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In a colloquium at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, January 2009, Mike Diprose, Balthasar Streiff and Anselm Hartinger offered a solution to the enigma of O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht BWV 118: What did JS Bach mean when he wrote "lituus"?

Click HERE for links to a sound file and other websites about this fascinating reconstruction project and how it involved scientists at the University of Edinburgh.


March 2010 De Swaen performed Bach's motet, with two of these Litui. In the same programme we performed a new composition for Lituus by Balthasar Streiff, commissioned by De Swaen.

Detail from ceiling Martinikerk in Groningen (NL, 1480)

Why the wooden lituus?

by Mike Diprose

lituus Many mysteries surround JS Bach’s Trauermotet, O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, (BWV 118). Only composition scores of both versions are extant - the first version with a watermark from 1736/37; the second circa 1740. Neither autograph scores nor parts survive. Both versions specify lituus I & lituus II.

It is not clear what is meant by the word lituus, which was originally a Etruscan cavalry instrument from Roman times. Lexica from the early 18th century give various definitions, ranging from trumpet to shawm. The parts for lituus in BWV118 can be played on a “natural” instrument: i.e. one limited to the harmonic series (when pitched in Bb - about 2.65 metres long). Later in the 18th century, the word lituus appears on many other scores (mainly from Bohemia) as a general word for “brass instrument”- horn or (possibly coiled) trumpet. So, mystery solved? Many people assume that lituus simply means “horn”.

Photo by Russell Gilmour, during symposium in Edinburgh (July 2009)

Maybe it’s no so simple for this piece: BWV 118 is a Trauermotet – funeral music. The cornetto and trombones also specified in the first version had a strong symbolic association with mourning, whereas trumpets and horns represent noble celebration - very inappropriate at a funeral and also, because of and Edict* restricting their use, illegal at the time (there are no trumpet or horn parts in Bach’s Passions, for instance). Baroque horn and trumpet parts tend to be in short, dramatic bursts. The lituus parts in BWV 118 are unique in character, with long, lyrical phrases that, when played on horns or trumpets, don’t really blend in ensemble as well as they could.

* Published in Versuch einer Anleitung zur heroisch-musikalischen Trompeter- und Paukerkunst, J.E. Altenburg, 1795.


With this in mind, “we” (Balthasar Streiff -then a fellow student at the SCB-, Anselm Hartinger, a musicological Bach specialist and I), considered and researched the proposal of Patryk Frankowski (National Museum, department of Musical Instruments, Poznan, Poland), who suggested that the appropriate instrument for the lituus romanian parts in BWV 118 would be the trombita - a traditional long, straight wooden horn that is still played at funerals today in Poland, CZ, Romania and Ukraine, similar to the German fränkischen Langhorn. There is no doubt that wooden horns have been played throughout Europe for millennia. Other surviving traditions are the Norwegian nevelure and Swiss alphorn, which has also been referred to as piffel, tuba pastoralis, lituus alpinus and schalmei (schalmei simply means “shepherd instrument”) and was written for in the 18th century by, amongst others, Franz Xaver Schnitzer and Leopold Mozart.

Click picture for more about Romanian funerals.

There are many theories about where and for whom BVW 118 was first performed - Graff Sporck in Bohemia, Count von Flemming in Leipzig or even for a respected musician - all of which lead to more theories and possible symbolic links. We accept that we simply do not know. Our aim was to work “backwards” from a likely ensemble sound that would both work and have been legal at the time. The trombita’s “haunting” timbre and direct association with mourning would make it appropriate for a Trauermotet. The combination of three wooden and three metal instruments has an elegant balance, which we now know blends well and sounds “right”.

Since we knew what sound we wanted but had neither a working original to copy nor ten years to develop the instrument, we asked the University of Edinburgh to help “optimise” the inner profile because it had to be right first time. Thankfully it was - we got them just four days before our first performance.

Website pages about the Lituus project

BBC news

The University of Edinburgh

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Schola Cantorum Basiliensis

Der Spiegel

Muziekcentrum Nederland

Viertakt (Dutch radio programme)

Presentation Adam Apostoli and Shona Logie

Shepherd museum in Hersbruck

SOUND FILE BBC World Service Jingle played by two Litui (Mike and Balthasar)


Photo by Horst Fischer
Fränkischen Langhorn in Shepherd museum Hersbruck