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Cantata BWV 20
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [I]
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of June 2, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 2, 2002):

The subject of this week’s discussion (June 2, 2002), according to Francis Browne’s suggested list, is the Chorale Cantata for the 1st Sunday after Trinity BWV 20 ‘O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort’ (O eternity, O word of thunder). Bach composed this cantata from all verses of Johann Rist’s hymn bearing the same title, using the original stanzas for some movements or a paraphrase for others, written, perhaps, by Picander. In 1732 Bach produced another cantata with the same title, BWV 60, which has already been discussed in the BCML. See: Cantata BWV 60 - Discussions
This first setting is a long cantata (27 to 33 minutes) of two parts. It was first performed in 1724 and revised in 1735.

The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 20 - Recordings
Four recordings of this cantata come from 3 complete cantata cycles (Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2], & Leusink [4]) and one that is still under its way (Koopman). The fifth is a relatively new recording, from Emmanuel Music [6], which might mark the beginning of a new cantata cycle, the first American one. Emmanuel Music performs the Bach Cantatas regularly and they have a beautiful Website. See:
The site includes commentary by Emmanuel Music’s musical director Craig Smith and English translations of many cantatas. Alas, although BWV 20 has already been recorded, the site does not include the commentary to this cantata.

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.

Francis Browne wrote (June 7, 2002):
'Ah, this is really no joke!

'A splendid, if grim, cantata' is the conclusion that W.G. Whittaker reaches at the end of his discussion of this cantata, and I am very inclined to agree with both adjectives

The text is based on a shortened version of a famous chorale by Johann Rist (1642) that, according to Dürr, was generally included in hymn books of Bach's time. Much of the chorale is taken over directly and elsewhere only minor changes are made to adapt the text to the form of the cantata. Bach chose this text as the basis for the opening work of his second cycle of cantatas and produced a large scale composition in two parts.

All this suggests that Bach found the text acceptable, even straightforward, giving expression to an essential if sombre part of the faith that I have no doubt he sincerely held. But for most of us today, I suspect, the text reads strangely, even for those who are Christians. As Whittaker says of the bass recitative (movement 6) the text 'exploits with theological grimness the terrors of hell.' There is a dwelling upon the possibility of an eternity of torture in a way that rarely forms part of the presentation of Christianity today. It reminded me of the hellfire sermon in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Of course it is possible to ignore the text and just listen to the music. But this is to take Bach's music with less than the seriousness it deserves. Rather than dismiss such a text with horror or indifference it seems better to make an effort of the imagination to understand what is being said by the words, and still more by the words and music. The words and imagery may not be those that would be used today but both Rist and Bach are concerned with something that is part of our human experience as much as theirs: despair and hope, the supreme importance of moral choices, our mortality, our ultimate destiny. Depending on our own beliefs and education we may express these things in different terms, but they arise from human experience that was the same in Leipzig in 1724 as is in the twenty first century, and so Bach's cantata remains accessible to us and, I would argue, most worthwhile.

I have listened only to Leusink's recording [4] - not an ideal performance but not so inadequate that the grandeur of Bach's achievement is obscured.

The opening movement has the form of a French overture, as with BWV 194 last week. Bach must have felt this was appropriate for beginnings, as he does the same for Advent (BWV 61) and the inauguration of a town council (BWV 119). Leusink [4] conveys the solemn mood of the opening well and the choir - perhaps sombred by the theme of the cantata - here and elsewhere sing in a more disciplined way than often elsewhere. The contrasting Vivace section - according to Dürr the quickening of tempo illustrates the text ‘O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit’ - is effective. But the return to the Grave is disappointing. According to Whittaker with the resumption of the Grave: 'one of the most remarkable passages in all the cantatas comes with arresting suddenness.’Mein ganz erschrockenes Herz’ is heralded by strong dissonances tossed in short fragments from oboes to strings, and when the canto is solemnly intoned the lower voices quiver on broken phrases to the word erschrockenes, an extraordinary transmutation of previous material. It is one of those strokes of genius that produce a feeling of awe'. But not with this recording. I would be interested to know from other members how other performances fare.

In the following tenor recitative and aria Knut Schoch is barely adequate and lacks the range of expression necessary. A pity, particularly in the case of the aria which is one of those movements that reveal their beauty gradually on repeated hearing. As Whittaker points out, the thematic material is exceedingly varied and expressive, and the pleading figure often heard in violin I and continuo is particularly moving.

The bass recitative (movement 4) is both ingenious and harrowing in its efforts to bring home to the listener the concept of eternal punishment. It is followed by a bass aria that on first hearing struck me as both delightful and incongruous. After bringing home to us the awfulness of everlasting pain the bass assures us that God is just in his works as the triple oboes play lovely tripping tunes above a staccato accompaniment. With repeated hearing incongruity fades and delight remains. In his book on the Church Cantatas Alec Robertson comments, 'This needed to be said, with the conviction of an almost sprightly aria in the major key'. Bach's judgement is true and profound: the work needs this counterpoise, and the beauty of the music gives a necessary reassurance. But even within the delight of this music, there is a warning reiterated impressively in the middle section. Bas Ramselaar, always one of the better singers in this cycle, sings pleasingly here.

The short, sombre alto aria is performed adequately by Buwalda - though I am glad his services were not called on for longer- and the orchestra plays the concluding coda for strings very well and with moving effect

The chorale that concludes the first part of the cantata seems in no way exceptional - except that here I cannot escape from a sense of incongruity between the familiar, expected, reassuring music of the chorale and the content of the text:
Es wird sie plagen Kält und Hitz,
cold and heat will torment them,
Angst, Hunger, Schrecken, Feu'r und Blitz
anguish, hunger, terror, fire and lightning,
Und sie doch nicht verzehren.
and yet not consume them.

Before the second part of the cantata the congregation would have listened to a long sermon possibly on the same subject as the cantata. As Whittaker (p485) againcomments: 'the call to the lost sheep to awaken and throw off the sleep of sin, which is the subject of the magnificent trumpet aria for bass, must have been electrifying'. Indeed the aria is magnificent and electrifying - but not quite in Leusink's version [4]. Whittaker adds a little later: 'A powerful voice of great range (low G to high E), fine vocal technique and dramatic ability are needed to do justice to the leaping arpeggi, the glorious runs on 'schallt' and the grim passage on 'Gerichte'. To spell out such desiderata is to make clear how Ramselaar falls short of what is necessary in this particular aria.

Similar remarks might be made of the performance of the alto/tenor duet - Schoch and Buwalda, alas are not a dream team - and the concluding chorale presents me with the same sense of incongruity between text and music as the first chorale.

I have been led to dwell on some of the shortcomings of Leusink's performance [4], but it is the only performance I have heard and it has given me much pleasure and a good idea of Bach's achievement in this 'splendid, if grim, cantata'. - But I hope Suzuki gets round to recording BWV 20 [7] some time before I may have direct experience of ‘Ewigkeit’.

Dick Wursten wrote (June 7, 2002):
BWV 20 - Johann Rist

For the record:
The poet of this threatening (better: warning) choral, which underlies this cantata, Johann Rist (1607-1667), was a very civilized and erudite man, son of a Lutheran priest. He studied poetry, pharmacy, Jura and theology (finished his studies in Leiden and Utrecht). According to my handbook (Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart) he was more interested in aesthetics than in confessional questions.

Remarkable about him is that he was able to attract other people to cooperate with him and so he lies at the root of many beautiful melodic lines and compositions (around his own texts) by f.i. Johann Schop, Thomas Selle and Johann Heinrich Scheidemann). His vicarage (he was pastor in Wedel a.d. Elbe near Hamburg) became a centre of culture, spiritual life and natural science (His garden with medicinal herbs and flowers was worldfamous).

From his appr. 700 church-songs nowadays only a few are sung ('O ewigkeit du Donnerwort' is still in my German hymn book). Some of the melodies composed for his songs got a second life (and survived, because as a poet he was more appreciated in his days than in ours to use an understatement) because they were also used for other hymns:
One example: the melody of 'jesu joy of man's desiring' was originally composed for a Rist-song: Werde munter mein Gemüte (by Johann Schop, the very same as the creator of the impressive melody of 'O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort'.)

Finally: The Evg. Kirchengesangbuch gives 5 verses of O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort as hymn 324 and a 'positive parody' (counterbalance) as hymn 325... not from our century but already from the same period as the original by Kaspar Heunisch (1620-1690)

O Ewigkeit, du Freudenwort, (Eternity, word of joy)
das mich erquicket fort und fort, (that quickens me)
o Anfang sonder Ende ! (beginning without end)
O Ewigkeit, Freud ohne Leid, (joy without suffering)
ich Weiss vor Herzensfröhlichkeit (In the joy of my heart)
gar nicht mehr vom Elende, (I forgot all my misery)
weil mir versüsst die Ewigkeit (for Eternity sweetens)
was uns betrübet in der Zeit. (what caused bitter sorrow in Time)

My theory: O Ewigkeit de Donnerwort is the song for the RICH MAN from the parable (and his brothers still on earth, living the same life). 'O Ewigkeit du Freudenwort' is the song for the POOR LAZARUS who lies at the gate of the rich man: miserere !

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 8, 2002):

The exemplary background below, written by Craig Smith, music director of Emanuel Music, is taken completely from the linear notes to their recording of this cantata for Koch International label [6]. After this background and Francis Browne’s notes in his message, I do not feel any necessity to add something of my own.

The second Leipzig cantata cycle is dominated by the use of chorales. Each cantata begins with a fantasia on an appropriate chorale. In BWV 20, the first cantata in this cycle, the melody, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, appears in the opening chorus as well as in the four-part chorale harmonizations that end both sections of the cantata. In addition, interior verses are rewritten to provide the texts for the recitatives, arias and duet that complete the cantata. While the words of the chorale are the source for all of the text, the music for these movements is not based upon the chorale tune.

The opening chorus is one of the most striking things in all of Bach's music. He chooses the form of French Overture to portray the endless march of time. The French Overture was traditionally the entrance music of the King, particularly Louis XIV, into the opera. Here the King is replaced by the sword of eternity. The musical structure - slow, pompous dotted rhythms followed by fast imitative music and ending with a repetition of the opening music - is skillfully fitted to the structure of the chorale text. The soprano voices sing the tune in long notes over the elaboration of the other voices as well as the orchestra. The orchestration is particularly pointed with the choir of three oboes providing a snarling backdrop to the string texture. Most French Overtures, even the ones by Each, limit their harmonic palate. They make their point through rhythmic energy and the counterpoint is inevitable in the middle section. While this movement has wonderful rhythmic energy, it also makes its point with moments of harrowing chromaticism appropriate to the hard-bitten text. There are marvelous details here. At the return of the opening music, the texture fragments almost to a breaking point in illustration of the quaking heart. The harmony itself becomes gluey and stuck at the mention of the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth.

This stupendous chorus is just the beginning of a harrowing journey. The tenor recitative continues the ideas of the opening chorus. There is a little staccato continuo figure under the word ‘ewig’ that is a new idea, which will become important by the end of the cantata. The tenor aria is as personal and subjective as the opening chorus is stonily objective. Here sustained string chords are underpinned by snake-like winding lines in the continuo. These lines, illustrating eternity at the beginning, turn into the flames of Hell in the middle section. The bass recitative and aria constitute a shocking change of tone. The dread and horror of the opening movements are erased by an ironic, almost joking, quality. The very authority of God is questioned by the three bouncy oboes and the bass's rather matter-of-fact description of endless damnation as the punishment for brief transgressions of the world. The alto aria with strings is crabbed and difficult; the text is presented as an unsolvable dilemma. The aria is dominated by the opening and closing orchestral passages, each with the most subtle and sophisticated changes of material. The chorale setting that ends the first half of this cantata is almost banal in its plainness. It is as if Bach feels the need to present the most unadulterated version of the chorale.

The second half of the cantata begins with a rousing militaristic bass aria with trumpet. Here the call to arms seems like a desperate attempt to save the brothers of the rich man in the reading from Luke. What follows, however, is one of the most hair-raising things in all of Bach's music. The call to arms has clearly failed, and the alto recitative begins to describe the last moments on earth. Bach then writes a duet for alto and tenor. Bach's duets for this combination of voices alwportray a Janus figure. There is a sense that the two singers are looking back on their wasted lives and forward to eternal damnation. The short staccato figures in the spare continuo accompaniment, derived from the first recitative, not only portray eternity but are an uncanny evocation of drops of water, water that the rich man was begging for in the reading from Luke. There is a remarkable word-for-word text setting here. Each word is characterized with almost surgical precision. The howling and chattering of teeth become harrowing musical gestures, unique in all of Bach.

After such terrifying music, the brutality of the same plain harmonization of the chorale is almost more than the listener can bear. Almost all of Bach's cantatas have redemption as their denouement. Here the unrelenting starkness of the vision has no relief. It is impossible to know what the parishioners of Leipzig thought of this astonishing vision.

Review of the Recordings

Due to limitations of time and other duties, the review of the recordings below will cover only the first part of the cantata. It does not mean, in any sense, that I the second part is less satisfying.

[1] Rilling
Rilling catches every aspect of the opening chorus, with clear and bold singing from the choir and capable accompaniment. A pessimistic atmosphere dominates this rendition. Theo Altmeyer is a born Bach singer. His delivery has a penetrating quality and his voice has golden timbre, characteristics that are essential to a good Evangelist. These properties serve him well here. His rendition of the recitative and aria for tenor are second to none and are the pick of this recording. Listen, for example, after the opening ritornello of the aria, to his gentle and soft entry, which is gaining momentum and drama as the movement is progressing. Wolfgang Schöne has the depths of voice and expression, which make his rendition something according which others should be measures. Martha Kessler, an unfamiliar (to me) contralto, has a full and deep voice, which suits very well the demands of the aria for alto. Helped by sensitive accompaniment, she gives a moving performance with delicate expression.

[2] Harnoncourt
The usual fragmented approach of Harnoncourt stands in the way of the music and might cause frustration to the occasional listener, who understands what the opening chorus is all about. A heartfelt performance from Equiluz of both the recitative and aria for tenor will not fail to penetrate every human heart. Although he has wonderful voice, he always seems to be at the service of the music and the text, and never tries to attract attention to himself. Max van Egmond’s voice has not enough depth to be fully convincing in the recitative and aria for bass. Despite some criticism, it has always been a pleasure hearing the warm counter-tenor voice and always-civilized singing of Esswood in the H&L cantata cycle. The aria for alto in this cantata is no exception, although his rendition could gain from more overt expression.

[3] Koopman
Koopman’s opening chorus is clear, warm and pleasant. I would dare saying that it is too pleasant and nice to be fully satisfactory in terms of conveying the sombre and frightening message of this chorus. Agnew is OK in the recitative and aria for tenor, but he is definitely not on the same par with either Altmeyer or Equiluz. He does not reach the depths of expression that they do. Mertens manages to put more expression than Egmond does into his performance of the recitative and aria for bass. However his voice also lacks some bottom to deliver the message as convincingly as Schöne. Nevertheless, somehow Mertens gives the impression that he does not give his whole self in these two movements. In the aria for alto, Chance with his penetrating gentleness proves himself to be the most satisfactory soloist of Koopman’s recording.

[4] Leusink
The opening chorus of Leusink is enthusiastic and surprisingly has more drama than Koopman’s has. It is somewhat less polished, but from my point of view, expression is much more important than technical finesse. Schoch is indeed weak in the recitative and aria for tenor. Hearing him after the three preceding tenors, and it seems that he has nothing to offer, neither regarding beauty of voice nor regarding convincing expression. Ramselaar, as usual, is much better, and his recitative and aria for bass are the best part of this recording, next to the opening chorus. I found myself preferring him to Mertens in these two movements. His expression here seems to be more varied and rich, more natural and sincere, and less calculated. An aria for alto of the kind, which can be found in this cantata, is not the native playing yard of Buwalda. Do I have to explain? Every direct comparison between him and Chance and/or Esswood will immediately reveal why.

[6] Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music
Everything can be found in the rendition of the opening chorus by Emmanuel Music & Craig Smith – especially tension and drama. The lights and shades of the marvellous opening chorus are stronger even than Rilling’s. The singing and the playing are clear and bold and reflect internal conviction in the message, which sweeps the occasional listener. The tenor Thomas Gray’s timbre of voice is not exactly to my liking, but in terms of heart-rending expression he has nothing to be shy of, even in the company of Altmeyer and Equiluz. Similar things can be said about David Kravitz, the bass singer. Sometimes, he seems to be exaggerating in the way he tries to be dramatic. More restrained and natural and less forced delivery would be more appropriate and convincing. In the aria for alto we have a nice surprise in the charming voice of Pamela Dellal, who lacks nothing in terms of expression. Nevertheless, I have to note that she seems to have certain problems of stability. The colourful, sensitive, and dramatic accompaniment along all the movements holds the whole rendition of this cantata and gives it a unique cohesiveness. The whole performance would have gained from soloists of higher calibre.


Personal preferences:
Chorus (Mvt. 1) and Chorale (Mvt. 7): Smith/Emmanuel, Rilling, Leusink, Koopman, Harnoncourt
Recitative & Aria for Tenor (Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3): Altmeyer/Rilling, Equiluz/Harnoncourt, Agnew/Koopman, Gray/Emmanuel, Schoch/Leusink
Recitative & Aria for Bass (Mvt. 4 & Mvt. 5): Schöne/Rilling, Ramselaar/Leusink, Mertens/Koopman, Kravitz/Emmanuel, Egmond/Harnoncourt
Aria for Alto (Mvt. 6): Chance/Koopman, Kessler/Rilling, Esswood/Harnoncourt, Dellal/Emmanuel, Buwalda/Leusink
Overall performance: Rilling, Smith/Emmanuel, Koopman, Harnoncourt, Leusink

As always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 20: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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