Chapter 43 BWV 174 Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte

I love the Highest with my entire being.

Sinfonia--aria (alto)--recit (tenor)--aria (bass)--chorale.

For Whit Monday.


The question which immediately springs to mind is: why begin this otherwise rather slight work with such a mighty sinfonia one which had, indeed, even been expanded from the original conception. All listeners will surely recognise what is probably the best known of all Bach’s concerto movements from Brandenburg 3. They may, however, be thrown off track for a moment as the enlarged orchestral sound, three oboes and two horns added to the original strings and continuo, give the immediate impression of an unfamiliar soundscape.

It is the case that following the completion of his second Leipzig cycle (in which only C 42 enjoyed the luxury of being introduced by a large-scale instrumental piece) Bach increasingly used sinfonias as introductory movements. Whether this heralded a change of public taste, a greater availability of, and/or enthusiasm from, his performers or even a deliberate change of strategy by the composer himself is not recorded. We do, however, know that very few of these pieces were newly composed. On almost every occasion Bach returned to earlier concerti, plundering fast and slow movements as he deemed appropriate. It is surprising, though, that he made relatively little use of the Brandenburgs. He used less than a fifth of the available movements, turning more to the early violin and keyboard concerto.

The choice of this particular piece does, however, suggest that Bach was not always badly served by the availability of good players. Here three each of violins, violas and celli are required and furthermore, they must be very good players i.e. these parts are unlikely to have been performed by a wind or keyboard player for whom one of the strings may have been a second or third instrument. Additionally, the presence here of the six players of the middle and lower strings would seem to challenge the idea that many of the cantatas were performed with only one musician to a desk. Clearly it cannot be assumed that large forces were available for every Sunday service and it is known that at the end of the decade Bach bemoaned the lack of first rate musicians. But here, at least, there is evidence of the availability of relatively large forces of good players (but see below). Sixteen instrumentalists would have been required for this sinfonia and, even if there was only one singer to a part, that makes a total ensemble of twenty performers.

But the mystery of why Bach chose this particular movement for this cantata remains tantalising. It may be that because the rest of the work is rather small in scale he felt it wanted a little ‘beefing up’ at the beginning. But, as Dürr points out (p 364) this serves only to misbalance the proportions of the work, something which Bach was usually very careful to avoid. There seems to be little question of the movement having been called into service at short notice. If that were to have been the case, why go to the trouble of adding new parts for horns and oboes? The latter are largely reinforcing the string rhythms and chords, but still would have needed their own parts written out. Might the lack of a rousing chorus have been due to a problem in getting a large choir together on this occasion? Only four singers are actually required, three soloists, joined by the fourth voice for the closing chorale. But an exuberant text extolling God’s love for the world and our love of Him would seem to demand an ebullient opening movement. If a large choral piece was not possible, then why should the composer not select one of the most driving and infectious movements from the concerto repertoire?

And this necessity for a positive and ebullient opening movement may also explain the addition of the extra instruments, although it has to be said that this cannot be counted as the most successful of Bach’s arranged scores. The original work had a freshness and lightness of touch, aligned to a transparency of texture, all of which seem somewhat stifled and muddied by the addition of five wind instruments. There are moments, such as in the extraordinary passage of circle-of-fifths harmony (beginning bar 87) where the sustained notes of the wind instruments endow the music with a different perspective. Pointed quaver figures do seem to give added impetus and focus to other phrases. But it is likely that most listeners will prefer the original version which, in any case, they will almost certainly have got to know and love before discovering it in this  context.

However, there is another rather compelling explanation for the use of this movement. This work was performed shortly after 1729 Bach was appointed director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum a 'concert' orchestra which was composed mainly of music students (March 1729). This was at a time when Bach's relationships with his employers was deteriorating, as was the musical quality of the boys admitted into the school. Bach may well have been making a point by contrasting the relative magnificence of the instrumental forces he could command with the growing paucity of the vocal pool. This would explain the unusual misbalance of the work. Viewed in this way C 174 becomes a political statement, or a statement of protest!

There are three extant cantatas for this day the first of which, C173 ( vol 1, chapter 59), was performed in the first Leipzig cycle. It was, however, based upon the even earlier C 173a (Dürr p 358:- vol 1, chapter 89) and comparisons of the scores throw light upon Bach’s parody techniques. It contains just the one chorus, the final movement expanded from what was originally conceived as a duet.

Undoubtedly the most interesting and impressive of the three Whit Monday cantatas is C 68 from the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 49).This work begins with an inspiring yet enigmatic chorale/fantasia and ends with a formidable vocal fugue. Nevertheless, the two arias are parodies from an early secular work, C 208 (vol 1, chapter 88).

There appears to be no explanation why all three works written for this day relied, at least to some extent, upon earlier compositions, albeit substantially reworked.

Alto aria.

The first of the two arias from C 174 is for alto with continuo and two obbligato oboes. The text is unambiguous----He who is the Highest I love, and He loves me----Only God is the store of our souls and the timeless source of all goodness. Why did Bach not set this as a chorus? If there were no practical constraints, the only remaining convincing reason must be that he wished to accentuate the individual, personal aspects of this mutual union. The text is, after all, expressed in the first person and the music has a gentle, almost childlike feeling of personal joy and gratification. This is, seemingly, not the sort of event where people need to congregate in order to follow the practices of conventional, and possibly voluble, religious ritual. This is an attempt to capture those equally significant moments of private prayer and personal contemplation.

And because such a sentiment should not be rushed, Bach adapts the conventional da capo form to allow himself the maximum of spaciousness. The time is that of an unhurried 6/8 rhythm, suggestive of a pastorale. The ritornello, sixteen bars long and heard in full four times and in part twice, allows the oboes to romp imitatively about each other, depicting the ideal union of Man and God. The semi-quaver passages are suggestive of God’s goodness flowing down to us, matched equally by our reciprocated affection.

    1st oboe, bars 10-14.

However, that which appears to be a formally structured conventional da capo aria does not quite turn out to be as it seems. Following the first main vocal block (bars 17-42) we hear eight bars of the ritornello and expect, thence, to be ushered into the middle section (from bar 51). At first all seems as expected; there are colourings of minor modes and a degree of variety but Bach does not proceed to the next lines of the stanza. He repeats the initial assertion of mutual regard and affection and follows this with a full statement of the ritornello, leading us back to the tonic key of D major. It is only then (from bar 85) that the middle section proper begins, gently outlining God’s source of everlasting goodness and ending in the key of F#m, from which point we are provided with a complete reprise of the first section.

Bach has, on occasion, given us what is in effect a ‘double’ middle or B section. Here he provides us with a double A section allowing himself plenty of time and space in which to capture these blissful moments of individual union with God. Nothing is rushed; the moment is there to be savoured and enjoyed.

And in passing, one might note the later rococco practice of repeating the exposition section of sonata form movements. In a sense, Bach did it all first!

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative holds the commanding central place in the structure of the cantata and its significance is reinforced by two string lines, played by violins and violas, three of each. They provide, for the most part, a background accompaniment of sustained harmonies. This movement is further marked out by being the only one of the five to be set in a minor mode, major keys being predominant in what is, after the rousing sinfonia, a modestly joyful work.

The recitative begins rather sternly----what fathomless love is it when the Father sacrifices His Child’s life so as to open a path for sinners to come to salvation? The dark serious tones of the minor modes relent just the once as the tenor declares----God loved the world so much and, my heart, take notice of this! Here the harmony moves seamlessly into D major as the light breaks through and shines upon us (bars 9-11). This is the nub of the work and Bach paints it through tonal means, at the very centre of the cantata.

The minor modes return, but their purpose is to deliver a message of gravity, not tragedy. But still, a tiny flutter on the oboes and continuo at the end depicts the trembling of the very gates of hell itself.

Bass aria.

The second aria is for bass, all of the nine available upper strings presumably combining to play the one obbligato line. The addition of the violas to the violins creates a distinctive type of dark colouring which Bach sometimes uses in order to achieve a sad, doleful or even tragic effect, a good example being the duet from C 156, chapter 40 of this volume.

Here the more animated obbligato line could hardly be described as gloomy or miserable, although the subtle shading of the string timbre nevertheless has a definite effect. In fact the opening four bars of this melody (the descending crotchet scale figure is directly derived from the opening of the chorale) lure us into believing that we might be about to hear a movement more cheerless than it turns out to be.

   First chorale phrase followed by the beginning of the theme derived
from it.

From bar 5 the rising scales and repeated note figurations combine to deliver a melody which is almost skittish in disposition.

The text commands----stretch out your hands in good faith and take hold of your own salvation----Jesus gives you this, and in return only requires that you believe. Are the rising, playful scales a representation of the physical act of stretching out one’s hands and grasping that which is sought?

If so, why does the obbligato melody not begin with these figures? Does Bach intend, in the first few moments, to establish an initial tone of earnest endeavour? Salvation and the acquiring of it remain a serious business, and we should not forget it. On the other hand, the reaching out and taking of that which is joyfully ours is surely a matter for celebration.

In fact, the skittish ritornello ideas dominate the movement, the vocal line almost seeming to take second place by comparison. The structure is that of a minimally adapted ternary/ritornello form, the B section beginning at bar 52. The A section is reprised, though with a degree of revision, mainly to bring it back to the tonic key of G in which it must close. There is, interestingly, no ritornello section separating the B and reprised A sections; the latter simply emerges from the former without fanfare or ostentation (from bar 95).

This is a movement which is immensely easy to listen to although reading Bach’s intentions is more difficult. The quirky melodic writing is immediately attractive and remains echoing in the mind. As the Obituary claimed ‘he wrote melodies that were strange and like no others’. And if it was Bach’s intention to remind us of the pleasures of stretching forth to grasp our due rights of salvation through the medium of ‘strange’ (but memorable) musical ideas, who can blame him?


The closing chorale must have sounded imposing, the voices doubled by all strings and oboes but not, perhaps surprisingly, the horns. If Bach only had recourse to just the four singers (the three soloists and an ‘imported’ soprano) might he have born this in mind and scored the music so as to ensure that they were not swamped by the instrumental forces?

It is a long melody with over a dozen phrases and Bach harmonises it plainly and sturdily. It proclaims, once again, the individual’s love of the Lord and renouncement of the world, achieved only through the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice and gift of salvation. It is a conventional piece, expressing predictably conformist attitudes.

Yet, even today it has the power to move and uplift. This is one of those cantatas where a good, stolidly traditional chorale rousingly played and sung is the ideal and probably the only possible ending.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012 and 2014.
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