The fundamental theme of Halt im Gedächtnis, one that remains critical in the Christian doctrine during the period following Easter, is a reassurance of Christ’s ministry after his crucifixion; essentially, an affirmation that his death was a beneficial, even necessary occurrence. Halt im Gedächtnis explores the anxieties, the doubts and the loss of hope that Jesus’ disciples experienced in the week after the crucifixion. Each of its seven movements urges the listener to keep Jesus in their memories, as the opening chorus triumphantly exclaims. Reassurance continues in the fourth movement with a harmonization of the familiar Easter chorale Erschienen is der herrlich Tag and in the closing chorale Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, which acknowledges Jesus as the Prince of Peace.
The sixth movement of the cantata, an aria for solo bass with choral accompaniment (in effect, a dialogue), is a masterful representation of the disciples’ anxieties during this period. In this climactic movement, Bach composes a highly charged dramatic scene that could have been taken from a contemporary opera, in which the disciples’ anxieties are quelled through the miraculous appearance of Christ, who repeatedly offers them four words of reassurance (“Peace be unto you”). The Gospel of John records that Christ’s reassurances were understandably met with disbelief and doubt, which eventually passed with the repeated beatific utterances of “Peace be unto you.” By the aria’s conclusion, the disciples’ faith is firmly restored.
To depict anxiety that is tempered through reassurance, Bach subdivides the aria into eight episodes, each episode alternating the heightened emotion of the disciples with the peacefulness of Christ’s utterances. Contrast is brought into play to produce a marvelous dramatic effect, achieved through contrast of timbre, texture, meter and dynamics, a rarely encountered scheme for music of this period. The disciples’ episodes feature strings, continuo and SAT voices (the choral bass voices are silent in this movement), are polyphonic, set in 4/4 time and predominantly forte. By contrast, Jesus’ episodes feature winds (a flute and two oboes d’amore, reminiscent of the “Pastoral” from the later Christmas Oratorio), continuo and a solo bass voice (the voice of Christ), are homophonic, set in 3/4 time and exclusively piano (all dynamic markings are Bach’s own). This design can be represented as follows:
1) Introduction (A major, strings, polyphonic, 4/4, forte, 9 measures)
2) Friede sei mit euch no. 1 (A major to E major, winds and bass voice, homophonic, 3/4 piano, 16 measures)
3) Wohl uns! (A major, strings and SAT voices, polyphonic, 4/4, forte, 11 measures)
4) Friede sei mit euch no. 2 (A major to F# minor, winds and bass voice, homophonic, 3/4, piano, 16 measures)
5) Jesus holet uns zu Friede (F# minor to D major, strings and SAT voices, polyphonic, 4/4, forte, 13 measures)
6) Friede sei mit euch no. 3 (D major to F# minor, winds and bass voice, homophonic, 3/4, piano, 16 measures)
7) O Herr! (F# minor to A major, strings, SAT and bass voices, 4/4, polyphonic, forte, 13 measures)
8) Friede sei mit euch no. 4 (A major, winds, strings and bass voice, homophonic, 3/4, piano, 17 measures)
All voices are used only in episode no. 7, a climactic moment in which Jesus’ words are briefly pitted against the cries of the disciples. Episode no. 8 is the only instance in which all instruments play together, the strings blending with the pastoral tones of the winds. It might also be relevant to note that each of the four episodes of “Friede sei mit euch” feature three repetitions of these words, giving a total of twelve statements in the aria. In effect, the statement is being made to each disciple in turn.
The following example shows the opening of the aria, the bustling, virtuosic passage in the strings depicting the disciples’ anxiety (tempo is approximately quarter note equals 88):
This aria must have meant something special to Bach, and it is tempting to think he personally viewed it as an achievement in his work. This would explain why the movement is parodied in full in the Gloria movement of the Mass in A Major, BWV 234 from c. 1738. The musical contrast is preserved, yet it becomes a means for underscoring varied interpretations of the Latin text, one jubilant and festive, the other introspective and meditative.
Lastly, Bach’s choice of key for this cantata, A major, is not a tonality frequently found in his works. The key may have been chosen to accommodate the two oboes d’amore, which are pitched in A, and to accommodate the virtuosic string writing. Yet this key might signify something unique and remarkable in Bach’s interpretation of John’s theology, following closely after the composition of the St. John Passion. According to John Eliot Gardiner, “In the St. John Passion, Jesus’ sufferings are associated with flat keys, their benefits for humankind with sharp keys.” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 372). For example, the numbers for Peter’s denial and fall, and Jesus’ death are set in sharp keys; those for the burial and crucifixion in flat keys. If we accept Gardiner’s reasoning, then Halt im Gedächtnis continues concepts introduced in the St. John Passion, likewise continuing the inexorable musical drama that earmarks both works.