While J. S. Bach (1685-1750) is a popular character in my weekly email articles, he is such a multi-faceted composer that writing about him never gets old. Sheep May Safely Graze is one part of a larger work, namely, Bach’s Cantata 208, “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd” (“What pleases me is the lively hunt only”). Obviously, while there are religious overtones, this cantata is one of Bach’s relatively few “secular cantatas.” This piece was composed in 1713 to celebrate the birthday of Duke Christian of Weissenfels who loved to hunt (hence, the title). This cantata was commissioned as a gift from Bach’s Weimar employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst. As an aside, while in Weimar, Bach served as organist and later concert master at the local court.
In this piece, Bach sets a text by Salomo Franck (1659-1725), a librettist at the Weimar court. Franck’s text basically depicts four mythological figures, Diana, Pan, Endymion, and Pales (the Roman goddess of shepherds and flocks who sings Sheep May Safely Graze) having a conversation about the pleasures of hunting and how wonderful Duke Christian is. The piece was originally performed with Bach as conductor at the birthday party of Duke Christian in his hunting lodge. Like so many musical pieces of the time that were designed to gratify a noble or monarch, the text is rather mediocre and lavish in its praise of the duke. The beauty here is in Bach’s musical writing and in the fact that one movement became one of his most famous pieces.
From the outset of the introduction, one imagines a lush pastoral setting complete with shepherd’s pipes in the distance (maybe even Pan’s pipes). The original intent in this piece (a break from the hunting themed movements) is to praise the duke as a good and Godly ruler like unto Christ, the Good Shepherd (a common metaphor harkening back to feudal times). However, it has come to mean so much more throughout the centuries. The original text has since been edited and the words regarding the duke removed. The accompaniment now reflects the joyous soul kept safe and loved by a loving shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the vocal line expresses a graceful comfort in this pastoral setting. Generally, the piece still celebrates much of what was originally intended, but focuses more directly on Christ.
While Bach almost surely couldn’t have imagined the wide usage and acclaim this little movement receives and might even be surprised that part of his “hunting cantata” is performed in churches all over the world, he would certainly be pleased. Who but God can tell what something will become or end up? While things may seem to wind down a bit after Easter Sunday, our music ministry still has some lovely musical surprises for your inspiration over these next weeks. Let’s look for the unexpected!
Peace in Christ,
Christopher W. Powell
Organist and Choir Master