Searching for Hope in Weary Times: Bach's Expression of Unity in Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51

Tim Farrand
Portrait of J. S. Bach by E. G. Haussmann, 1748

There are not many composers whose birthdays I tend to take note of except for Johann Sebastian Bach's. Every year, at the end of March, I spend some extra time with the music of a composer that has been at the center of my musical life since I began the journey of becoming a classical musician and a bond that has only been strengthened throughout the last two years. (Note: Bach was born on March 21st but when the Gregorian calendar was adopted throughout Europe his date of birth jumped to March 31st. I choose to take the time between March 21-31 to celebrate!)

When the pandemic hit I found it difficult to listen to music because it brought to mind the uncertainty as to when we would be able to perform to live audiences again. It was only through playing Bach on the piano that I was able to find solace.

Bach's music, for me and so many others, contains the ultimate expression of personal human experience. There is something inherently human about his music that has given me the vehicle these last two years to confront emotions that were otherwise inexpressible. While I do often perform Bach's works in public I find that the role of his music in my life is of a more personal nature. I play Bach at home for myself, not really intending to prepare works for performance but rather as an outlet from one human to another, from his time to mine, from his emotions to my current ones.

No matter what emotional landscape I am transversing there is a counterpoint to be found within Bach's music. I often use his works as a tool for processing events in my life and the world. During the pandemic, he has been central to giving me hope and solace. At our current time, with uncertainties in Ukraine, his music comes to mind again, this time his incredible cantata Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51 which I first encountered during a radio celebration of his birthday many years ago.

Bach's Expression of Unity

In an era mired with more and more class distinctions and socioeconomic inequity . . . and a time in which our political leaders choose to wage war around the world without prejudice, the human race needs every possible opportunity to have a passion for a higher level of the human experience. [1]

This yearly obsession with Bach as his birthday comes around began when I was in my teens. I had begun listening relentlessly to WGBH radio, a classical station out of Boston streamed through an app on my phone. I began listening just before March and remember the announcement of a Bach marathon to celebrate his birthday. In anticipation of getting to immerse myself in his works—I was becoming obsessed with his music—I stayed home from school doing house chores while listening to the radio stream.

The day was filled with many of Bach's most famous pieces but there were plenty of first hearings for me at this time, one of which is a work that still holds a special significance for me in all of Bach's oeuvre, the cantata Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51. It was the emotional center of this work, the third movement solo aria, which I heard on the radio that day. A number of works of classical music had made a profound emotional impact upon me by that time in my adolescence but this was the first time that I was so vividly intoxicated by the expression of humanity in Bach's music. This incredible aria opened up the essence of Bach's works which contain a combination of compassion, empathy, and a fundamental understanding of human experience.

In essence, the aria which affected me so intensely can be summed up as the search for hope in weary times. The text, most likely written by Bach himself, expresses the wish for every morning to be a fresh start, that every morning be renewed with "goodness," be given fresh hope no matter what the day previous contained. There is a sense of Amor Fati, the acceptance—literally Love—of your Fate, within the text (a powerful tenant of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy). Bach writes about maintaining a "thankful spirit" throughout any situation one is faced with. There is an almost Stoic acceptance of external occurrences and the search for a sense of comfort during times of stress or anguish.

Bach uses the image of having a father figure for the children of the earth as a source for this hope. He is touching upon the idea that runs through all religions which urges one to view themselves as an individual within the larger family of humanity. Mankind is one community even if separated by different cultures, races, traditions, beliefs, and dialects. The image of this kind of unity provides the ground for the hope and wish that every day be a renewed effort to realize this into the world, beginning with the individual, beginning with yourself, and then radiating outward through the rest of the world.

Translation of the text for BWV 51

This sentiment is such an important one for our time. We have seen on display the courageous tackling of fear and oppression through a uniting of the world in order to express our sense of humanity towards fellow human beings. We see a nation fighting, taking every day anew in their fight for their freedom, with virtually the rest of the world expressing their solidarity with them. It may seem like a small act, but it is a start: to begin each day with a renewed sense of community within the band of humanity!

This reminds of Whitman's poem of the "dream" for a "city of friends:"


I Dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth,
I dream'd that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led
the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

This poem, coming from the collection Calamus—a set of poems that embodies the need for unity and a common sense of humanity—connects with another poem preceding it, one that helps to give a framework for experiencing Bach in our current environment:


This moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,
It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,
Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

While it was the poignant aria in the middle of Cantata BWV 51 that first gripped me to the emotional possibilities and illuminations of the human experience that are found in Bach, the rest of the work is a wonderful statement of unity in peace. The title contains the words "in allen Landen" - in all lands. It is a vision where the entire earth, every person in every land, is able to unite as one humanity instead of insisting on the "us against them" mentality that has plagued our history.

The incredible soprano Maria Keohane gives her own view of the importance of the word "Herzensgrund" from the chorale movement, appearing just after the intimate aria given above, as well as the importance of the words "in allen Landen" in the cantatas expression of peace in a weary world:

Bach lived more than 300 years ago, Whitman more than 100, and we are still fighting to achieve peace, to achieve the realization of our common humanity.

March 30, 2022

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1. Sean Burton, "The Need for Bach: A discussion of his life, Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51 and Ich habe genung, BWV 82," Bach Cantatas Website, October, 2004,[Burton].htm