Site ©1996 Timothy A. Smith

Author BACH Courses

Circulatioas Tonal Morpheme in the
Liturgical Music of J. S. Bach

This paper was read at the Lyrica Society Conference on October 3, 1998.
It was published in the 2000 issue of the Society's Journal, Ars Lyrica.

Word paintings, integral to the 18th-century conception of Affekt, were not limited to literal representations of text, feelings, moods, or emotions. In the hands of masterful composers, such musical morphemes were often conjoined with seemingly unrelated texts to create what this author calls "tropes"--symbols of great power and force. Johann Sebastian Bach's near contemporary, Kircher, and cousin, Walther, identify the circulatio as a musical symbol for the rising and setting of the sun. Bach himself used this figure (remarkably similar to his name in tones) as a symbol for the cross and Christ. It is the purpose of this paper to explore possible meanings of circulatio in various contexts within Bach's liturgical oeuvre.

A good place to begin this exploration is toward the end of the third movement of BWV 4--Christ lag in Todesbanden. Here Johann Sebastian Bach abandons Martin Luther's cantus firmus, briefly, for a figural interpolation upon the words Tods Gestalt. This figure is represented in the circled pitches of Example 1.

Ex. 1: Tropological Use of the Circulatio
(crosses superimposed upon Tods Gestalt "death's aura")
BWV 4: Christ Lag in Todesbanden 3rd mvt.

Later, in the 5th movement, the composer has the bass voice sing a similar melody on the words Kreuzes Stamm (circled pitches in Example 2).

Ex. 2: Representational Use of the Circulatio
(Cross superimposed upon Kreuzes Stamm "beam of the cross)
BWV 4: Christ Lag in Todesbanden 5th mvt.

The melodic contour of both examples involves an ascent to a higher pitch, descent to a pitch lower than the first, followed by a return to the first or one close to it. In 1650 this mannerism had been described by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis), as the aural equivalent of a circle, or circulatio, representing either God, or the sun (which also rises, falls, and returns from whence it came). Johann Sebastian was no doubt familiar with the extra-musical connotations of this figure (after 1732 at least) as his cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther, had replicated Kircher's description of the circulatio in his Musicalisches Lexicon of that same year.

Were Johann Sebastian not to have understood the meaning of circulatio, it would have been strange for him to have employed it rather consistently, as he does, in conjunction with the words Christus (Christ) and Kreuz (cross). The reason for this association can be seen in the abstraction of two imaginary lines connecting the inner, and outer, pair of notes in the circulatio, intersecting to form the Greek letter , a Christological symbol since ancient times. It is the thesis of this paper that Bach not only understood the extra-musical connotations of the circulatio, but that he employed it to evoke images of the Christian cross. I intend to show, moreover, that it is when he unites the circulatio with seemingly unrelated texts we encounter his most powerful and elegant symbols. It is this latter usage which I describe as "tropological" (as opposed to "representational" usage where the circulatio sounds literally against the word Kreuz or Christus).

In BWV 4 Johann Sebastian appears to have used the circulatio both representationally and tropologically. In the fifth movement (Example 2), the circulatio is a simple word painting of the Kreuzes Stamm (Christ suspended upon the "beam of the cross"). By contrast, the third movement (Example 1) does not contain the word Kreuz, but alludes instead to "Death's Gestalt," that is, the taking from Death all its authority and strength.2 Whereas the word Kreuz is not sung in the third movement, the presence of its aural equivalent--the circulatio--reveals the composer's homiletic intent. By uniting the sound of the cross with words describing victory over death, Bach creates a trope. The purpose of this trope is to make the same point as St. Paul in Colossians 2:15: "and having disarmed the powers [of death and hell] he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." Luther's text follows the interpolation with a rhetorical question first asked by Hosea the Prophet and subsequently quoted by Paul the Apostle: "Where, O Death, is your victory, where O Death is your sting?" Bach's tenors answer with a vociferous denn Stachl hat er verloren. Halleluja! ("the sting is lost forever, Hallelujah!")

As explained earlier, the juxtaposition of Kreuzes Stamm with its aural metaphor, the circulatio of the fifth movement (Example 2), involves an uncomplicated text-to-music representation. In each of the following examples, the word Kreuz is likewise represented by its aural equivalent--the circulatio. I conclude that Bach's use of the circulatio as a painting of the word Kreuz is neither uncommon, nor is its meaning obscure.

BWV 182: Himmelskönig, sei will kommen 6th mvt. (tenor aria), mm. 39-45 (tenor part)

BWV 69a: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele 5th mvt. (bass aria), mm. 57-59 (bass part)

BWV 99: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan 3rd mvt. (tenor aria), mm. 38 & 62 (tenor part)

BWV 2: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein 5th mvt. (tenor aria), mm. 21 & 32 (tenor part)

BWV 150: Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich 7th mvt. (Ciaccone), m. 44 & 32 (bass part)

BWV 178: Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält 6th mvt. (tenor aria), mm. 52 & 55 (tenor/violin parts)

BWV 85: Ich bin ein guter Hirt 5th mvt. (tenor aria), mm. 40, 47-48 (tenor part).

But word paintings were not always limited to such literal representations of text as in the above. The third movement's Tods Gestalt is a case in point (please refer again to Example 1). Here it is possible to discern a more sophisticated technique involving the superimposition of musical metaphor (minus the word itself) upon a text describing something altogether different: that is, victory over death and hell. We might term this usage of the circulatio as more than representation, but as trope. By conjoining seemingly unrelated symbols the composer avails himself of independent meanings to create yet a third meaning. Bach infers, thusly, that Christ defeated death, by means of his own death, upon the cross.

It is appropriate at this juncture to inquire if there be tropes in cantatas other than BWV 4. If examples do exist, might we adduce theological significance? May we infer, for example, that when the composer superimposes a circulatio upon the words Jesu bittern Tod (Example 3) that he refers, en passant, to the instrument of "Jesus' bitter death?"

Ex. 3: BWV 101:Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
6th mvt. (sop/alt aria), m. 54 (soprano part)

Or, in BWV 131, when the composer glosses the word "sins"--und er wird Israel erlösen aus allen seinen Sünden (Example 4)--may we understand the composer as having appealed to Christ's crucifixion as the agent of forgiveness? I propose to demonstrate that the answer to these questions is, likely, "Yes."

Ex 4: BWV 131: Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir
5th mvt. (chorus) mm. 71-72

The composer himself supplies a broad basis of supposition in four examples from three more of his liturgical works. In the fifth movement of cantata BWV 3 (Example 5) the object of the morpheme is not Christ's cross, but Christ helping the Christian to carry mein Kreuz. As might be expected, Bach unites the circulatio not with the words mein Kreuz, but with hilft Jesus tragen. Superimposition of the tonal metaphor for Christ's cross (the circulatio) upon the words "Jesus will help me to carry" represents one of the more elegant tropes of Bach's liturgical oeuvre. The unification of musical symbol with an ostensibly unrelated text references Luther's doctrine, known as theologia crucis, which teaches that strength to carry one's cross comes after profound contemplation of Christ's passion--that is, through personal appropriation of Jesus suffering.

Ex. 5: tropological inference of the circulatio upon hilft Jesus tragen
BWV 3: Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid 5th mvt.
(sop/alto aria), mm. 47-51 (sop. part)

Please note the reference to "personal" appropriation. BWV 3 is astonishing inasmuch as it represents not only the tonal metaphor for the cross but also the aural equivalent of the composer's name!3 Such authorial inclusions were common in 18th-century religious art; Lucas Cranach the Elder's self-portrait at the foot of the cross in Weimar's Stadkirche altarpiece comes immediately to mind.4 The inclusion of Bach's name in BWV 3 can be seen in such a light as metamorphic; the artist making a personal statement by representing himself within his own work of art. The average Leipziger of the 1730's would have understood this self-reference as a certain Kapellmeister claiming the victory of Christ's cross in the context of his many troubles.

Least one dismiss the authorial inclusion of BWV 3 as coincidence, consider a similar iteration in the Kreuz und Becher aria (NBA 23) of the St. Matthew Passion. Here the composer reflects, in devout Lutheran fashion, upon the agony of Christ's passion exclaiming: Gerne will ich mich bequemen, Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen, trink ich doch dem Heiland nach (Gladly, regardless of the cost, cross and cup I will drink as did my Savior). While the libretto is Picander's, upon the words Kreuz und Becher (cross and cup), Bach interpolates a circulatio representing not only the word Kreuz, but also his own name, thereby making the text his own (Example 6)!

Ex. 6: circulatio as metamorph (self reference) in the
Kreuz und Becher aria of the St. Matthew Passion

By employing a form of circulatio that, most scholars agree, represents the composer himself, Bach enters semiotic territory yet unexplored. This new world of meaning is intensely devout, personal, and likely to have been conceived by the composer as expressive of his own Weltanschauung. Like caterpillar cocooning to emerge butterfly, Bach weaves his name with circulatio and text to emerge as--dare I write--a Christian. Authorial inclusions by means of these and other musico-textual symbols I call "metamorphic," and the sound terms used to effect them, "tonal morphemes"; which explains the title of this paper. In addition to the above works, I cite the Mass in B Minor (see YouTube instructions) as yet another example in which tonal morphemes abound. These examples are taken from the second Kyrie and the Crucifixus. We begin with the latter.

The Crucifixus functions as Herzstück for a monumental chiastic structure extending from midway through the Gloria through the end of the Mass. Marking the beginning and ending of this structure are the only two movements in which Bach repeats a musical idea: the Gratias agimus tibi, and the Dona Nobis Pacem. The music for these two movements is identical. Precisely between them, and flanked on either side by comparable forces, key relationships, and cantus firmus techniques, lies the Crucifixus. Example 7 represents the two fragments from the Crucifixus and Kyrie I shall compare.

Ex. 7: from the Mass in B Minor
(a) sop. at 10th of 13 iterations of lamento ground in the Crucifixus
(b) sop. at 10th of 13 iterations of fugue's subject in 2nd Kyrie

The Crucifixus is a passacaglia in which a lamento bass asserts itself thirteen times. Notice, at the tenth statement of the lamento (Example 7a), Bach elides the circulatio with a metamorphic representation of his name. This statement of the word crucifixus is, to my ear, the defining moment of this movement in much the same way that the movement itself is the defining moment of the entire Mass. Whereas the circulatio occurs, here, in conjunction with the word crucifixus, it is primarily representational. But, inasmuch as the elision continues with the aural symbol for the composer's name, it is also metamorphic. The composer once again joins persona with art.

The second Kyrie of the Mass (Example 7b), like the thirteen statements of the Crucifixus ground, contains thirteen statements of the fugue's subject. And, like the Crucifixus, where the tenth statement was prominent, the tenth statement of the Kyrie subject is the only one in b-minor. Significantly, Bach initiates this subject with a circulatio employing the very same pitches as those at the corresponding moment of the Crucifixus (Example 7a).

Recall that the circulatio in the Crucifixus was representational and metamorphic, but NOT tropological. By contrast, the circulatio in the Kyrie is tropological and metamorphic, but NOT representational. It is a trope because the first four pitches of the Kyrie, recognizable as the tonal morpheme of the cross, are conjoined with the word "Lord" instead of Kreuz. This implies that the Lord granting mercy (eleison) in the third movement is the same Lord suspended from the cross of the Crucifixus. Finally, the Kyrie is metamorphic because, in an apparent reference to himself, the b-minor subject contains fourteen pitches and the sum of those pitches is forty-one!5

In conclusion, I wish to emphasize it is not the thesis of this paper that every instance of circulatio in Bach's liturgical music justifies a symbolic reading. The composer used a variety of symbols for the cross, of which the circulatio is one. It seems reasonable to conclude, however, in light of the examples described in this paper, that Johann Sebastian attached special significance to the circulatio as a musical symbol of the cross. This significance may have derived from the fact that his name, in musical tones, was a "morphed" form of that motive. Because it conveyed meaning irrelative to text, Bach appears to have used the circulatio in many and varied contexts to create iconological structures of profound substance. Whether or not his congregation recognized and understood these morphemes is debatable. It is reasonable to assume, however, that if the twentieth-century ear, half tuned as it were to Baroque Affektenlehre, is capable of discerning tonal representations, tropes, and morphemes to the degree imagined in this essay, Bach's congregation could have been no less aware.


  1. In the Handexemplar of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach uses in place of the words Kreuz (cross) and Christus (Christ).

  2. ...damit dem Tod genommen all sein Recht und sein Gewalt, da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt.

  3. B-flat, A, C, B-natural, inverted (or retrograded) and transposed

  4. Cranach's altarpiece represents three figures at the foot of the cross. John the Baptist, whose features are remarkably similar to those of the Savior, points to his cousin, while Martin Luther, points to his recent translation of I John 1:7. Between them stands the painter, Cranach himself, who is depicted as receiving the benefits of atonement by the stream of blood from the Savior's side to his head. J. S. Bach was most likely familiar with the altarpiece as it had resided in Weimar's church of St. Peter and Paul for nearly two hundred years prior to his first and third professional appointments in that city--where it can be seen today.

  5. B+A+C+H = 14; J+S+B+A+C+H = 41

Top of Document