Bach's Cantata No. 156, "Ich steh' mit einem Fuss im Grabe" ("I stand with one foot in the grave") is thought to have been first performed on January 23, 1729. The cantata, to a text by Christian Friedrich Henrici (otherwise known by his pseudonym Picander) was intended for performance during church services on a third Sunday following epiphany.
The work opens with a sinfonia in F, for oboe and strings, which originated in a concerto movement (now lost) which Bach subsequently recast as the slow movement of his harpsichord concerto in F minor. In the cantata, however, the solo oboe line is considerably less florid in style, and ends on the dominant so as to provide a link with the tenor aria which follows. The aria itself is notable because of the tenor voice's interaction with a chorale, sung by the soprano, whose melody is attributed to Johann Schein, one of Bach's predecessors at Leipzig. The chorale is accompanied by a unison string theme, and its first section is written in such a way as to facilitate a different continuation for each subsequent reprise. The string melody opens with a sustained note corresponding with the tenor's line "Ich steh'" ("I stand"), but Bach ingeniously ensures that the links between the contorted, anguished phrase-end (always in C minor) and the words sung by the tenor in the second repeated line, "kranke Leib" ("sick body"), are impressed upon the listener. Of all the infinitely varied methods by which Bach weaves chorales into the fabric of his cantatas, this work displays one of the most subtle.
Now, a bass recitative follows, to the words "no longer here on earth." This leads in turn to an alto aria in B flat major, "Herr, was du willt" ("Lord, according to thy will"), set in modified da capo style. At this point, the atmosphere is lightened considerably by the three-part contrapuntal accompaniment for solo oboe, violins, and continuo, but there are still telling pauses at every utterance of the word "Sterben" ("death") in the central episode of this A-B-A construction. Finally a second solo bass recitative takes us to a setting in four parts of the chorale "Herr, wie du willt" by Kaspar Bienemann (1582), whose opening phrase has already been anticipated by the recitative which precedes it.