Bach, Cantata no. 165. T. Herbert Dimmock discusses this early work by J. S. Bach. Word painting for Spirit, water, “alles,” are discussed.  BDP #263.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

Cantata 165 is a piece that focusses on water and the Holy Spirit. The cantata is entitled: “O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad” “Oh Holy Bath of Spirit and Water.”

This is a very interesting piece. It is an early composition by Bach, written in 1715. Bach, who was born in 1685, was a young man of 20 when he wrote this cantata.  At that time, Bach was living in Weimar. Like most of the music he wrote while he was in Weimar this cantata calls for modest musical forces. It is short in length and in scope. This orchestra is comprised of strings with a continuo group including a bassoon. In Cantata 165 Bach wrote gorgeous arias for the soprano, alto and tenor soloists. The bass also joins in the fun with two recitatives.

Even as a youth of 20, Cantata 165 foreshadows interesting signs of  Bach’s astounding genius and what he will achieve as he gets to be a more mature composer. Cantata 165 focuses on the Holy Spirit and water. Those two ideas permeate the work in an interesting way. As he will throughout his life in his compositions, Bach represents The Holy Spirit as something that is ephemeral, something you can’t grab onto, something in the air, something not concrete.

Holy Spirit

Water flows; it is fluid - not solid. Bach imaginatively relates both of those ideas to each other. For example is setting the word, “water,” for the first time he writes a flowing melody somewhat reminiscent of how he set music when writing about the Holy Spirit.


Bach’s music therefore makes the point that the work of the Spirit is accomplished – at least in part – through water.  In the church, water is associated with the rite of baptism. Baptism, of course, is the vehicle that theologians believe is the prerequisite step needed to allow the Holy Spirit to work.

To sum up and demonstrate that point… (music) The music is composed in a major key. When Bach gets to the word “water,” the music itself is transformed into a gently flowing idea. (music) Finally, much like in nature, the water represented by the music has a series of little ripples. (music) Taken together, it is a very effective picture of water in sound.

Later in the work, Bach sets word “Alles,” to music. Here Bach has a similar idea to his solution for setting the word “water” which we just looked at together.  How might you compose music for the word “all?”  Perhaps you would write a long melody, that certainly is representative of “all.” How about changing notes, major and minor? [Use all the available harmonic possibilities.]


Bach chooses to do both. The music is both major and minor: all notes and all keys possible are utilized. Bach has written a literal picture in sound of the word “all.” (music) Even at this very early age, Bach is beginning to show the genius that is going to permeate his music for his whole lifetime. His ability to latch on to the deeper meanings of words and to bring them out in his music was unparalleled. In melody, harmony and counterpoint Bach shows that he has limitless ability to do something extraordinary.

Music examples from

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>