The cantata BWV 177 comes from a period when Bach was writing relatively few cantatas. It is in fact the only cantata that can be dated for sure from 1732. By this time in his career, Bach had lost interest in the form of chorale cantatas that he had perfected in the mid 1720's. Each of the cantatas in the Leipzig chorale cycle had arranged the various verses of the chorale for recitatives, arias etc. By the 1730's Bach was interested in something purer and the texts for the five movements of todays cantata are the first five verses of the chorale "Ich ruf zu dir" verbatim.

The opening chorus makes the use of elaborate echo effects as implied by the first line of text. Against sparse wind and string harmonies the solo violin rushes around, almost frantically. There is an agitated anxiety about the movement that is emphasized by the jagged and surprising direction of the bass line. How different this movement is than the quiet gravity of Bach's great organ setting twenty years before in the Orgelbüchlein.

The three arias based upon the chorale are astounding in their contrast. The alto aria with continuo is extraordinarily highly profiled. The bass line includes a classic "wedge" design in which the parameters of the pitches gradually expand. This line functions like an abyss in which the tortured soul sees his fate. The soprano aria with English Horn is perhaps the most intellectually complex thing in the cantata. The heavily layered imitations of the voice and instrumental parts add up to an extraordinary pleading of the tormented sinner. At the same time the harmonic color is quite benign; an interesting combination. The jolly tenor aria with violin and bassoon obbligati is a relief to the torment of the preceding arias, but even this aria has a kind of density that is striking throughout this cantata. The final chorale is one of the most complex of all of Bach's chorale harmonizations. In fact it is in the field of chorale harmonizations that one sees the greatest stylistic change for the Bach of the 1720's versus the 1730's.

©Craig Smith

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