This is one of the prettiest songs ever written. It has been alleged, to my face, by people who really ought to know better, that J.S. Bach's music is "just math" or "mechanical". People who say things like that have probably been listening to his works for the "well-tempered klavier"; even though these have a narrow style, I think they are beautiful in their own right. If you find yourself uninterested in classical choral works, you should try this one. This is song in a very pure form, a carefully thought out composition that brings the text to life shade by shade and thought by thought.

Der Geist Hilft is one of the six motets that Bach was commissioned to compose. It was written for the funeral of a man named Johann Heinrich Ernesti, the Rector of a renowned music school, which took place on October 24th, 1729 -- 271 years ago. It takes both a choir and conductor of considerable skill to pull this song off well; the recording I recommend listening to is that by Philippe Herreweghe or that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The piece is written in two main sections. The first section is written for double choir, giving 8-part music, but this is not the same as if it were written for 8 parts outright. Rather, the two choirs weave together a complex tapestry of melodies, with overlapping musical concepts and alternating periods of counterpoint and harmony. The first part is characterized by overlapping melismas in an easy 3/8 time signature. The term melisma refers to a passage of many notes sung on the same syllable and these are a distinctive feature of this piece. You can hear how this works right at the beginning of the song, where Choir I begins with a series of melismas on the 'ei' of 'Geist', and Choir II overlays a slightly more syllabic treatment of the text onto this.

The second part of the piece is sung by Choirs I and II combined, giving four-part music, but it seems to lose none of the beautiful feeling of texture established in the first section. The character of this section is somewhat more instrumental and less airy, and the passages seem more jubilant and grateful, in accordance with the text.

The piece ends with a chorale, sung deliberately but not slowly, with carefully-balanced harmonies and an intense delivery of the text, which is not taken from the Bible as the previous verses but renders a prayer written by Martin Luther.

It helps a great deal to appreciate this music if you know beforehand what is being sung to you. Bear in mind that this is religious music and the intent of the composer is to convey the sanctity of these spiritual matters. Try to understand the perspective of Christianity at that time and connect with it. The text of the first section is from Romans 8:26, the second section consists of Romans 8:27 and a prayer. Romans 8 is a discussion of the believers' relationship to the Holy Spirit, so you know what the context of those verses is. I will present the text piecewise, as it is sung in the song:

Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities

The tone of the music here is melodious and conveys a sense of gratitude. The light, running notes on the word 'Geist' recall the heavenliness and divinity of the Holy Spirit, with the melody soaring skyward.

denn wir wissen nicht was wir beten sollen wie sich's gebühret
for we know not what we should pray for as we ought

The music here becomes more syllabic and drifts back down to earth at points, emphasizing that we do not know how to seek for God's help properly. The undertone is that God understands the foolishness of Man, and His succour is given in spite of that ignorance. Detached, minor chords on the words 'wissen nicht' help remind the listener of human weakness and suggest humility.

sondern der Geist selbst vertritt uns aufs beste mit unaussprechlichem Seufzen.
But the spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

This is very cool. Here the music shifts into common time, dropping out of the lilting 3/8 but retaining many of the same phrases. Bach's rendering of the idea of the Spirit interceding on behalf of the Father's erring children is very interesting, with sad melodies recalling entreaty, and towards the end, an uphill struggle towards heaven. There is a pause, and then the basses lead off with the beginning of the second verse. The text comes from Romans 8:27.

Der aber die Herzen forschet der weiss, was des Geistes Sinn sei,
And he that searcheth our hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit

denn er vertritt die Heiligen...
as he maketh intercession for the saints...

The first line is sung by all parts for several phrases; the idea here is reassurance and gladness. Shortly after the beginning of this section, listen for an interesting musical construct. The tenors begin the phrase 'der aber die Herzen' again, and the word 'Herzen' (hearts) is being sung low, while the sopranos float above on the word 'Geistes' (Spirit), with a big gap in the middle. If that's not metaphor, I don't know what is. Listen for the second line ('den er vertritt...') being brought in by the tenors and the corresponding change in the musical character. The singing of the word 'saints' builds to a climax, and then the first line (der aber...) is re-introduced and skillfully interwoven with 'den er vertritt...' in the alto and bass lines. The music recalls bells ringing and extolls God's all-ecompassing love. One by one the other parts pick up the first line again and the verse draws to a close with all parts singing grandly:

nach dem was Gott gefället.
according to the will of God.

All the parts then come together for the chorale, in syllabic unison and very beautiful, resonant harmony. Unlike in the previous sections, the words are not repeated or sung with melismas. The idea is to present this prayer clearly and earnestly, both on behalf of those singing the piece and those hearing it. Remember, this is taking place during a religious service. Pay close attention to the particular musical phrasings and dynamics of each word. The word 'Brunst' should sound fiery, 'sußer Trost' should sound like 'sweet consolation', 'nicht abtreiben' like courage in the face of despair.

This song is fundamentally about life and death and the endurance of the soul, a fitting topic for a song for a funeral. As such, listen for the phrasing on 'durch Tod und Leben...' (through death and life), which unifies the entire piece and brings it to its firm but earnest conclusion.

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 stärk des Fleisches Blödigkeit,
dass wir hier ritterlich ringen,
durch Tod und Leben zu dir dringen.

Heavenly fire, sweet consolation,
help us now, so that joyfully and confidently
we may faithfully serve thee and
by sadness be not driven away.
Oh Lord, through thy power prepare us
and strengthen the weak flesh,
that we shall fight valiantly
passing through death and life to thee.
(Martin Luther, 1524)