginning. The musicologist Richard D. P. Jones observes that the movement foreshadows Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen, the opening chorus of Bach's St Matthew Passion, in key, 12/8 metre and "much else".
The alto aria, "Ich will auch mit gebrochnen Augen" (Even with broken eyes), is a Sarabande with slow dotted rhythms. The vocal line is accompanied by the flute and oboe d'amore, on a foundation of repeated notes in the continuo, marked "legato". The phrase "gebrochne Augen" (broken eyes) is pictured by a broken vocal line, flute and oboe d'amore play dotted rhythm to the "almost trembling declamation" of the voice. Hofmann notes the movement's "emotions of grief and lamentation", while Dürr writes: "Rich suspension appoggiaturas, and other ornaments reveal that an expressive interpretation of this movement lay particularly close to the composer's heart."
The bass recitative begins with a thought of the librettist, "O Wunder, daß ein Herz vor der dem Fleisch verhaßten Gruft und gar des Todes Schmerz sich nicht entsetzet!" (O wonder, that a heart before the flesh-abhorred tomb, and even the pain of death does not recoil!). The text continues with the beginning of the hymn's second stanza."Das macht Christus, wahr' Gottes Sohn, der treue Heiland," (Christ, God's true son, does this, the loving Savior). The pattern of comment and original is retained throughout the movement in a hybrid text that holds in single lines the complete text of the second stanza:
Bach sets the elements recitative and chorale differently, rendering the librettist's text in "rhythmically free diction of recitative", and the chorale as arioso. He unifies the movement by a continuous motif in the strings, called "Freudenmotiv" by Dürr, which "always indicates an underlying mood of happiness". The chorale tune is unadorned but for the last line, "im Tod und auch im Sterben" (in death and also in dying), where the music is extended by two measures and coloured in chromatic and rich ornamentation, and the strings cease to play the constant motif and accompany in "tranquil notes".
The tenor and bass duet "Ein unbegreiflich Licht erfüllt den ganzen Kreis der Erden" (An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth), is focused on the light mentioned by Simeon, expressed in a joyful mood. The Hofmann notes: "The playful character is shown by the extended, circling coloratura on the word 'Kreis' ('circle' or 'orb'), and the baroque sound effect of statement and response unfolds to the words 'Es schallet kräftig fort und fort' (Powerfully there rings out time after time.)" Jones comments that the trio sonata of two violins and continuo which accompanies the voices "in its vigour and fluency perhaps represents the powerful, continuous sound to which the text refers."
The alto expresses in a secco recitative "O unerschöpfter Schatz der Güte" (O uncreated hoard of goodness), which Hofmann calls a "concise theological analysis".
The closing chorale, "Er ist das Heil und selig Licht" (He is the salvation and the blessed light), is a four-part setting of the hymn tune.
The horn, the flute (an octave higher), the oboe and the first violin all reinforce the soprano part, the second violin the alto, and the viola the tenor.
Jones summarizes in his book The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach: "The exceptionally high quality of the music may reflect Bach's response to the divine authority of the Nunc dimittis, mediated by the revered founder of the Lutheran Church."
The autograph score is lost, its last documented owner being Christian Friedrich Prenzel. The original parts are kept in the Bach-Archiv Leipzig. They were copied from the lost autograph score by four scribes, three of them known by name, including the composer. A set of three duplicate parts is kept in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz as D-B Mus. ms. Bach St 384, Faszikel 1. They were copied by five scribes, of which three are known by name: Christian Gottlob Meißner, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Johann Andreas Kuhnau. The set has a title page and parts for violin I and II, and continuo.
The score for the first movement was first published by Diabelli around 1835 with a Latin text, Da pacem nobis Domine. The cantata was originally published in 1878 as No. 4 in volume 26 of the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe (BGA), edited by Alfred Dörffel. The New Bach Edition (Neue Bach-Ausgabe, NBA) published the score in 1994, edited by Uwe Wolf, with the critical commentary published the same year.
A critical edition was published by Breitkopf, edited by Eva-Maria Hodel. Another was published by Carus in 2008, edited by Wolfram Enßlin, which also provided a singable English version.
The selection is taken from the listing on the Bach-Cantatas website. Instrumental groups playing period instruments in historically informed performances are highlighted green under the header "Instr.".