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"Bist du bei mir" (c1718) - Death-Cult Aria from the Opera "Diomedes" by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749)


The Hersch
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For centuries, the wonderful air "Bist du bei mir" was attributed to J.S. Bach (as BWV 508), as it was included in the notebook of Frau Bach (Anna Magdalena) with no attribution, with J.S. Bach taken as the default source. It always struck me as not really very much like Bach, being hauntingly melodic, and Bach is not remembered much as a melodist. Some time ago, 15 or 20 years, it was established that the piece came from an opera called Diomedes by the composer Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Sadly, this aria is all that has survived of Diomedes, so we have no context from which to discern the import of the lyric. Who is the "du" (thou) in this song? I have always taken it to be Christ, but I think most admirers over the past century assume that it's an earthly lover, and see this piece as a love song. (I gather it's popular for weddings.) As a love song, though, it is if anything even creepier than as an expression of the death-cult aspect of Christianity:

Bist du bei mir,

Geh ich mit Freuden,

Zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh.

Ach, wie vergní¼gt wär so mein Ende

Es drí¼ckten deine schönen Hände

Mir die getreuen Augen zu.

If you are with me

I go with joy

To death and to my rest.

Oh, how pleasant would be my end

If your beautiful hands

Would close my faithful eyes.

In the Bach household, as in Protestant central Europe generally, daily life, along with art and music, was drenched with Christian piety, and even if this aria was profane in the opera it came from, I'd guess it was considered sacred by Mr. and Mrs. Bach.

Elly Ameling sang it beautifully. As did the late Arleen Auger. And, unsurprisingly but breathtakingly, Janet Baker.

I've probably mentioned that I had the pleasure to hear Janet Baker in recital three times. I had the additional pleasure of hearing Elly Ameling (alas, only once), who sang like an angel but looked like a plump little Dutch housewife.

Anyway, this has always been one of my favorite songs, death-cult or no.

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