Chapter 19 BWV 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust
Rest contented, beloved Soul.
For solo alto.
For the sixth Sunday after Trinity.
This must rank as one of Bach′s most original cantatas. It is not his first for solo alto, the claim for which goes to C 54 (vol 1, chapter 66), an early work believed to have been written in the Weimar years. C 170 was certainly the first written during the Leipzig years, but not the last; Cs 35 and 169 were to follow within three months.
C 170 has, perhaps, more in common with its ancestor that with the succeeding two cantatas for solo alto. C 54 has only three movements, two arias separated by a recitative. But like 170 it has no introductory sinfonia and no concluding chorale. Both Cs 35 and 169 (chapters 23 and 28) have extended sinfonias, in each case arrangements of earlier works, and C 35 is the only one of the four to conclude with the conventional four-part chorale setting. Cs 35 and 169 are the largest in scale, each comprising seven movements. The essential compactness of C 170 is all the more apparent when one notices that it comes amongst a clutch of seven large compositions, all conceived in two parts.
There are no cantatas for the sixth Sunday after Trinity from the first and second cycles, the only other extant cantata for this day being C 9, thought to be composed in the early 1730s. That is one of the later chorale cantatas (vol 2, chapter 58) and structurally it has virtually nothing in common with C 170. However, some musicologists believe it to have been a late addition to the second cycle, filling the existing gap for the appropriate day.
Perhaps the most significant point that strikes the listener in this work is Bach′s use of the organ as an obbligato instrument in two of the arias. One of his many great contributions to musical development was the releasing of continuo instruments from their supporting roles and allowing them to emerge as soloists. The various uses of the piccolo cello in works of the second cycle testify to this, as do the less common, but equally significant appearances of the bassoon as an obbligato instrument, dating from the early C 155 (Vol 1 chapter 37). Bach released the harpsichord from its more modest duties by making it an equal partner in the secular sonatas for flute, violin and gamba and he also transformed it into a concerto soloist in works for one or more keyboards. The organ was well established as the principal instrument of the church but its role in choral music had generally been limited to that of the continuo. Bach had already made recent use of it as a soloist in the opening sinfonia and first chorus of C 146 (chapter 14) and here he takes matters a stage further. The organ now emerges fully, acting as an obbligato instrument in an aria as well as performing its continuo duties. It is not a matter of either/or—it is both.
A glance at the top of this page will show that this cantata is symmetrically structured, two recitatives separating the three arias. The instrumentation is modest and of chamber proportions, strings (the first violins doubled by one oboe thus adding weight and colour), continuo and the aforementioned solo organ.
The theme of the work is that popular Lutheran one of sin and the necessity for us to renounce it in order to claim inner peace and salvation. It moves from an expression of true concord to a statement of renunciation of the sins against the word of God, thence to a final expression of the desire to die and thus be freed of all past transgressions. It is interesting that the poet begins with the representations of peace and rest rather than ending with them. This, as we shall see, may have set Bach some structural challenges.
The first stanza is enigmatically poetic and its essence is an evocation of that peace and inner contentment which is to be found not in the context of sin, but only in the concord of heaven. The feeling of quiet, almost introverted elation is the principal image depicted throughout. However, there are touches of darkening chromaticism, the first of which is encountered just before the voice enters, particular emphasis being given to the minor third in a major key. This is suggestive of the caverns of hell where, as we are clearly told, contentment will never be found.
Violins above bass line, last two bars of the continuo melody.
The momentarily convoluted vocal line Dich kann man nicht bei Höllensünden—- [contentment] will not be founds in the abysses of hell (bars 17-18)—-reinforces the point graphically.
The 12/8 rhythm of the opening aria gives it something of a pastoral character but there is much more to it than that. There is a quietly throbbing insistency about the ritornello theme, which radiates a sense of contemplation and concord throughout the movement. This is an evocation of the dignified, personal appreciation of contentment in the arms of the Saviour. The shadows of past sins may echo in the backs of our minds but they trouble us no more; at least not for the moment.
But of course the notion of sin is current and relevant to the earthly congregations for whom Bach and his librettist are writing. Celestial bliss is all very well and certainly something which we should aim to achieve. But while remaining in this earthly life we require constant reminders of the dangers of sin and the hazards of the devil. The first recitative paints a graphic picture of the world, not only drenched in transgression but conniving with the devil against the word of God.
It is a dramatically operatic condemnation of the state of the world. Two moments, however, melt into the sort of compassionate melodic tenderness of which only Bach was capable. The first (bar 9) is the call—-Oh righteous God—-Gerechter Gott—-and the second is the last line of text—-Ah this brutal hostility of man, the greatest of sins, defies any form of toleration.
This is Bach′s melodic writing at its most personal and it is perfectly placed so as to touch us momentarily before the powerful expression of disgust at the perverted ones bursts upon us in the astonishing third movement.
The particularly symmetrical structure of this cantata suggests that the central aria will be especially significant. It is in the key of F#m, usually reserved for arias of great tenderness or emotional depth. The organ erupts for the first time, almost certainly surprising those members of the congregations who followed the weekly music for the services attentively. The extreme chromaticism and broken melodic lines make additional rhetorical points.
One becomes aware that this is going to be a movement of substance almost before the end of the very first bar.
Two points of curiosity remain. There is no bass continuo part in this movement, the lowest line being carried by violins and violas in unison. Opinions differ as to the reason for this, Boyd (p 489) suggesting that it is intended to convey a sense of ′fear or uncertainty′. Dürr (p 435) has a more developed argument claiming that this loss of the ′foundation′ of the music symbolises something or someone that is absent, in this case those who have withdrawn from God. Of course Bach may well have been acquainted with some of Vivaldi′s concerti in which some middle movements similarly dispense with a bass continuo line, merely for the sake of a less dense texture. But here Bach’s reasons are certain to be symbolic.
The second point regards the organ writing, which is comprised of two independent melodic lines, both occupying the same range in the treble clef. Schweitzer noted over a hundred years ago that Bach′s writing for organ in the cantatas was not typical (vol 2, p 239) and this is an excellent example. Did Bach intend two instruments to be used, one line played upon each? He did, in fact, transcribe one of the lines for flute in a later arrangement where that may have been an impractical situation. Or did he intend one player to perform both parts on the same instrument but on different consoles? Whatever his intentions, the effect is startling and surprising, the more especially one supposes, to those who were hearing the cantatas in their proper order and context as, of course, Schweitzer was not.
The suspensions, dissonances and chromaticisms of the ritornello give it a bleak but almost modern quality and, unlike in the first aria, the voice enters with its own stretching, pleading, aspiring melody. The singer aligns himself to God whilst conveying a sense of pity for the perverted who continue to offend Him. The aria might have continued in this way as, indeed, many of them do, but at the mention of ‘trembling′ and the innumerable agonies felt when sinners find their satisfactions in vengeance and odium, the movement takes on a different character. Long melismas on the mention of these transgression are supported by contrary scales on the organ (bars 20-21) all of which culminate in a burst of organ filigree (bars 25-6), which feels almost triumphant, perhaps an indication of the victory of faith over felony.
The second half of the aria begins (bar 27) by supporting God’s reactions to those who ignore and disdain His stern judgements. The deriding of His word by the guilty is represented again by the flowing melismas and organ scales, providing the aria with a nice sense of overall balance. But the following organ passages (bars 42-3) now have a predominantly downward direction, perhaps symbolising the movement of the guilty descending to hell itself.
The movement ends by stressing compassion rather than vengeance. The pause (bar 55), followed by the repetition of the last line declaring pity for the perverse ones, makes a strong point after which the grinding ritornello returns, in full, to close.
The second recitative, unlike the first, is accompanied by sustained string chords, replicating the process Bach had employed just a fortnight before in C 39. There are two obvious moments of word painting: one is the fleeing heart and the other the God whose name is Love. Otherwise it is a rejection of the world of sin, allied to a statement of desire to reside with the Lord. Is it an anachronistic twenty-first century viewpoint to detect a degree of mealy-mouthed obsequiousness in this stanza? Certainly the mood seems calmer and less angry than in the previous recitative.
However, the recitative’s progression from C#m to D major, the key of the first and last arias, is significant. The previous two movements had been very much based in the minor modes, so the return to the major is symbolic of hope and anticipation. Technically it also prepares us for the concluding aria; not a chorale but one which has rather more the character of a final concerto movement.
The organ takes up a similar role to that which we discovered in C 146, the right hand playing a distinctive obbligato melody and the left simply doubling the continuo bass. Bach returns to the convention of the da capo aria and the oboe continues to provide a touch of acerbic colour by doubling the first violins. In fact the combination of oboe, violins and organ all playing the dominant instrumental line is quite arresting.
A point of harmonic originality for the period is the very first chord. Far from being the expected D major triad, it is a mild dissonance indeed, even chromatic to the key. The first melodic interval (an augmented fourth or tri-tone) has various significances in baroque music but here paints the words mir ekelt—-my repugnance [at the living of such a life].
But the focus of the movement is not upon the revulsion of a sinful life nor of sin itself. Such feelings have been fully articulated in the previous movements. Here the emphasis is upon seeking one′s place with Jesus as quickly as possible and, consequently, finding the everlasting contentment that had been pictured in the first aria. The mood is cautiously joyous with the feel of a gavotte, although strictly speaking it is not one. Nevertheless we may recall that Bach frequently calls upon such conventional suite forms to express the rising of the soul to a heaven of eternal bliss.
The frequent little runs of notes played by the organ, and first heard at the end of the ritornello, remind one of the central aria. But here they have taken on a different character. Whereas before they suggested trembling and torments, now they form the wisps of celestial blessings accompanying the good Christian on his/her journey through death to the afterlife. Musically, the repetition of similar figurations promotes unity and coherence. In narrative terms Bach′s ideas have metamorphosed from fear and distrust to the peace and contentment of salvation.
The structural decision facing Bach was how to effectively end this work. The addition of the expected chorale would almost certainly have misbalanced it. The last aria has to find a point of resolution and Bach does this by down-playing the potentially depressing message of the text—-I am sick of life—-and emphasising the bliss inherent within the state of being ′taken′ by Jesus. The carefully crafted arch of total contentment leading to disgust and revulsion thence ultimate residence in the place of the Lord, gives the entire work balance, artistic integrity and emotional power.
This cantata has been a popular one with counter-tenors for many years. There is no reason to suppose that Bach wrote it for, or ever heard it performed by, anyone other than a boy with an unbroken voice. Nevertheless, there are many recorded performances that readers may enjoy, not the least of which is that by the great English pioneer Alfred Deller, directed by Gustav Leonhardt and including Nicolaus Harnoncourt in the orchestra; in truth, a trio of celebrities!
This coming together of these musical giants was recorded in the mid twentieth century but its power remains undiminished over fifty years later!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.