How fleeting, how empty

October 22, 2013


In a retirement phase one looks around at all the stuff accumulated over the years and asks What am I going to do with all this stuff? After years of asking just this question, I’ve come up with a partial answer: throw away, recycle or give away stuff you don’t need, and take care of what you decide to keep and/or pass down to heirs.

By chance I put on a Bach cantata, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” and the music drew me in (I was not paying attention to the words). But then I wondered what Bach was writing about that made me feel this way, and after reading the words (below) I realized that it was a work about not being attached to stuff, and if I had a gig in a church and had to musically sell this topic I would probably use Michael Frank’s text as Bach did:

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig

1. Chorus

Ah, how fleeting, ah, how trifling
Is the life of man!
As a mist soon arises
And soon vanishes again,
So is our life, see!

2. Aria (T)

As swiftly as roaring water rushes by,
So hurry by the days of our life.
Time passes, the hours hurry by,
Just as the raindrops suddenly divide themselves,
When all rushes into the abyss.

3. Recitative (A)

Joy turns to sorrow,
Beauty falls like a flower,
The greatest strength is weakened,
Good fortune changes in time,
Soon honour and glory are over,
Knowledge and men’s creations
Are in the end brought to nothing by the grave.

4. Aria (B)

To hang one’s heart on earthly treasures
Is a seduction of the foolish world.
How easily arise devouring embers,
How the surging floods roar and tear away
Until everything is shattered and falls apart in ruins.

5. Recitative (S)

The highest majesty and spendour
Are shrouded at last by the night of death.
The person who sat on a throne like a god,
In no way escapes the dust and ashes,
And when the last hour strikes,
So that he is carried to the earth,
And the foundation of his highness is shattered,
He is completely forgotten.

6. Chorale [Verse 13]

Ah, how fleeting, ah, how trifling
Are mankind’s affairs!
All, all that we see,
Must fall and vanish.
The person who fears God stands firm forever.

[trans. Francis Browne]

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