“Bist du bei mir” (J. S. Bach / G. H. Stölzel) – Pronunciation guide

28. March 2021
"Bist du bei mir" - Pronunciation guide

Translation, pronunciation guide and interpretation tips on
“Bist du bei mir”
by Johann Sebastian Bach / Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel


Text and translation

Bist du bei mir, geh‘ ich mit Freuden                      If you are with me, I will go with joy
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh'!                            To death and to my rest!
Ach, wie vergnügt wär' so mein Ende:                       Ah, how cheerful were my end:
Es drückten Deine schönen Hände                            your beautiful hands would press shut
mir die getreuen Augen zu.                                 my faithful eyes.


Historical background


This song was included in Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous collection of pieces in the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” of 1725. For that reason, it was thought of as having been composed by Bach and was assigned the BWV number 508.

Today, however, we assume that this song was not written by Bach but by the German composer Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690 – 1749). It is assumed to be an aria from Stölzel’s opera “Diomedes” which – sadly enough – seems to be lost.

How “Bist du bei mir” came into the Bach household we do not know. Bach and Stölzel were in the same places but at different times; they shared acquaintances but if they met personally we also do not know.

What we do know, however, is that Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena was an accomplished singer and Johann Sebastian gathered songs for her in his “Notenbüchlein” (notebooks).

If you want to read more on the history of this particular song, go on reading this Wikipedia article.


Bist du bei mir – If you are with me


In order to not interrupt the song line, I recommend “imploding” the T-sound of “bist” by prolonging the S, stopping shortly and then “explode” the D of “du”, like “bisss\du.

The I in “bist” is open, whereas the U in “Ruh” and the I in “mir” are closed vowels.

Make sure to pronounce the diphthong EI in “bei” correctly [ae].

The R in “mir” is pronounced as vocalic R (read more on the different German R-sounds here), that is [i:ɐ]

One stress of this line (supported by the music) lies on “du”, the second one lies on “mir”.


Geh ich mit Freunden – I will go with joy


Make the E in „geh“ a closed sound, but both I in “ich” and “mit” open.

Be very strict with yourself to pronounce the CH-sound in “ich” correctly by letting the tongue rest in the position of the I and exhaling in this same position (if you want to learn more on German CH-sounds, you might be interested in this blog post).

Normally, between the E of “geh” and the I of “ich” there would be a tiny glottal onset. In this case, however, I recommend binding together (but not slurring!) both vowels so that the legato is not interrupted. In order to do that you have to articulate each vowel 100 % correct!

When this line is sung the third time, the melody changes and “geh” starts relatively high. The challenge here is to make the G a pure sound without adding a shadow vowel before.

The diphthong EU in “Freuden”, where this line’s emphasis lies (trill!), is pronounced [ɔø] and you must be aware of the length of each vowel:

hold the first vowel (in this case the [ɔ]) for approximately three quarters of the note and then transition smoothly to the second vowel (here an [ø]).
(Here you will find a detailed description on how to sing German diphthongs correctly.)

Roll the R in “Freuden”.


Zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh – to death and to my rest


The German Z is a so-called affricate or combination consonant indicating that despite only one letter is spelled, it is pronounced with two (consonant) sounds. Here it is a T and S in short succession and both must be audible. (More information on the German Z can be found in this article).

The U in “zum” is open whereas the one in “zu” is closed.

Also, pronounce the T in “Sterben” very clearly as one tends to slur it into a D after the initial ʃ-sound.
Both E in this word are open but differ slightly from each other: the first one (“Ster-“) should be an [Ɛ] whereas the second one (“-ben”) is a a schwa [ə].

Roll the R of “sterben” crisply.

Unlike the first line where I recommended combining the words “bist du” by imploding/exploding the D/T-sounds, you should make a short break between the words “und” and “zu” which – as you certainly remember – starts with a T-sound.

While both, “Sterben“ and „Ruh” are stressed in this line, the musical focus lies more on the latter.


Ach, wie vergnügt – Ah, how cheerful


The CH of „Ach“ is different from the one in „ich“, a bit throatier but be very careful that it does not become a K-sound.

You could make a short break after “Ach” as the comma afterwards indicates. Additionally, as I said earlier, “ach” can be interpreted in many differnt ways (joy, languish, sigh etc.) and you are invited to use different versions with each line.

The I in “wie” is closed and the W is voiced; use it to your advantage.

Whether you pronounce the R in “vergnügt” or make it a vocalic R is up to you. However, if you choose the latter version make sure that the colouring of the preceding vowel is absolutely correct! If you are unsure, carry out a one-flap R as this will help you with the vowel.

The Ü in “vergnügt” is closed. (Here you will find tips on how to say a proper German Ü).

Although it might be tempting to omit one ore more consonants of the second syllable (“-gnügt”), this would be wrong. Please make sure that your audience hears every single sound. If you practice this word by speaking it very slowly at first and than add tempo, I am sure you will manage perfectly.


Wär so mein Ende – would my end be


In this line we have only voiced consonants: W (“wär”), S (“so”), M (“mein”) and D and N (“Ende”).
They make it a lot easier to sing this phrase legato-like.

The Ä in “wär” is the same sound as the first E in “Ende”.

Also, “Ende” must be sung with an audible glottal onset.

Sing the O in “so” closed and remember that the S is voiced.


Es drückten Deine schönen Hände – Your beautiful hands would press shut


Despite many false recommendations, the Ü in “drückte” must be open! I know this is a bit of a challenge but if you think (only think!) of an Ö while singing the Ü you will get the correct sound.

“Drücken” (or “drückten” here) means shut with a certain amount of pressure which in this context I find a bit disturbing. Do not overstress but head over to “schönen Hände”.

Pronounce the plosive sounds (C)K and T in this word clearly.

Apart from the Ö in “schönen” (and the [a] in “deinen”) every vowel in this line is open.


Mir die getreuen Augen zu – my faithful eyes


Both I in „mir“ and “die” are closed as is the U in “zu”.

Roll the R in “getreuen” and make sure you get the diphthongs in this word as in “Augen” right (see above).


Conclusion


“Bist du bei mir” is considered “Hausmusik” (house-music) which means it was played in the family circle, i.e. in rather intimate surroundings.

It is a very light, simple song, communicating intense love in a simple, joyful manner.

The challenge is to sing it with a very even vocal line. All eight notes, especially when they are sung on one syllable (“Sterben”, “meiner” “du”,…) must be of exactly the same length.

However, what you can do to add your own interpretation is use the language to make tiny breaks between the words/notes. Legato in baroque music is not to be observed as strictly as for example in a Romantic art song.

In fact, the music here is very close to a dance. You might want to try experimenting with contrasting the dotted notes against the even sections.

In addition, when word phrases are repeated on different melodies, you might play with vowel colourings (all within the correct framework of course) and different emphases.

Take the phrase “Ach, wie vergnügt” for example: “ach” can be an expression of excitement as well as longing (and many other things). Play with the phrases, try out different ways of interpretation or use a different version with every line.

All in all, this is a very simple song – which does not mean it is easy to sing. It combines passionate love, calm serenity and joy.

Below, I have attached two recordings of this aria.

One is with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf:

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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: “Bist du bei mir” (J.S. Bach)

The other with baritone Benjamin Appl:

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Benjamin Appl: “Bist du bei mir” (J.S. Bach)