This double-chorus work is the only of Bach’s motets for which the occasion of composition can be specifically determined: it was composed for the funeral of Thomasschule headmaster J.H. Ernesti in 1729. It is also the only Bach motet for which complete orchestral parts survive, with strings doubling the first chorus and reeds (two oboes, taille, and bassoon) doubling the second. A continuo part, indicated for “violone (in B[-flat]), organo (in a[-flat])” sounds continuously throughout the piece, providing a firm bass foundation and continuity. The strings versus reeds sound, therefore, helps to create timbral variety between the two choruses.

The first stanza of text comes from Romans 8:26-27, the second from a chorale by Luther:

er Grist hilft unser Schwachheit auf,
Denn wir wissen nicht as wir beten sollen,
Wie sich’s gebühret;
Sondern der Geist selbst vertritt uns
Auf’s Beste mit unaussprechlichem Seufzen.
Der aber die Herzen forschet,
Der weiss, was des Geistes Sinn sei,
Denn er vertritt die Heiligen,
Nach dem es Gott gefallet. Du heilige Brunst, süsser Trost,
Nun hilf uns fröhlich und getrost
In deinem Dienst beständig bleiben,
Die Trübsal uns nicht abtreiben.
O Herr, durch dein’ Kraft uns bereit’
Und stark des Fleisches Blödigkeit,
Dass wir hier ritterlich ringen,
Durch Tod und Leben zu dir dringen.
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness
We do not even know how to pray
As we should pray,
But through our inarticulate groans
The Spirit himself is pleading for us,
And God who searches our inmost being
Knows what the Spirit means,
Because he pleads for God’s people
In God’s own way. O Lord of glorious life, Holy Ghost,
Inspire us in the battle’s strife
And shiled us with thy heavenly host,
That we may greet the suffering’s cost.
O Lord, through thy power make us steel
And gird the body’s feeble will,
By knightly valor may we gain
Through death and life to Thee attain.

Ending this motet with the singing of the chorale “Du heilige Brunst, süsser Trost” has become standard fare in performing “Der Geist hilft”. There is no doubt that the chorale was written by Bach, but there is some question as to whether or not he intended this chorale to be paired with the motet for all eternity.

There is some evidence from Bach’s autograph score that this motet may have been the reworking of previous material. Although this doesn’t show it, here is a picture of Bach’s autograph for this motet:

BWV 226 Example 1

The motet is set in three contrasting movements, plus the aforementioned chorale:

Movt. 1 Movt. 2 Movt. 3
Meter 3/8 4/4 ¢ (alla breve)
# of independent voices 8 Sometimes 8, sometimes fewer 4
Texture/genre Imitative and antiphonal fugue double fugue
Character Lively, “Spirited” More cautious, penitential More lively than 2, less than 1

Clearly the opening captures the “spirit” of the text, so to speak. The melismatic writing in the soprano parts in particular may be seen as the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing through the apostolic community.

The second movement, which is more penitential, inflecting primarily in the minor mode, clearly focuses on the “groaning” of man, indicated by the text.

The third movement becomes more lively, though not as much as the opening. Perhaps this is a combination of the first two movements, creating a transformation in the singers, who, though still suffering humans, are now filled with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this also explains why the voice parts are reduced from eight to four, and why the rhythmic complexity is lessened – through the mystery of the Holy Spirit, all Christians are united.