Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, cantata spirituale to a libretto by Ignaz Anton Weiser, was first produced at the Archibishop Palace, Salzburg, on 12th March 1767.
The singers at the first performances were Joseph Meissner (Cristiano), Anton Franz Spitzeder (Spirito cristiano), Maria Anna Fesemayrin (Spirito mondano), Maria Magdalena Lippin (Misericordia), Maria Anna Braunhoferin (Giustizia).
The autograph manuscript score is to be found at the Windsor Library, Royal Collection.
The scene takes place in a pleasant spot near a garden and a little wood.
A half-hearted Christian is lying asleep amongst flowering bushes. Beside him Justice, Mercy and the Spirit of Christianity are involved in a debate: the Spirit of Christianity, anxious to save the souls of mortal men, appeals to Justice on their behalf. Justice replies that she cannot show tolerance towards souls that are unworthy of mercy, because it is her duty to reward the righteous and punish the guilty. So now the Spirit of Christianity turns towards Mercy, invoking her assistance against the Worldly Spirit, who leads endless numbers of men to perdition, disguising sins and dangers with an outward show of attractive illusion.
Mercy objects that men wander off the straight and narrow path through lack of willpower, and because they do not obey the First Commandment: Thou shall love the Lord thy God. Mercy and Justice remark that men, on the contrary, fail to do this, though it is a duty imposed by reason and by nature, and prefer to give way to luxury, sensuality, selfishness and presumption, heedless of Heaven and Hell, death and the Last Judgement. Therefore, where the individual does not show willing, Justice cannot absolve nor Mercy dispense pity.
The Spirit of Christianity cannot but admit the truth of these convincing arguments. However, he cannot be reconciled to the idea that there might be no way of finding a remedy for human weakness, for example, giving sinners a glimpse of Hell in order to restore the light or reason to them: at least, let them be favoured with a solemn exhortation. Mercy and Justice yield to this last request, so long as it remains clear that it must be each individual who chooses of his own free will to shun the paths of perdition. Justice decides to try out the experiment immediately upon the half-hearted Christian who has fallen into a deep sleep, lulled by a false sense of security. She therefore launches into a terrible warning: let the Christian awaken from his sleep; he, born to labour with zeal and bear the fatigue, must give an account of his life on the Day of Judgement.
Mercy and Justice disappear amongst the clouds, the Spirit of Christianity hides, though remaining visible to the audience. The Christian wakes up to find himself, to all appearances, alone; he is shocked and distressed by the warning that he has heard; but the Worldly Spirit comes in and begins to comfort him at once, using insinuating arguments to convince him that the words that he has heard are no more than a trap prepared by a common enemy, or a fleeting vision, a dream, by which a man leading a prosperous life, care-free and respected, should not allow himself to be frightened. It was the Creator himself who gave men both life and the Earth; therefore we should ignore dreams and enjoy life.
However, the Christian cannot mistake for a dream the voice that he has heard, and which has so violently torn him from his sleep; he still clearly recalls every word, and he is still shivering with the terror that the warning inspired in him; the sound of those awful words vividly suggested the Last Trump, and now induces him to urgently reconsider his own way of life.
But the Worldly Spirit does not easily give in; he says that the frightful impression left by those warning words proves that it was a blow struck by the common enemy; the Christian does not need to know his name, but the person in question is a moody creature who will not allow himself or his neighbours to be happy and who would like everyone to follow his own stupid and uncomfortable precepts about life. When the Spirit of Christianity overhears this un-flattering description of himself, he decides to take a hand in the proceeding, but in disguise, the better to carry out his plans, and he withdraws in order to dress up. The Worldly Spirit insists: let the Christian beware of a sad, austere and pallid philosopher.
The Spirit of Christianity comes on dressed as a doctor, and the Christian decides to question him in the hope of obtaining an elixir of long life. Is he really a physician? Does he know a method of forestalling future disasters? The Spirit of Christianity declares that he is a near relative of the greatest doctor in the world, who has revealed to him the very best remedy, without which no cure is possible but it also requires an effort on the patient’s part. The Worldly Spirit, bored by the duration of this conversation, withdraws to prepare a meal for the Christian: the best medicines will prove to be the pleasures of the table, gambling, hunting, and the glance of a beautiful woman. Once his adversary has departed, the Spirit of Christianity redoubles his attack: he will cure the Christian of all his ailments, which are real evils that need to be eradicated rather than cured; the voice that the Christian heard ought to be a warning to him.
Impressed by these arguments, the Christian places his trust in the supposed physician. The Spirit of Christianity gives him a sealed document in which the cure is written down; it is a delightful medicine to take, that warms (the tepid spirit, he adds, aside), reinforces reason (the better to understand the Christian’s duties), strengthens sight (the better to discern the enemy), hearing (the better to hear the Word of God) and courage (to oppose the powers of Hell). But the Worldly Spirit comes back on, to lead the Christian off to the dinner table; the latter promises to reward the physician, should the remedy prove efficacious. Left alone, the Spirit of Christianity laments that the empty pleasures of the world should oppose the progress of the spirit. Justice and Mercy return. Whose fault will it be, if the Christian should be eternally damned? Only his own fault, the Spirit of Christianity agrees, but they must all be patient: the success of the first steps seems encouraging. A final victory might well increase the glory of Justice and Mercy too.