Fürchte dich nicht is one of Bach’s motets for double chorus (SATB+SATB), perhaps the earliest of this genre composed by Bach. Because no original sources for the work survive, scholars have had some difficulty dating the work. Most, however,ultimately place the work in Bach’s Weimar days because of the stylistic similarities between Fürchte dich nicht and Ich lasse dich nicht (BWV Anh. 159). Other scholars continue to insist the work comes from Bach’s Leipzig days, perhaps having been written for a funeral there in 1726, though there is no real evidence supporting this date, and the style would seem to be from a much earlier time in Bach’s compositional development.
The text for this motet comes from Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1, as well as two verses from Paul Gerhardt’s chorale “Warum solt ich mich denn grämen”. Both verses from Isaiah begin with the words “Fürchte dich nicht” (Be not afraid), though the two are otherwise different. Bach uses the chorale in the fugue; Bach also uses this chorale tune in BWV 248/33 (Christmas Oratorio), and harmonized it in BWV 422.
The motet begins with an insistent bass line, clinging fiercely to the tonic pitch A (then, in the next phrase, transposed to the dominant E); what I find interesting is that Bach puts both bass sections on this insistent line, while the other voices of the choir remain distinct from each other. The opening section is almost entirely syllabic and certainly homophonic in texture; the rhythmic activity and occasional passing or neighboring figures help to enliven the texture. There is a great deal of repetition of the words “weiche nicht” (be not dismayed), all leading to a prominent cadence for all eight parts simultaneously (the basses in octaves) on “ich bin dein Gott!” (I am your God) – a powerful statement.
Following this, the texture begins to separate slightly, with elaboration on “Ich stärke dich” (I strengthen you). This statement each time begins with a single voice part in an elaborate melisma, which is joined by the other voices in rhythmic unison to cadence. These words are stated six times, back-to-back, as if by restating them, Bach is reinforcing the very act described in the words – the repetition is, in fact, giving these words extra strength.
Friedrich Erhardt Niedt wrote of certain types of motets – of which BWV 228 is one example: “There is also a kind of motet…in which a verse from a chorale or other sacred song is introduced, ordinarily sung by the soprano; the other voices – alto, tenor, and bass – sing a Dictum, or Spruch, from the Bible in figural style in between” (Musicalishe Handleitung Dritter Theil, ed. Johann Mattheson [Hamburg, 1717], 34, cited in Daniel Melamed, J.S. Bach and the German Motet [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 9). Evidence of this style of motet comes to play at m. 78 of Fürchte dich nicht. Here, the tenors begin a chromatic fugal start, which is supported at once by an active bass line.
Over this fugue, Bach writes phrases of the chorale “Warum sollt ich mein denn grämen”. Each of the three lower parts (ATB) has an opportunity to sing the fugal subject as well as the music presented in the bass line shown above. The sopranos sing only the chorale melody twice, each with a different verse of that chorale, until the final five measures of the motet. At that point, the two choirs split again, the eight voices return to “fürchte dich nicht”, though with a complementary phrase we have not previously heard: fürchte dich nicht, du bist mein (do not be afraid, you are mine). Thus, musical and textual closure is achieved through the return to the eight-voice texture, and emotional closure results from knowing that we belong to God.