O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV 118

O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (O Jesus Christ, light of my life), BWV 118,[lower-alpha 1] is a sacred motet composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is known to have been performed at a funeral, and was possibly a generic work intended for funerals.[1] When the work was first published in the nineteenth century it was called a cantata, perhaps because it has an instrumental accompaniment. While it is not an a cappella work, modern scholarship accepts it is a motet.

History and text

This work was written around 1736 or 1737, and so may have been premiered before the first known performance at the grave-side ceremony for Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming on October 11, 1740.[2] The Count was Governor of Leipzig and known to Bach who had presented a couple of congratulatory works to him. The fact that the accompaniment exists in two versions suggests that there was a subsequent revival of the work in the 1740s.

The text is a 1610 hymn by Martin Behm.[3]


"O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht" has been characterized as "something between a cantata movement and a motetic choral transcription."[4] This work is a motet version of the chorale Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid. The lower voices of the choir sing counterpoint to the chorale melody line in the soprano. The accompaniment includes an ascending string motive.[5]

Scoring and structure

The piece is scored for four-part choir. It is structured as a chorus, O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht, comprising chorale strophes separated by repeated instrumental interludes. The number of strophes sung would likely correspond to the length of the procession for which the work was used.[6]

There are two versions of the instrumental scoring:

  • The first version is unique among the Bach cantatas in not including strings,[2] and also differs from the instrumentation of the motets, where that is specified. It is for two litui (an instrument which one source contends was a "horn" and "trumpet-like"),[7] cornett, three trombones, and organ;
  • The second version is for two litui, strings, organ continuo, and optionally three oboes and bassoon.[3]

The first version is possibly intended for outdoor use where brass would be more effective than strings. (The inclusion of an organ part suggests a performance at least partly indoors, but a portable organ may have been used). The second version is more suitable for indoor acoustics. The available recordings of the piece (see section below) appear to have been performed indoors. A notable outdoor performance was that of John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, who performed it outside Iona Abbey to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. However, this performance was not included in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage set of recordings.[8]


The work was published in 1876 in the first complete edition of Bach's works, the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe. The editor of the volume in question was Alfred Dörffel.[9] It was classed among the cantatas, but it is now included among the motets in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe.



  1. "BWV" is Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, a thematic catalogue of Bach's works.


  1. Dubins, Jerry; Grames, Ronald (2013). "BACH: Motets, BWV 225-230; BWV Anh. 159". Fanfare. Archived from the original on 2016-10-08. Retrieved 24 August 2016.(accessed via Highbeam Research, subscription required)
  2. "Cantata BWV 118 O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht Commentary". Bach Cantatas. Retrieved 21 August 2015.
  3. "Cantata BWV 118". Bach Cantatas. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  4. Martin Geck, John Hargraves Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life and Work 2006 Page 467
  5. Ryan Turner. "BWV 118". Emmanuel Music. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  6. Christoph Wolff. "Liner notes to Bach Cantatas, Vol. 21" (PDF). bach-cantatas. pp. 26–26. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
  7. Pallab Ghosh (30 May 2009). "'Lost' Music Instrument Recreated". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  8. His 1989 recording was made in St John's, Smith Square, London.
  9. O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht, BWV 118: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)

Further reading

  • Hochreither, Karl. 2002. Performance Practice of the Instrumental-Vocal Works of Johann Sebastian Bach, translated by Melvin P. Unger. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-4258-8.
  • Schulze, Hans-Joachim. 1993. "O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht: On the Transmission of a Bach Source and the Riddle of Its Origin". In A Bach Tribute: Essays in Honor of William H. Scheide, edited by Paul Brainard and Ray Robinson, 209–20. Kassel and New York: Bärenreiter; Chapel Hill: Hinshaw Music. ISBN 978-0-937276-12-9.
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