Front Page Titles (by Subject) Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. - Bach's Chorals, vol. 3 The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works
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Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. - Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach’s Chorals, vol. 3 The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works 
Bach’s Chorals. Part III: The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works, by Charles Sanford Terry (Cambridge University Press, 1915-1921). 3 vols. Vol. 3.
Part of: Bach’s Chorals, 3 vols.
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Das alte Jahr vergangen ist.
The New Year hymn, “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist,” is first found, as a single stanza of eight lines (stanzas i and ii of the translation), in Clement Stephani’s Schöner ausserlessner deutscher Psalm, und anderer künstlicher Moteten und Geistlichen lieder XX (Nürnberg, 1568). Twenty years later Johannes Steurlein included the hymn, in six stanzas of four lines, in his Sieben und Zwantzigk Newe Geistliche Gesenge, Mit vier Stimmen Componiret und in druck der lieben Jugend zu gut verordnet (Erfurt, 1588). Three of the twenty-seven hymns in the collection are marked as Steurlein’s. “Das alte Jahr” is not among them, a fact which makes his alleged authorship doubtful. As early as 1609 the whole hymn was attributed to Jakob Tapp (d. 1630).
On the other hand, the melody (supra), which has borne the name of the hymn since 1608, is generally attributed to Johannes Steurlein, son of the first Lutheran pastor at Schmalkalden, where he was born in 1546. About 1580 he became Town-clerk of Wasungen, whence he passed in 1589 to Meiningen, of which he became Mayor. He died there in 1613. He was an excellent musician and published various melodies and four-part settings by himself. In 1588 his melody was set to Nikolaus Herman’s “Gott Vater, der du deine Sonn,” though the latter has a four-line stanza. In 1608 Erhart Bodenschatz attached the tune to “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist” in his Harmoniae angelicae Cantionum Ecclesiasticarum (Leipzig, 1608), and thenceforward the hymn and melody have been associated invariably. A four-lined reconstruction of the tune is set to the hymn in the Darmstadt Cantional of 1687, and a six-lined version of it, which Bach follows literally in the Orgelbuchlein and Choralgesänge, Nos. 55, 56, is found in Witt (No. 57), but not earlier in print.
N. xv. 43. Though the hymn is a prayer for help and comfort during the coming New Year (the old year being referred to incidentally merely in the first stanza), Bach, influenced, perhaps, by the character of the melody, writes a threnody on the year that is gone, and wraps the tune in chromatic counterpoint expressing, in his idiom, poignant grief and regret. A chromatic grief motive is employed for the same purpose in the opening choruses of the B minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion. It occurs also in the eighth Partita on “O Gott, du frommer Gott” (N. xix. 51), depicting the torture of the souls awaiting the Judgment summons, of which the corresponding stanza of the hymn speaks. In the Orgelbüchlein movement, “Christus, der uns selig macht,” Bach introduces it to picture the bitter anguish of Christ, of which the hymn tells (N. xv. 64). The same thought moves him to introduce it “adagissimo” in the final bar of “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” (N. xv. 69).
Schweitzer remarks1 that the striking major cadence is occasioned by “the consolatory conclusion of the first verse and of the poem in general.” In fact the major cadence is as old as the tune.
[1 ]Chorale Book for England, No. 171. The original hymn has six stanzas.
[1 ] Vol. ii. 68.