Chapter 28 Bwv 169

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Chapter 28 BWV 169 Gott soll allein mein Herze haben

God alone shall have my heart.

A cantata for solo alto voice.


For the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the fourth and last of the four cantatas written for solo alto and the only one to end with a conventional four-part chorale. Contextual comments on these works may be found in chapter 19 dealing with C 170.

Three of these cantatas were composed within this third cycle and in the space of only three months. Their grouping might be evidence of a change of taste at Leipzig since no cantatas for alto were performed as a part of the first two cycles. Indeed, the solo cantata for any voice was uncommon, with only one in cycle 1 and none in the second cycle. It is possible that Bach did not re-use C 54 in the first cycle, composed before his Leipzig appointment, because he felt that it would not be well received.

Two of these cantatas (35 and 169) commence with long and impressive sinfonias, in each case adaptations from previously composed concerti. All three from this cycle make use of the organ as an obbligato instrument in the arias. One can only assume that this unusual decision was made because Bach found the counterpointing of the alto voice against certain organ registrations particularly attractive.

There is no cantata for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity in the first cycle and consequently there are only two extant works for this day, this and C 96 from the second (vol 2, chapter 19). Superficially these works may seem to be very different but closer examination reveals that they have a much in common. C 96 praises Christ′s greatness, comparing Him to the morning star and seeking His guidance in following the path of righteousness. C 169 approaches the same theme from a more personal point of view as befits the solo setting—-only God, in whom resides the Highest Good, remains in my heart—-grant that we continue to be conjoined forever.

Thus neither cantata expresses the angst and torment that may be found elsewhere. Both are largely based on confident major modes, turning only to the shadowy minor in the final arias. There is an optimism centred in both works, the one from a communal, the other from an individual standpoint.


It is generally believed, although it cannot be certain, that the first two movements of C 35 are adaptations of a lost concerto for oboe or violin. There is no doubt, however, that two of the movements from C 169 are derived from an existing concerto. We know it better as the harpsichord concerto in E BWV 1053, probably originally for violin although Dürr also suggests flute or oboe (p 573). The first movement of that work is here transposed down to D major and three oboes are added, mostly doubling the violins and violas. The organ carries the solo line and acts as the harmonic continuo instrument in the tutti passages.

There is no doubting the energy and vitality of this sinfonia, which performs much the same function as that which opens C 35. However, it would seem that after the personal and somewhat introverted overall character of C 170, Bach decided that solo alto cantatas,  without the forceful impact of works containing full choruses, lacked something of the magnitude and driving energy needed in order to command and hold attention in a large church. Had the Leipzig congregations possibly found C 170 a little enigmatic or tedious; or even sleep-inducing? (Further exploration of the works in this volume reveal, however that Bach was still to compose solo cantatas for the other voices).

Bach does not tinker with the macro-structure of the first (adapted) concerto movement. It remains a huge da capo form combining ritornello principles with a commanding minor-mode middle section commencing at bar 62. Precisely the same principles underpin the first movement of the solo violin concerto which is also in E major.


The first stanza is not, somewhat surprisingly, an aria but insertions of recitative set  within lines  of arioso. The latter stresses that God alone will have my heart, underscored by a wistful melodic continuo line.  The secco recitatives bring to mind the temptations of the world which are as nothing compared to His love.

The continuo melody.

This is a wistful little theme, constructed in even two-bar phrases first heard at the beginning of the movement. The structure may be represented thus:

A: ritornello theme (continuo.)

B1: arioso–God alone shall have my heart

C1: recitative—-the world regards so much rubbish as being of value and it would be possible for me to embrace it: but I will not.

B2: arioso—-God alone shall have my heart, in Him is the highest Good.

C2: recitative—on earth we may find a rivulet derived from His Goodness from which I might draw   and refresh myself.

B3: arioso—-God alone shall have my heart.

C3: recitative—-God alone shall have my heart.

Viewed in this way Bach′s detailed planning, possibly in collaboration with his lyricist, becomes clear. The arioso is a loving series of assertions of commitment. The recitatives embroider it with semi-colloquial examples.

The final recitative section is a form of musical punctuation mark emphasising the ultimate assertion of loving faith. There is nothing perfunctory about this setting which is detailed, finely balanced, soothingly moving and aesthetically satisfying.


The first aria proper fully exploits the counterpointing of a richly embroidered organ melody against the distinctive alto timbre. The ornate Baroque embellishment of the organ is immediately established and continues throughout the aria. The first line of text is simply a repetition of that which has been stated so often in the previous movement—-God alone shall have my heart. There is no possibility of the congregation missing the essential theme of this cantata! Interestingly, Bach sets the line here with a rising then falling scale which mirrors the shape of that of the previous arioso  melody. One can, it seems, approach God from any perspective.

The aria is in conventional da capo form allowing for even more repetition of the basic premise. The minor-mode middle section talks of God′s enduring love in evil times and the refreshment of the soul that His goodness provides.

The continuing wreathes of notes in the organ melody would seem to suggest God′s all-surrounding benefice. It is alluded to often in this cantata and it is depicted as a virtually continuous stream of goodness throughout this movement. Bach′s portrayal of it suggests an ever-flowing rivulet from which we may constantly refresh ourselves.


The second recitative has a quasi-philosophical air as it asks—-what is God′s Love? The answer, or at least an answer, is immediately given—-it is the rapture of our soul and it closes hell and opens heaven whence we shall be ultimately carried.

Appropriately, this warming and positive notion is set in the major, but, somewhat surprisingly, Bach ends the movement in the key of F#m. His concern is structural rather than imagic. Traditionally the final chord would be major and F# major is the dominant chord (V) of the next aria into which it flows gently and smoothly. The second and final aria is both the keystone and the musical highlight of the cantata and Bach clearly wishes its first notes to emerge as naturally and unforced as possible.


Mention was made above of the two movements adapted from the E major keyboard concerto. This is the second, the slow, middle movement of the original work. It is certainly the saddest and most moving section of this cantata, evoking those feelings of sorrow and loss that bereavement brings. The slow, minor siciliano melodies moving above the broken off-beat continuo quavers evoke a mood of considerable emotional intensity.

Why should Bach choose to express these feelings of loss so powerfully at this point? The text asks that all worldly and corrupting conditions of pride, riches and lust die within us so that we may only nurture God′s love within our hearts. There may, of course, be cause to lament leaving these earthly matters, albeit in the quest for even greater treasures. But it seems unlikely that Bach should elect to present such a deeply moving piece of music lamenting the passing of corporeal corruptions. It is more probable that his personal experience of death and the loss of loved ones lies at the root of this aria. This is the music of demise and alienation and the deep sadness these feelings engender.

Yet again Bach has penetrated through and beyond a conventional notion in order to awaken the deepest of emotions, touching the very core of the human condition.

The student may note the technical detail of how Bach added an additional line (that of the singer) to a texture which already appears rich and complete in itself. Sometimes the vocal melody is derived from the original harpsichord line, sometimes doubling it. More often it is newly invented counterpoint. Dürr (p 573) holds this aria up as an example of ′how a piece can gain rather than lose from its adaptation in the context of a new work′.  As with the Agnus Dei from the Bm Mass, the final reworking may be seen as the higher artistic triumph when compared with the original model. Bach’s quest  for musical perfection was unceasing.

One point of detail. The unexpected touch of Dm in a D major context (bars 9/10) is present in the original concerto.

Bach does not waste this little moment. He contrives to use this instance  of chromaticism as the harmonic background to accentuate the principal notion of his text —-Welt und alle deine Liebe, stirb in mir—-the world and all its love, die within me. Bach′s eye for detail is unfailing.

Recitative and chorale..

Some may feel that following such a powerful aria, it would be appropriate to proceed directly to the closing chorale. In fact the final recitative does, at first sight, appear to be tacked on almost as an afterthought—-but you must also, as is written in Scripture, be true to your neighbour. The fundamental theme of the work is about our relationship with God; neighbours have as yet, not been mentioned. So why allude to them in at this late stage?

Good Lutherans will, of course be aware of the connection within Christ’s directive to ‘love God and your neighbour’. However, Bach’s principal purpose was almost certainly structural. The final chorale is in the major and is in the form of a prayer—-grant us Your love and favour so that we remain as one—-have mercy upon us. The work must end, as it began, buoyantly and optimistically. We know what we must do and what we must ask of Him.

The final recitative thus acts as a necessary  transition. It leads us gently from the shadows of bereavement to a confident prayer reminding us of our duties to our neighbours. . Textually, it may seem a little odd and, perhaps, almost redundant. Musically, Bach makes it work perfectly for structural purposes.

It is with some sense of regret that we come to realise that this is the last of the group of solo alto cantatas. One must, however, be grateful for the four that Bach has bequeathed us.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020