Chapter 4 Bwv 164

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Chapter 4 BWV 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet

You, who have taken Christ′s name.

Aria (tenor)–recit (bass) -aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–duet (sop/bass)–chorale.

For the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

This cantata has obvious, yet slightly puzzling connections with C 168 (chapter 2). The libretti of both were written a decade earlier by Salomo Franck and neither contains, except for the closing chorale, a movement for the choir. The scorings are light and the movement structures identical. Furthermore, both are almost relentlessly written in minor keys. Is it possible that both works were intended as tributes to Bach′s recently deceased friend and collaborator?

An oddity about the scoring is that in C 168 Bach makes use of a pair of oboes for woodwind colour, in C 164 he calls upon two flutes. Nevertheless the oboes were still available since they double strings and flutes in the obbligato line of the duet, clearly a melody Bach intended to stand out! They also double the sopranos singing the chorale at the end, as is traditional.

But why no further use of them in a somewhat restrained, minor-mode cantata where their colour would seem to have been particularly appropriate? Might this be an indication that both this work and C 168 were composed in considerable haste (consequently with minimal scoring requirements) as a continuing tribute to Franck? Might C 137, performed the previous week, have been composed some time earlier, originally intended for a more significant day and moved into a revised schedule when Bach decided to make use of the Salomo Franck texts?

The underlying theme is that of the Good Samaritan, one which Bach returned to on several occasions (see C 77, vol 1 chapter 16 and C 33, vol 2 chapter 13, also written for this Thirteenth Sunday). The good Christian is enjoined to love his neighbour and it is a matter to be regretted that this injunction is so often ignored. Kindness to one another rather than fealty to the Lord is the principal theme and it is made abundantly clear that God′s blessing will only fall upon those with charitable hearts that perform bountiful actions. Within the wider canon this may be seen to be something of a contradiction because elsewhere we are told that good works are not enough in themselves.

Each of the two earlier cantatas composed for this day began with a  chorus. C 77 concerns itself principally with the unconditional love of God and one′s neighbour. C 33 conveys us from the anxious, almost desperate chorale/fantasia calling on God′s support to the tranquil certainty of the beautiful alto aria. C 164 is the most personal and enigmatic of the three, thoughtfully rooted in minor keys and stressing the need for charity towards one′s neighbours rather than (subsumed) love of God Himself.

Tenor aria.

The opening tenor aria is accompanied only by strings but the close four and sometimes five-part writing is thick and opulent. The 9/8 time signature is relatively unusual; in the second cycle it occurs occasionally in opening movements, all of which are choral/fantasias. It can have a gentle pastoral feel or it can suggest a rollicking gigue as in the last movement of the A minor violin concerto. Here the mood lies somewhere between these extremes. It is one of restrained dignity, underpinned by the restlessness of the almost continuous quavers, nine per bar.

It could be that Bach seeks to combine two things; the sadness of those with stone hearts lacking mercy and charity and the sense of resignation arising from the realisation that such people are, and presumably always will be, amongst us. There is an almost infinite sadness at the recognition of human greed and meanness—-where is the mercy shown by those who claim to be Christians but whose hearts are as hard as stone?

The first three notes form the main motive of the aria, consistently shaping the beginnings of both vocal and instrumental phrases.

The shape may have come from the chorale since the last note of the first phrase and the first two notes of the next form it, albeit in inversion. Another version of it will be encountered in the duet.

Two musical ideas dominate the movement. The first is the frequent  reiteration of the three-note motive quoted above. The second is the constant restlessness of the counterpoint within the 9/8 rhythmic framework. The one is rhetorical and addresses the individual sinner. The other suggests the mass of humanity removed from Christ’s teaching and ignoring the Christian principles of kindness and regard  for one’s neighbour.

The shape and mood of the tenor line softens a little on the words sie ist von euch—-but, alas, this [quality of mercy] is far removed [from the nature of individuals]. But the lasting impression is that of the hearts of stone—-stein—-upon which long note, cutting right through the string texture, the tenor takes his leave. A shortened version of the ritornello completes the movement.

Bass recitative.

The following recitative is for the bass, the voice of authority. We should hear Love′s message, he informs us, thence delivering it himself in a touching arioso—-those who show their neighbours mercy shall themselves receive it. Here are strong echoes of the  Sermon on the Mount.

Dramatically it might have been better to leave it at that, but the text goes on, in typically Franck fashion, listing the priest, Levite, loveless Christians and Samaritans who are all players in this scene. The remainder of this secco recitative, uninspired by the text, has little distinction beyond Bach′s usual competence.

This is a pity because a more inspired and intelligent text may have enabled Bach to develop the contrast between the rhetorical (and rather dramatic) statement of the first two bars and the immediately flowing tender arioso which conveys a mellifuous musical suggestion of tenderness and mercy.

Alto aria.

As mentioned above, flutes as soloists replace the oboes from C 168 in the central aria for alto although here each has its own individual part. The text adds little to what has already been said—-we must allow ourselves to feel and respond to the pain of others for that is the only way in which we may approach God. The form is essentially ritornello but we may also note a principle that Bach employs increasingly often at this time i.e. suggesting a middle section but denying a formal da capo repeat. Where we might have expected a reprise (from around bar 31) we get a condensed version of the B section. The instrumental ritornello does return in full, however, to round off the movement.

It is difficult to determine just what particular images stimulated Bach when composing this aria. The musical texture is that of a quartet, flutes and voice in constant imitation of each other, continuo supporting. The bass line occasionally moves into flowing semi-quavers in order to underline a point; it is generally supportive but only remotely encouraging.

Is the close imitative writing in the upper parts intended to convey something of the kinship of sensing distress in others? Or does it suggest God′s compassion and all-encompassing love? Because we cannot be sure, the movement remains charming but elusive.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative is quite unlike that for bass. It almost seems as if Bach has been touched anew by inspiration, such is the power of this short movement. Bach, even at his least inspired (and like all of us there must have been some days when he just did not feel like getting on with the job but still had to do it) was never less than a wonderfully competent jobbing composer. But at his best—and the miracle is just how often he was at his best—he was sublime.

The strings provide subtle but positive harmonic support. The initial two chords are unexpected, the first being a gentle dissonance requiring resolution and the second is not the one we naturally anticipate.

The vocal line is beautifully crafted, first expressing the delicate melting of the iron heart with the Divine Rays of Love, thence the dramatic catalogue of friend and enemy, Christian and heathen. Finally there is an entreaty for a heart suffused by love and formed in the image of the Lord. With this last invocation, the strings move from their transcendent halo to a marked quaver movement emphasising every syllable of the final words.

This is a recitative of notable artistic quality and power of expression; so much is communicated with so few notes.

Bass/soprano aria.

Once again we find that the last aria assumes particular significance and Bach may well have been relieved to discover in the text the kind of imagery which naturally stimulates musical invention. It firstly describes the hands which are not closed (i.e. those that giveth) and thus finding a heaven that is open. Then comes an image of true generosity, a sense of pity flowing from the eyes and duly noted by the Saviour. Finally, there is an illustration of God opening His heart to those who pursue the pathway of charity.

Opening and extending, flowing, pursuing and giving forth; here surely is an abundance of physical action with metaphorical associations almost begging to be transcribed into musical shapes and structures. And who better than Bach to take up this challenge?

Bach′s use of the duet as the foremost movement of a cantata was apparent in many that he wrote for the second cycle and it seems that this interest has not diminished. This is the third to appear in the first three cantatas of the third cycle; C 168 contains one for soprano and alto and Cs 137 and 164 each have one for soprano and bass. Yet another for the same vocal combination will be heard in C 79. The soprano soloists are consequently given plenty to do and one wonders whether there might have been some particularly good young men available whom Bach was keen to make use of before their voices broke.

The instrumental forces carrying the obbligato melody are relatively strong, two flutes, two oboes and first and second violins. Bach clearly envisaged a commanding continuo line and consequently the upper one would need matching reinforcement. The equality of the contrapuntal lines becomes apparent from the very first bar where the continuo imitates the melody one bar later but now in inversion. This commonly used technique clearly has its roots in the text, possibly conveying the impression of opening and closing each hand, one after the other. Dürr, however, offers a different interpretation suggesting that the two parts represent the reciprocal relationship between human and divine mercy (p 519). It is not outside the bounds of possibility that Bach had both meanings in mind, the physical actions and their metaphorical associations.

A few bars later this rather four-square idea transforms itself into streams of continuous quavers, alternately heard in both parts and clearly suggestive of flowing eyes.

The initial motive, heard in the opening bar, relates back to the main shape from the first movement. There the notes were in the order d, g, f#. Now they have been rearranged as d, f#, g. Subliminally one feels the connection even if it is not consciously recognised.

There are four principal vocal blocks, the first two of which are twenty bars long, the latter two increasingly developed. They are sustained and carried along by the impetus of the ritornello much as in the duet of C 137. The two voices enter, always in canon but the imitating voice is never inverted.

There are three identifiable vocal melodies. Theme A is associated principally with the concepts of opening and closing and theme B with the flowing eye. Theme C suggests the pursuing of charity, an act which will ultimately warrant God′s benefice. The layout of the vocal sections is as follows:

Block 1 (from bar 19) sop-bass theme A, taken from the ritornello  (heaven is open to hands that do not close).

Block 2 (from bar 44) bass-sop theme B, a more flowing, conjunct idea  (compassionately flowing eyes).

Block 3 (from bar 70) sop-bass theme C (clearly derived from B)  ( for charitable hearts)

Block 4 (from bar 107) bass-sop theme A.  (a summation–to these, God opens His heart).

The close musical relatedness of these three main ideas may well imply the inter-connections between human charity and God′s generous response. These qualities, the one corporeal the other Divine, stem from the same source and the one is a direct consequence of the other. The complexity of this rapport mirrors both the intricacy of Bach′s mind and the density of human and heavenly relationships.


The chorale completes, in the major mode, a cantata that has until now been relentlessly minor. It is a simple prayer to rejuvenate our minds and spirits so that we might be reawakened and direct our minds towards Him. Of course the earlier movements have concentrated upon the process of doing this through the actions of mercy, charity and sensitivity to the needs of others. But the chorale takes us to the nub of the matter; the true purpose is to redirect ourselves to the Almighty. The last terse phrase makes the point admirably.

The cantata began with a minor-mode expression of the sadness and fatalistic recognition of the meanness of both the spirit and actions of mankind. It ends in a major-mode recognition of God′s ability to reform us, and thence accept us into His fold.

A journey has been completed and humanity should be the better for it. At the very least we should be inspired to attempt to bring about a few improvements in our daily conduct!


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