Cantata BWV 170, for solo alto, organ, strings, and oboe d'amore, dates from 1726 -- later in Bach's career in Leipzig, when he began to feature the organ prominently in his cantatas. BWV 170 marks the first use of the organ as an obbligato instrument – essentially releasing it from its supporting role, allowing it to emerge as a soloist. The organ functions uniquely as both an obbligato and a continuo instrument.
The theme of the work is one of sin and the necessity for us to renounce it in order to claim inner peace and salvation. The journey begins in a place of true concord, evolving through a statement renouncing the sins against the word of god, and eventually concluding with the believer's desire to die and thus be freed of all sin.
The first movement, a gently rocking lullaby in 12/8, expresses an introverted elation – that peace is to be found in the “concord of heaven.” Much like “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” from the St. Matthew Passion, this aria is an evocation of the dignified, personal appreciation of contentment in the arms of the Savior. There is a sense, both musically and spiritually, that the boundaries of time and earthly bonds are loosened.
The first recitative colors a striking picture of the world, not only drenched in transgression, but also conniving with the devil against the word of God. The second aria, in stark contrast to the first, is, as Craig Smith describes: “thorny and abrasive, outlandish in harmony and content.” The organ bursts out of its continuo role for the first time, which must have been somewhat startling to Bach’s congregation. Two unique events in the orchestration characterize this aria whose text details the singer's disgust at the "perverted ones" that riddle the human race. First, there is no traditional continuo part in this movement, the bass line being carried by violins and violas in unison – the loss of the ‘foundation’ of the music symbolizes something that is absent, in this case those who have withdrawn from God. Secondly, the organ writing is comprised of two independent melodic lines that occupy the same range. This would have likely been played on a two manual organ. Our chamber organ is a one manual console, creating some very tricky and virtuosic hand crossings.
Accompanied by the strings, the singer yearns to leave the hate-filled world for heaven in the next recitative. The last aria finds the organ, once again, with a prominent role – the right hand with virtuosic obbligato, the hand left doubling the bass line. The focus here is not on sin, but on seeking ultimate peace with Jesus, similar to the first aria. Craig Smith writes: “for all of its positive energy, it has a certain cockeyed quality generated by the opening tri-tone interval and the generally odd melodic material.” This is one of the few cantatas that does not end with chorale – a choice that strengthens the effect as the final aria reaches a point of resolution.
© Ryan Turner
Bach Cantata BWV 170 is for solo alto, organ, strings, and oboe d'amore. This work dates from later in Bach's career in Leipzig, when he began to feature the organ prominently in his cantatas. The first movement, a gently rocking lullaby, is a lovely heart-easing work. It could not contrast more vividly with the thorny and abrasive middle aria, outlandish in harmony and content. Its ungroundedness is emphasized by the lack of continuo instruments. The last aria, for all of its positive energy, has a certain cockeyed quality generated by the opening tritone interval and the generally odd melodic material.