O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165

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O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad
BWV 165
Church cantata by J. S. Bach
Painting of the interior of the church Schloßkirche, viewed along the nave towards the altar, showing two balconies and the organ on a third level above the altar
Occasion Trinity
Performed 16 June 1715 (1715-06-16): Weimar
Movements 6
Cantata text Salomon Franck
Chorale by Ludwig Helmbold
Vocal SATB choir and solo
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • cello
  • bassoon
  • continuo

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (O holy bath of Spirit and water[a]), BWV 165,[b] is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed it in Weimar for Trinity Sunday and led the first performance on 16 June 1715.

Bach had taken up regular cantata composition a year before when he was promoted to concertmaster at the Weimar court, writing one cantata per month to be performed in the Schlosskirche, the court chapel in the ducal Schloss. O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad was his first cantata for Trinity Sunday, the feast day marking the end of the first half of the liturgical year. The libretto by the court poet Salomo Franck is based on the day's prescribed gospel reading about the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus. It is close in content to the gospel and connects the concept of the Trinity to baptism.

The music is structured in six movements, alternating arias and recitatives, and scored for a small ensemble of four vocal parts, strings and continuo. The voices are combined only in the closing chorale, the fifth stanza of Ludwig Helmbold's hymn "Nun laßt uns Gott dem Herren", which mentions scripture, baptism and the Eucharist, in a summary of the cantata's topic. Based on the text full of Baroque imagery, Bach composed a sermon in music, especially in the two recitatives for the bass voice, and achieved contrasts in expression. He led the first performance, and probably another on the Trinity Sunday concluding his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig on 4 June 1724.


portrait of the duke Wilhelm Ernst, dressed in armour and with a long white wig
Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar

On 2 March 1714 Bach was appointed Konzertmeister (concert master) of the Weimar Hofkapelle (court chapel) of the co-reigning dukes Wilhelm Ernst and Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar.[1] The position was created for him, possibly on his demand, giving him "a newly defined rank order" according to Christoph Wolff.[2]

From 1695, an arrangement shared the responsibility for church music at the Schlosskirche (court church) between the Kapellmeister Samuel Drese and the Vize-Kapellmeister Georg Christoph Strattner, who took care of one Sunday per month while the Kapellmeister served on three Sundays. The pattern probably continued from 1704, when Strattner was succeeded by Drese's son Johann Wilhelm. When Konzertmeister Bach also assumed the principal responsibility for one cantata a month,[1] the Kapellmeister's workload was further reduced to two Sundays per month.[1]

The performance venue on the third tier of the court church, in German called Himmelsburg (Heaven's Castle), has been described by Wolff as "congenial and intimate",[3] calling for a small ensemble of singers and players.[3] Performers of the cantatas were mainly the core group of the Hofkapelle, formed by seven singers, three leaders and five other instrumentalists. Additional players of the military band were available when needed, and also town musicians and singers of the gymnasium. Bach as the concertmaster probably led the performances as the first violinist, while the organ part was played by Bach's students such as Johann Martin Schubart and Johann Caspar Vogler.[4] Even in settings like chamber music, Bach requested a strong continuo section with cello, bassoon and violone in addition to the keyboard instrument.[5]

Monthly cantatas from 1714 to 1715[edit]

While Bach had composed vocal music only for special occasions until his promotion, the regular chance to compose and perform a new work resulted in a program into which Bach "threw himself wholeheartedly", as Christoph Wolff notes.[6] In his first cantata of the series, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, for the double feast of Palm Sunday and Annunciation, he showed his skill in an elaborate work in eight movements, for four vocal parts and at times ten-part instrumental writing,[6] and presenting himself as a violin soloist.[7]

The following table of works performed by Bach as concertmaster between 1714 and the end of 1715 is based on tables by Wolff and Alfred Dürr.[8] According to Dürr, O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad is the eleventh cantata composition of this period.[9] The works contain arias and recitatives, as in contemporary opera, while earlier cantatas had concentrated on biblical text and chorale.[10] Some works, such as Widerstehe doch der Sünde, may have been composed earlier.

Bach's monthly cantatas from 1714 to 1715
Date Occasion BWV Incipit Text source
25 March 1714 N04 Annunciation, Palm Sunday 182 Himmelskönig, sei willkommen Franck?
21 April 1714 N06 Jubilate 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Franck?
20 May 1714 N07 Pentecost 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder Franck?
17 June 1714 N09 Third Sunday after Trinity 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis Franck?
15 July 1714 N11 Seventh Sunday after Trinity 54 Widerstehe doch der Sünde Lehms
12 August 1714 N12 Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut Lehms
2 December 1714 N01 First Sunday in Advent 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland Neumeister
30 December 1714 N02 Sunday after Christmas 152 Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn Franck
24 March 1715 ? N03 Oculi 80a Alles, was von Gott geboren Franck
31 April 1715 N05 Easter 31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret Franck
16 June 1715 N08 Trinity 165 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad Franck
14 July 1715 N10 Fourth Sunday after Trinity 185 Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe Franck
6 October 1715 ? N13 16th Sunday after Trinity 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde Franck
3 November 1715 ? N14 20th Sunday after Trinity 162 Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe Franck
24 November 1715 N15 23rd Sunday after Trinity 163 Nur jedem das Seine Franck

Topic and text[edit]

Trinity Sunday[edit]

Bach composed O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad for Trinity Sunday,[11] the Sunday concluding the first half of the liturgical year.[12] The prescribed readings for the day were from the Epistle to the Romans, "What depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God" (Romans 11:33–36), and from the Gospel of John, the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1–15).[11][12]

In Leipzig, Bach composed two more cantatas for the occasion which focused on different aspects of the readings, Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest, BWV 194, first composed for the inauguration of church and organ in Störmthal on 2 November 1723,[13] Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding, BWV 176 (1725)[14] and the chorale cantata Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129 (1726).[15] Scholars debate if Bach performed on Trinity Sunday of 1724, which fell on 4 June, Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest or O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad or both.[16]

Cantata text[edit]

The libretto was written by the court poet, Salomon Franck, and published in Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer in 1715.[17] The opening refers to Jesus' words in John 3:5: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."(John 3:5)[18] The second movement, a recitative, reflects upon birth in the Spirit as baptism through God's grace: "Er wird im Geist und Wasserbade ein Kind der Seligkeit und Gnade" (In the bath of spirit and water he becomes a child of blessedness and grace).[19] Movement 3, an aria for alto, considers that the bond has to be renewed throughout life, because it will be broken by man, reflected in movement 4. The last aria is a prayer for the insight that the death of Jesus brought salvation,[11] termed "Todes Tod" (death's death).[18] The cantata concludes with the fifth stanza of Ludwig Helmbold's hymn of 1575, "Nun laßt uns Gott dem Herren", mentioning scripture, baptism and the Eucharist.[17][20] Bach used the eighth and final stanza, "Erhalt uns in der Wahrheit" (Keep us in the truth), to conclude his cantata Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79.[20]

Salomon expresses his thought in Baroque style rich in imagery. The image of the serpent is used in several meanings: as the serpent which seduced Adam and Eve to sin in paradise, as the symbol which Moses erected in the desert, and related to the gospel's verse 14: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up".[21]

Performance and publication[edit]

Bach led the first performance of the cantata on 16 June 1715. The performance material for Weimar is lost.[22] Bach performed the work again as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Extant performance material was prepared by his assistant Johann Christian Köpping.[23] The first possible revival is the Trinity Sunday of Bach's first year in office, 4 June 1724,[24] also the conclusion of his first year and first Leipzig cantata cycle, because he had assumed the office on the first Sunday after Trinity the year before. Bach made presumably minor changes.[25]

The cantata was published in the Bach-Ausgabe, the first edition of Bach's complete works by the Bach-Gesellschaft, in 1887 in volume 33, edited by Franz Wüllner. In the second edition of the complete works, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, it appeared in 1967, edited by Dürr, with a Kritischer Bericht (Critical report) following in 1968.[24]


Scoring and structure[edit]

The title on the copy by Johann Christian Köpping is: "Concerto a 2 Violi:1 Viola. Fagotto Violoncello S.A.T.e Basso e Continuo / di Joh:Seb:Bach" (Concerto for 2 violins, 1 viola. Bassoon Cello S.A.T and Bass and Continuo / by Joh:Seb:Bach).[26] The cantata in six movements is scored like chamber music for four vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), a four-part choir (SATB) in the closing chorale, two violins (Vl), viola (Va), bassoon (Fg), cello (Vc) and basso continuo (Bc).[21][23] The bassoon is called for, but has no independent part.[17][22] The duration is given as about 15 minutes.[11]

In the following table of the movements, the scoring follows the Neue Bach-Ausgabe,[24] and the abbreviations for voices and instruments the list of Bach cantatas. The keys and time signatures are taken from the 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.

Movements of O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165
No. Title Text Type Vocal Strings Bass Key Time
1 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad Franck Aria S 2Vl Va Fg Bc G major common time
2 Die sündige Geburt verdammter Adamserben Franck Recitative B Bc C minor A minor common time
3 Jesu, der aus großer Liebe Franck Aria A Bc C minor 12/8
4 Ich habe ja, mein Seelenbräutigam Franck Recitative B 2Vl Va Fg Bc B minor G major common time
5 Jesu, meines Todes Tod Franck Aria T 2Vl (unis.) G major common time
6 Sein Wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl Helmbold Chorale SATB 2Vl Va Fg Bc common time


Jesus (left, in profile, pointing with his right hand) and Nicodemus (facing the viewer, with a turban, with his right hand on his heart) sit at a table, arguing over books
Jesus teaches Nicodemus (seen here in a seventeenth-century painting) was a theme used by both composers and artists.

The cantata consists of solo movements closed by a four-part chorale. Arias alternate with two recitatives, both sung by the bass. John Eliot Gardiner summarizes: "It is a true sermon in music, based on the Gospel account of Jesus' night-time conversation with Nicodemus on the subject of 'new life', emphasising the spiritual importance of baptism."[27] He points out the many musical images of water.[27]


In the first aria, "O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad" (O bath of Holy Spirit and of water),[19] the ritornello is a fugue, whereas in the five vocal sections the soprano and violin I are a duo in imitation on the same material. These sections are composed in symmetry, A B C B' A'. The theme of B involves an inversion of material from A, that of C is derived from measure 2 of the ritornello. Dürr writes:

The prominent use made of formal schemes based on the principles of symmetry and inversion is in all probability intentional, serving as a symbol of the inner inversion of mankind — his rebirth in baptism.[21]


The first recitative, "Die sündige Geburt verdammter Adamserben" (The sinful birth of the cursed heirs of Adam),[19] is secco, but several phrases are close to an arioso.[28] The musicologist Julian Mincham notes that Bach follows the meaning of the text closely, for example by "rhythmic dislocations for death and destruction", a change in harmony on "poisoned", and "the complete change of mood at the mention of the blessed Christian". He summarizes: "Here anger and resentment at Man’s inheritance of suppurating sin is contrasted against the peace and joy of God-given salvation".[22]


The second aria, "Jesu, der aus großer Liebe" (Jesus, who out of great love),[19] accompanied by the continuo, is dominated by an expressive motif with several upward leaps of sixths, which is introduced in the ritornello and picked up by the alto voice in four sections.[14] Mincham notes that "the mood is serious and reflective but also purposeful and quietly resolute".[22]


The second recitative, "Ich habe ja, mein Seelenbräutigam" (I have indeed, o bridegroom of my soul),[19] is accompanied by the strings (accompagnato), marked by Bach "Rec: con Stroment" (Recitative: with instruments).[26] The German musicologist Klaus Hofmann notes that the text turns to mysticism, reflecting the Bridegroom, Lamb of God and the serpent in its double meaning.[29] The text is intensified by several melismas, a marking "adagio" on the words "hochheiliges Gotteslamm" (most holy Lamb of God),[19] and by melodic parts for the instruments. Gardiner notes that Bach has images for the serpent displayed in the desert by Moses, and has the accompaniment fade away on the last line "wenn alle Kraft vergehet" (when all my strength has faded).[27]


The last aria, "Jesu, meines Todes Tod" (Jesus, death of my death),[19] is set for tenor, accompanied by the violins in unison, marked "Aria Violini unisoni e Tenore".[26] The image of the serpent appears again, described by the composer and musicologist William G. Whittaker: "the whole of the obbligato for violins in unison is constructed out of the image of the bending, writhing, twisting reptile, usually a symbol of horror, but in Bach's musical speech a thing of pellucid beauty".[27]


black-and-white portrait of a man with a cap and a long beard, framed on top by an arch inscribed with "Nicolaus Selneccerus"
Nikolaus Selnecker, who wrote the hymn tune

The cantata closes with a four-part setting of the chorale stanza, Sein Wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl (His word, His baptism, His communion).[14][19] The text in four short lines summarizes that Jesus helps any in need by his words, his baptism and his communion, and ends in the prayer that the Holy Spirit may teach to faithfully trust in this.[25][26]

The hymn tune by Nikolaus Selnecker was first published in Leipzig in 1587 in the hymnal Christliche Psalmen, Lieder vnd Kirchengesenge (Christian psalms, songs and church chants).[30] Bach marked the movement: "Chorale. Stromenti concordant", indicating that the instruments play colla parte with the voices.[26]

Selected recordings[edit]

The recordings are provided by Aryeh Oron on the Bach-Cantatas website.[31] Choirs and orchestras are roughly grouped:

  1. Large choirs (red background): Boys (choir of all male voices)
  2. Medium-size choirs, such as Chamber, Chorale (choir dedicated mostly to church music), Motet
  1. Large orchestras (red background): Symphony
  2. Chamber orchestra
  3. Orchestra on period instruments (green background)
Recordings of O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Orch. type
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 38 Rilling, HelmuthHelmuth Rilling
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Hänssler 1976 (1976) Chamber
J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk • Complete Cantatas. Folge / Vol. 39 Leonhardt, GustavGustav Leonhardt
Collegium Vocale Gent
Teldec 1987 (1987) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 4 – Man singet mit Freuden, Cantatas • 49 • 145 • 149 • 174 (Cantatas from Leipzig 1726–29) Suzuki, MasaakiMasaaki Suzuki
Bach Collegium Japan
BIS 1996 Period
J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 3 Koopman, TonTon Koopman
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Antoine Marchand 1997 Period
Bach Edition Vol. 5 – Cantatas Vol. 2 Leusink, Pieter JanPieter Jan Leusink
Holland Boys Choir
Netherlands Bach Collegium
Brilliant Classics 1999 (1999) Boys Period
Bach Cantatas Vol. 27: Blythburgh/Kirkwell / For Whit Tuesday / For Trinity Sunday Gardiner, John EliotJohn Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Soli Deo Gloria 2000 (2000) Period
J. S. Bach: O heiliges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165 Schwarz, GottholdGotthold Schwarz
MDR, (MDR-Figaro-Reihe Kantate) 2003 (2003) Boys Symphony


  1. ^ Although grammatically heiliges agrees with Bad instead of Geist, Dellal translates "O bath of Holy Spirit and of water, and W. Murray Young "O Holy Ghost and water bath" (as cited at bach-cantatas)
  2. ^ "BWV" is Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, a thematic catalogue of Bach's works.


  1. ^ a b c Wolff 2002, p. 147.
  2. ^ Wolff 2002, p. 155.
  3. ^ a b Wolff 2002, pp. 157–159.
  4. ^ Wolff 2002, pp. 157–158.
  5. ^ Wolff 2002, pp. 157–160.
  6. ^ a b Wolff 2002, p. 156.
  7. ^ Wolff 2002, p. 158.
  8. ^ Wolff 2002, pp. 162–163.
  9. ^ Dürr 2006, p. 14.
  10. ^ Dürr 1971, p. 29.
  11. ^ a b c d Dürr 2006, p. 371.
  12. ^ a b Werthemann 2015.
  13. ^ Dürr 2006, p. 715.
  14. ^ a b c Dürr 2006, p. 374.
  15. ^ Dürr 2006, p. 377.
  16. ^ Dürr 1971, p. 40.
  17. ^ a b c Ambrose 2012.
  18. ^ a b Hofmann 1996, p. 6.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h Dellal 2012.
  20. ^ a b Browne 2007.
  21. ^ a b c Dürr 2006, p. 373.
  22. ^ a b c d Mincham 2010.
  23. ^ a b Hofmann 1996, p. 7.
  24. ^ a b c Bach digital 2014.
  25. ^ a b c Dürr 2006, p. 372.
  26. ^ a b c d e Grob 2014.
  27. ^ a b c d Gardiner 2008, p. 6.
  28. ^ Dürr 2006, pp. 373–374.
  29. ^ Hofmann 1996.
  30. ^ Braatz & Oron 2005.
  31. ^ Oron 2012.




Online sources

The complete recordings of Bach's cantatas are accompanied by liner notes from musicians and musicologists; Gardiner commented on his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, Hofmann wrote for Masaaki Suzuki, and Wolff for Ton Koopman.

External links[edit]