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Cantata BWV 20
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [I]
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of May 28, 2006 (2nd round)

Eric Bergerud wrote (May 27, 2006):

Introduction to BWV 20: O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort

BWV 20 was a major moment in Bach's career. It began the second Leipzig cycle, a period when, as Wolff puts it, "Bach's artistic productivity borders on the incredible."

Bach also began this frantic period with a work that I find very confusing. The message is clear enough and straight Luther: humans are wretched and all deserve eternal damnation and would receive it without the redemption offered by Christ. The redemption, however, is a gift not asked by everyone and hence the fate of much of mankind is eternal torture. If one believed the message, the conclusion was clear enough: nothing in life meant a thing if it did not help the believer find Christ. Depending upon one's point of view this is a fine example of "tough love", Luther style, or a kind of spiritual extortion.

This message comes often in the cantatas but is normally in the form of bad news/good news. The believer is reminded of the woeful state of sin within and around us all, but also reminded that Christ died to allow the blessed to overcome both damnation and death. However, in BWV 20, often employing imagery of tremendous power, Bach delivers half an hour of spiritual terror with only a single phrase in the concluding chorale imploring Jesus to take the sinner into his "tent of joy." Strong stuff.

The fear and grief sometimes comes across with beautiful clarity. The recitatives are anguished affairs. So is the striking first tenor aria. The chorales are suitably somber. But what does one make of the French overture opening the piece or 'Wacht auf'? Both evoke a kind of grandeur when woe is in order. (Perhaps Bach is striking a martial theme. Military symbolism was commonly employed by Luther, and a battle in those days was a horrifying affair.) The bass aria, mvt 5, is a lovely piece, almost bouncy. But the singer is reminding the congregation that righteous God will chuck the sinner into hellfire for the slightest sin. Something just doesn't connect for yours truly. Perhaps with BWV 20 one faces an example of what Doug Cowling often speaks of: the difficulty of trying to understand a complex work outside the similarly complex religious context of its time.

Musically I don't doubt that Wolff is right. Bach was at the height of his prodigious musical prowess. Yet maybe some of us lacking fluency in German might want to leave the text unopened on this one. Comments?

Details:

BWV 20: O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, O word of thunder)

Chorale Cantata for the 1st Sunday after Trinity
First Performance Leipzig: June 11, 1724
Readings: Epistle: 1 John 4: 16-21; Gospel: Luke 16: 19-31
Text: Johann Rist (Mvts. 1, 7, 11); Anon (Mvts. 2-6, 8-10: Wolff suggests
Andreas Sübel as text author of 2nd Jahrgang)
BWV 20 Discussions, 2002: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV20-D.htm
German-English Text: <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV20-Eng3.htm
Leusink Performance: <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV20-Mus.htm


Liner notes by Clemens Romijin accompanying Leusink performance:

Cantata BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort for the 1st Sunday after Trinity, 11 June 1724, has the same opening text and chorale melody of Cantata BWV 60 of the same name. With its length of some thirty minutes Cantata BWV 20 is composed on a grander scale than the average cantata. Indeed, this was the first work of a new cycle, and that is the reason why it is conceived in two parts, for before and after the sermon, with a total of eleven movements. Bach gave the opening chorus a genuine introductory character by composing a sweeping French overture. the tenor aria contains striking examples of text illustration: the words 'Ewigkeit' and 'ewig' are translated into long held notes, and 'Flammen' is set into rising and falling coloratura figures. In the aria no. 8 we are woken up by the bass and trumpet with the words 'Wacht auf, wacht auf.'

Structure and Timings (from Leusink)

First Part

Mvt. 1. Chorus [S, A, T, B] (443)
Tromba da tirarsi col Soprano, Oboe I-III, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Mvt. 2. Recitative [Tenor] (055)
Continuo

Mvt. 3. Aria [Tenor] (315)
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Mvt. 4. Recitative [Bass] (128)
Continuo

Mvt. 5. Aria [Bass] (506)
Oboe I-III, Continuo

Mvt. 6. Aria [Alto] (259)
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Mvt. 7. Chorale [S, A, T, B] (109)
Tromba da tirarsi e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe III e Violino
II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo

Second Part

Mvt. 8. Aria [Bass] (245)
Tromba da tirarsi, Oboe I e Violino I, Oboe II e Violino II, Oboe III e
Viola all' unisono, Continuo

Mvt. 9. Recitative [Alto] (120)
Continuo

Mvt. 10. Aria (Duetto) [Alto, Tenor] (318)
Continuo

Mvt. 11. Chorale [S, A, T, B] (112)
Tromba da tirarsi e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe III e Violino
II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo

Julian Mincham wrote (May 27, 2006):
BWV 20 O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort O Eternity; the sound of thunder
Part 1 Chorale--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--aria (bass)--aria (alto)--chorale
Part 2 Aria (bass)--recit (alto)--duet (alto, tenor)--chorale

I make no apology for being somewhat expansive on this incredible work, the first of forty 'chorale' cantatas of the second cycle, before Bach broke his pattern for the final thirteen (Those interested can find a comparison of the final chorale cantata BWV 1 and the resurrected BWV 4 which marked the break in the pattern, in an essay I have submitted to the 'Articles' section on this website. It is also recommended to read Wolff's comments from p275 of 'JSB the Learned Musician')

The position of this cantata in the cycle consequently marks it out to be of special interest. It is also instructive to compare it with Cantata BWV 75, the first work of the first cycle, heard by the Leipzig congregation just over a year previously. Its placement suggests several fascinating questions worth pursuing. What does it say to the congregation? To God? And what does it tell us of Bach's intentions, ambitions and compositional development?

Firstly, it can safely be assumed that Bach intended to begin each of his first two cycles with a bang. Both Cantatas BWV 75 and BWV 20 are written in two parts. Both have more than the usual 5-9 movements. Both use large forces, predominantly strings and oboes and both introduce a trumpet when a more positive character is required. Clearly, in each case Bach was keen to assert himself on both occasions. Here I am! This is what I intend to present to you---and the scarcely concealed message that music would never be the same again at the great Leipzig churches!

Whilst noting the similarities, nevertheless there are a number of important differences. Both touch upon the parable of the rich man whose wealth will not buy his place in heaven; but in C 20, Bach, and his libret, were clearly more concerned with the theme of passing time and its implications for humans. For all of the contrasts of rich and poor, joy and sorrow, redeeming faith and harmful disbelief, Cantata BWV 75 never attains the extremes of emotion we find in the later work. Certainly, BWV 75 was written while Bach was at Cöthen and, like the even earlier C 4, gives us fascinating glimpses into Bach's developing techniques of interpretation of text.

The opening choruses make the point. Both have more than one section and contrasting tempi but the assertive dotted rhythms of the later work convey a strength, confidence and assertiveness that contrasts strongly with the reflective, and almost regretful wisps of oboe melody in Cantata BWV 75. Similarly the tortuous lines depicting the torments of human agony in the tenor and alto arias have no counterparts in the earlier work.

The massive opening movement of BWV 20 is a cantus firmus chorus which, clearly, that of BWV 75 is not. Additionally it is an imposing French Overture such as those that open the four orchestral suites. It has the usual three sections, the first and last using assertive, almost aggressive dotted rhythms and a contrapuntal central section. The text, whether intentionally or not, suggests, or at least allows for such a structure. The opening lines bewail the isolation of eternity the sword of which lacerates the soul. The middle section expresses the personal tragedy of one caught in the fate of an unredeemable eternity---I do not know which way to turn! Finally comes an expression of the personal terror which eventuates. Terrible eternity----sorrow and confusion----terror----these are the interlocking themes of the three sections which now make perfect musical and narrative sense.

But the remarkable aspect of this movement is the way in which Bach combines the French Overture with the chorale melody. The structure is absolutely constricted by the chorale phrases and tonality. The sopranos sing the chorale lines, traditionally in long notes, above a rather constrained accompaniment by the remaining voices. There is no discussion of the melodic material by the altos, tenors and basses, no preparing of the chorale phrases, no richly entwined tapestry of counterpoint such as occurs in many later opening choruses in the cycle. Even in the faster middle section (imitative, but not fugal in the sense that we would normally expect in this part of a French overture: and do find in Cantata BWV 75) the lower voices are largely homophonic. This may well be because Bach wished the choir to emphasise the hammer blows of thunder, the lacerating sword and the attendant terror. This music has great theatrical power.

There can be no more striking example of Bach's eclectic musical personality than this first movement. The French Overture, with its connections with opera and the court of Louis IV was the antithesis of traditional, solid German church music. It had implications the worldly, the flippant and the superficial. Yet Here Bach uses it as a vehicle not only to begin his important second cycle of cantatas at Leipzig, but also to launch the chorale/chorus structure which would open this and every one of the following thirty nine cantatas.

It could almost be seen as a breath-taking act of impudence and arrogance. With the power of hindsight, it is, perhaps, more accurate to see it as an example of Bach, the liberated eclectic, who would use any style, structure, idea or technique appropriate to his needs. Furthermore, he was not reticent about announcing it to the world at large. Nevertheless, he took pains in the cantata for the following week (Cantata BWV 2) to revert to a more traditional style of unaccompanied motet for his opening movement. 'See', he seems to be saying. 'I can do it all!'

Further evidence of Bach's long term planning comes from the fact that in the first four cantatas of this second cycle he presents the chorale melody in different voices; here in the sopranos, then the altos (Cantata BWV 2) then tenors (Cantata BWV 7) and lastly the basses (Cantata BWV 135). There was no real reason why he should have done this (other than to set himself the type of challenge which best stimulated his imagination and inventiveness) unless it was a type of 'musical contract' with his choir. Everyone was to have a piece of the action!

Part 1 seems to have been planned with Bach's usual sense of order and balance. Two groups of pairs (recitative and aria, firstly for tenor and then for bass) are followed by an alto aria and the first statement of the chorale
which will conclude the work. It is interesting to note that, while he uses the same chorale to end each part, they are both simple four part settings. In BWV 75 the chorale is much more richly adorned with a flowing oboe and violin line. Bach does adorn the chorale on occasions in this cycle (one has an added horn obligato ) but his preference is now for the simple setting.

Part 2 has its own (different) balance: aria, recit, duet and chorale. One does wonder why, in a work of this length and complexity containing eight recitatives and arias, Bach did not call upon the soprano. It is possible that his favoured soloist was indisposed. But there is no evidence that he re-wrote any movements in a hurry. In any case it is difficult to believe that Bach spent only a few days composing this work. The evidence is that he saw it as being a significant statement. Even if he had only begun composing it at the beginning of the week of its performance it beggars belief to suppose that he had not been turning both this piece and the overall cantata plan, over in his mind for some time. It seems most likely that the decision not to include a soprano aria or recitative was an artistic one, perhaps linked to the general theme of the work. Despite the extrovert nature of the opening movements of each part it is a work with a sulphurous feel of Satan's caverns of eternal torment and he may have felt that the mood was best conveyed through the lower and deeper timbres of the other voices. Also, all of the arias and recitatives but one (the first for bass) are in the minor modes thus supporting this idea. The general tone of part 2 is lighter than in part 1 revealing a consistent Bachian approach to his texts of balancing the arguments. The opening aria is almost festive and the duet, despite its dissonances and chromatic writing reflecting torment and the wailing and gnashing of teeth, nevertheless retains something of a playful quality.

Of note (in the opening chorus) is the flickering repeated note figure on oboes (then strings) which accompanies the first two choral entries never to reappear! Bach seldom uses his material in such a cavalier way and his purpose was certainly imagic. The writing for orchestra in the middle section has an artistic sense of 'purposelessness' or a lacking of knowing which way to turn as described in the text. Doubtless this is why Bach rejected the more traditional fugue that we would have expected. A fugue, at least a Bach fugue, would have had too great a sense of purpose and direction!

Time does not allow one to discuss each of the fascinating movements of this great work. However one should notice how the tenor recitative muses on the theme of eternal damnation and the perpetual misery from which there is no escape. The idea of time being infinite is now established as a major theme of the cantata. And the following tenor aria is extraordinary and packed with explicit imagery. The idea of eternal torment is truly terrifying and Bach seeks to convey both the ponderousness of eternal time which hangs around us forever, and the sheer agonies of the flames of hell. One should also seek out the powerful images of the alto aria.

This cantata is the first in a vof forty works every one of which is, in my view, an undisputed masterpiece. Whether revisiting or exploring these works for the first time (in which case I envy you!) the next 10 months will present us with a canon of works the originality and sustained quality of which is almost unique in artistic history. As Aryeh says, 'enjoy'!

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 27, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< The massive opening movement of Bwv 20 is a cantus firmus chorus which, clearly, that of BWV 75 is not. Additionally it is an imposing French Overture such as those that open the four orchestral suites. It has the usual three sections, the first and last using assertive, almost aggressive dotted rhythms and a contrapuntal central section. >
Bach's use of the French overture in a cantata is intriguing, and I wonderif its courtly symbolism carries a suggestion of the approach of Christ as king and judge at the Last Judgement. There is something of the same "affect" in Cantata BWV 61, "Nun Komm Der Heiland" where a quite frightening French overture announces the approach of Christ the King.

I'm trying to think of other cantatas with French overture choruses. "Gott Fahret Auf Mit Jauchzen" has a loose overture form although I've never heard it performed with a Gallic snap. I'd have to look at the text of "Preise Jerusalem Den Herrn" to see if there's royal symbolism.

Raymond Joly wrote (May 28, 2006):
[To Eric Bergerud] I would like to thank you for your frankness. I feel ill at ease with what you hint at in your last sentences. It sounds a bit like: "This is such wonderful music: let us forget about what it is supposed to mean". But my disagreement does not matter. I am grateful to you that you bring things out in the open. It is not evident for everybody that human suffering unto death is what men deserve for being sinners. And the beauty of music extolling such ideas is nothing natural and self-explaining. You very rightfully remind us that listening to Bach is, or should be, an unsettling experience. We cannot just let pleasure happen to us without taking a stand about what that means.

As to what was felt in the nave in Leipzig (the topic of your message just before the one below), I am afraid we will never know. Some members of the congregation sure were deeply shaken because they had felt the presence
of God with renewed strength, or because they had undergone what we nowadays call an aesthetic experience. Some realized that nobody wrote music of quite that quality. I am afraid, though, that a lot sat through all those semi-quavers because it belonged to Sunday like washing the linen was done on Monday, and Wednesday was when you went to the market for poultry.

Very respectfully yours,

Julian Mincham wrote (May 28, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] Cantata BWV 61 is a good example of the typical French Overture; it is also to be remembered that Bach reused the French overture to the orchestral suite no 4 as well, although I am not aware that he re-used the other three in other cantatas. Cantata BWV 43 seems more like a movement with an introductory section rather than the 'classic' three part French overture structure.

Of the four works, Cantata BWV 20 seems to be the most interesting because it was the first of the new cycle and clearly, as I mentioned, Bach intended to begin with a large and commanding gesture. The use of the French overture could, as you suggest, have been to symbolise aspects of Christ the King--or it could be that Bach was taking a form connected with worldly celebration, pomp and ceremony as a gesture to start this new cycle (probably too simplistic an idea). Or, by combining the secular overture with the phrases of the chorale, he was demonstrating the 'wholeness' of human existence. Further (and slightly more abstrusely) because of the references to the parable of the rich man, could it be that he was taking a form which represented wealth and power and using it in a context of text which told you how useless it was, so as to underline the point in musical as well as in spiritual terms? Or was he simply the ultimate eclectic, taking what he felt to be appropriate forms and styles from any sources and adapting them to purpose?

We don't know, of course. Bach's complex mind and multi-faceted approach to text and image means that it could have been any or all of these reasons. However, for myself I like the idea that he intentionally took a musical form associated with the rich and powerful and used it to assert the fact that it was precisely these things would NOT get you into heaven!

Neil Halliday wrote (May 28, 2006):
The text comes from a time when public sensibilities were such that governments routinely presented public executions of the utmost brutality, to promote a kind of terror-induced public order. That Bach could set this text, in which terror seems to be used by the powers of heaven with the aim of turning mankind away from sin, ought not cause too much controversy in our time. Raymond Jolly mentioned that men deserve "suffering up to death" for their sins - and maybe so, but the librettist goes to considerable pains to point out that, in eternity, a thousand millions years is just a beginning, making the idea - of eternal torment being justified for the sins of the
imperfect creatures of this planet - totally unacceptable for modern sensibilities.

To judge from Rilling's recording [1], the magnificent opening chorus dusts up incredibly well in a 20th century romantic, symphonic conception. Rilling's tempo will seem slow to younger listeners, especially after listening to the period versions, but the effect of solemnity and splendour is unrivalled if one comes to Rilling's recording without previous hearings of other recordings. Also notice that Leusink's opening "Grave" (my designation) section manages to convey probably more splendour than any of the other period performances - and this is the slowest of the period performances. That said, the sheer majesty of this music appears to come through, from the slowest (Rilling [1]) to the fastest (Suzuki [7]).

Francis Browne, in the previous discussions, wanted comments/opinions on the dramatic return of the "Grave" section as described by Whittaker. I'm not sure that Rilling [1] is entirely successful, because the sudden appearance of an unaccompanied trio of `squawking' oboes has a rather strange aspect to it, difficult to describe.

Rilling [1] has presented a remarkably homogeneous setting of the disparate sections of the entire cantata. The emotions are always strongly painted, and the vocalists always powerfully expressive (and easy on the ear) eg, the triumphalism of the second bass aria for trumpet, oboes and strings (in C major) has an awe-inspiring ring of the "day of judgement', while the first bass aria for three oboes, and continuo including a prominent bassoon, extolling the justice of God's judgements, maintains a mood of utmost seriousness. The tenor and alto arias, both accompanied by the full, rich modern strings, convey a mood of deep sorrow; and Rilling expressively concludes the alto aria's extended passage for `weeping' strings with a diminuendo. Rilling's recitatives maintain a strong sense of drama, a contrast with the incongruous daintiness of some of the HIP versions of the recitatives. The duet, with its stark, angular continuo line, and vocal lines sometimes as if in canon, is expressively sung and convincingly presented, with the heavy `mezzo (half) staccato' in the continuo strings driving the message home. The plain chorale movements (7 and 11) have the substantial quality usually associated with Rilling's plain 4-part chorale harmonisations.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 28, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< The use of the French overture could, as you suggest, have been to symbolise aspects of Christ the King--oit could be that Bach was taking a form connected with worldly celebration, pomp and ceremony as a gesture to start this new cycle (probably too simplistic an idea).
Or, by combining the secular overture with the phrases of the chorale, he was demonstrating the 'wholeness' of human existence. >
I'm thinking that this may be a musical "memento mori", that in the midst of life, even the courtly life of the powerful with their gorgeous French overtures, Christ, Death and Judgement may appear at any moment.

On the other hand, I have always liked the notion that in Cantata BWV 61, Bach is announcing the arrival of both the beginning of the church year on Advent 1 and the beginning of his first cantata cycle.

Still debating myself here ... The lordliness or kingliness of Christ is more likely to be expressed by Bach through a bass soloist with trumpet or horn obbligato: e.g. "Quoniam" in the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), "Grosser Herr" in the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). Lots of examples of bass and horns in the cantatas.

Eric Bergerud wrote (May 29, 2006):
[To Raymond Joly] The odd thing about doing the introductions is that you're listening to multiple performances and multiple times and reading the text in German and English. Total immersion you might say. It wasn't the message in BWV 20 that confused me - we don't talk about damnation much in our day (at least in the Lutheran churches I've known in my life) but Luther certainly did. And so did Mother Church - that was the purpose of indulgences after all. The Calvinists, as I understand it, in theory believed that the "elect" were a very small group and everyone else on earth was headed to hell.

That said, I can't think of a more dreary text used by Bach. The work is long and much of it is anguished. But in some of the movements it struck me that the feelings elicited by the music were very different than what the text suggested. If I hadn't been following the text closely - or not at all - none of this would have come up. It doesn't help that the work is unquestionably a masterpiece. But the relentless emphasis on spiritual fear should have inspired a dirge - instead you get some sublime moments. As I noted originally, the work didn't upset me as much as it confused me: a little "cognitive dissonance." I don't like being confused, so maybe a little self-censorship isn't such a bad thing.

The question obviously raised for believers is why did Christianity for much of its history required this element of terror. One might think that the promise of eternal life for the believer would have been adequate incentive and the possibility of oblivion adequate sanction. When you get down to it, damnation as understood by the Church in the Middle Ages has a pretty shaky scriptural basis outside of Revelation (which has a shaky scriptural basis). Ironically it was exactly during Bach's adult years that the Protestant churches were moving away from their original emphasis on "fire and brimstone" toward the message of spiritual love. Maybe for reasons of his own Bach was looking backward that Sunday, maybe to shake things up a little. (BTW: I suspect you're right about most of the good Lutherans attending Sunday service at one of those big churches were probably thinking about what was for dinner instead of following closely every minute of the ceremony. Not everyone mind you, but a lot of them. And to think they were getting free cantatas. Life isn't fair.)

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 29, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< The question obviously raised for believers is why did Christianity for much of its history required this element of terror. One might think that the promise of eternal life for the believer would have been adequate incentive and the possibility of oblivion adequate sanction. When you get down to it, damnation as understood by the Church in the Middle Ages has a pretty shaky scriptural basis outside of Revelation (which has a shaky scriptural basis). Ironically it was exactly during Bach's adult years that the Protestant churches were moving away from their original emphasis on "fire and brimstone" toward the message of spiritual love. Maybe for reasons of his own Bach was looking backward that Sunday, maybe to shake things up a little. (BTW: I suspect you're right about most of the good Lutherans attending Sunday service at one of those big churches were probably thinking about what was for dinner instead of following closely every minute of the ceremony. Not everyone mind you, but a lot of them. And to think they were getting free cantatas. Life isn't fair.) >
I think this cantata is classic instance of how difficult it is for us to project ourself into the social and theological world of Bach. At last fall's Rilling Bach Festival in Toronto, a Bach scholar (whose name escapes me for the moment) examined the background to Cantata BWV 106. He described a society which lived constantly in the shadow of death, where the dichotomy of life and death was a brutal reality.

The response to that threat was an extraordinary obsession with preparedness for death. He described how ordinary citizens made elaborate provisions for death. How university student wrote poems about death and judgement that would not be out of place as cantata texts. How teenaged girls routinely worked on their funeral dresses even when in the best health.

The descriptions -- and this was solid scholarship -- were so bizarre that the audience actually started to giggle as he continued to recreate the attitudes and beliefs that Bach and his contemporarries lived out in their daily lives. Even straining to create an intellectual space for this material, I found that I simply couldn't relate philosophically or emotionally. Like many of us, I prefered to enjoy the exquisite surface beauty of Cantata 106 and not try to think about the woman in the coffin who may have spent years embroidering the shroud which wrapped her.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (May 29, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< the work didn't upset me as much as it confused me: a little "cognitive dissonance." I don't like being confused, so maybe a little self-censorship isn't such a bad thing.
.../...
Ironically it was exactly during Bach's adult years that the Protestant churches were moving away from their original emphasis on "fire and brimstone" toward the message of spiritual love. >
It is not clear at all to me to what extent Bach adhered to the content of the libretti. I have experienced this kind of 'cognitive dissonance' while listening to BWV 54, and as far as I can recall, I can't remember an example of a piece by Bach about eternal damnation that sounded as if the composer adhered without reservations to the ideas expressed. I always sense a kind of distance which is hard to interpret, but he doesn't sound 'in earnest'. This reminds me of a poem attributed to Bach about pipe-smoking, which ends up with a jocular remark that, if his finger slips by accident inside the furnace of the pipe, he experiences a prefiguration of the pains of hell. By the way is this poem authentic?

By contrast, when Bach describes worldly suffering, one feels that he knows what he talks about.

Robert Newman wrote (May 29, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] I take exception to the modern portrayal by some teachers of music history of JS Bach and his protestant contemporaries being supposedly 'obsessed by death'. We are told by these modern learned men of the 'extraordinary preparedness for death' by Bach and his society, and descriptions are given to students of things so bizzare that they have little choice but to giggle and learn from their teachers of 'attitudes that Bach and his contemporaries lived out in their daily lives'. But shall we so easily witness the arrival within Bach studies of such a clumsy Jesuitical version of Bach's faith and that of the society in which Bach lived ?

Let the same students consider these things within their true contexts - that of the reformation and of the ongoCatholic attempts to overthrow it with a 'counter-refornation'. Would they laugh to know that in Rome medals were struck to celebrate the butchery of Calvinists across Europe ? Or would the same students snigger to know that during Bach's own lifetime (e.g. in 1741 at Salzburg( entire communities were uproooted and exiled from their own homes in mid-winter for no other crime than the fact that their faith was not that of the Roman Catholic faith ? I think that if such truths (and there are so many that if is hardly necessary to list more) were to be set before modern students, would they not conclude that Bach and his contemporaries, far from being 'obsessed by death' were in fact amongst the most happy and contented people of their generation despite their highly unusual (and personal) emphasis on life AND death within their society of faith. It would be preposterous to make any image of Bach that was morbid if we were to hear his work as a whole. It must therefore be the same if we are to consider all the social evidence as a whole.

The morbidity can be found in that Catholicism which, even in the 18th and as early as the 19th century had its system of purgatory, its payment of masses for the dead, its system of indulgences and in its corporate 'fix' for matters such as personal, individual, salvation - all of which were solid grounds for that protestantism of which Bach is a representative to have so wonderfully succeeded. It is in my view a travesty of history to represent Bach and his society as obsessed with death, they who, in fact, were passionate in body and in soul of life itself.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (May 29, 2006):
Robert Newman wrote:
< I take exception to the modern portrayal by some teachers of music history of JS Bach and his protestant contemporaries being supposedly 'obsessed by death'. We are told by these modern learned men of the 'extraordinary preparedness for death' by Bach and his society, and >descriptions are given to students of things so bizzare that they have little choice but to giggle and learn from their teachers of 'attitudes that Bach and his contemporaries lived out in their daily lives'. But shall we so easily witness the arrival within Bach studies of such a clumsy Jesuitical version of Bach's faith and that of the society in which Bach lived ? >
I wonder whether it is not the modern westerner, rather, who is uncommonly 'obsessed by death', the obsession taking the form of a taboo.

Hence giggles...

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 29, 2006):
Robert Newman wrote:
< I take exception to the modern portrayal by some teachers of music history of JS Bach and his protestant contemporaries being supposedly 'obsessed by death'. We are told by these modern learned men of the 'extraordinary preparedness for death' by Bach and his society, and descriptions are given to students of things so bizzare that they have little choice but to giggle and learn from their teachers of 'attitudes that Bach and his contemporaries lived out in their daily lives'.
Let the same students consider these things within their true contexts - that of the reformation and of the ongoing Catholic attempts to overthrow it with a 'counter-refornation'. I think that if such truths (and there are so many that if is hardly necessary to list more) were to be set before modern students, would they not conclude that Bach and his contemporaries, far from being 'obsessed by death' were in fact amongst the most happy and contented people of their generation despite their highly unusual (and personal) emphasis on life AND death within their society of faith. >
Let me rephrase what I said in my earlier posting. I am not saying that Bach and his contemporaries were pathologically obssessed with death to the point of being cultish or fetishistic. I'm suggesting that from our vantage point in the 21st century it is almost impossible for us to understand the belief systems both theologically and socially which 18th century Leipzigers held. We giggle and draw away from the social behaviours and literary texts because they are so foreign to us. Perhaps a discussion list in the 23rd century will talk about us as a culture which avoided death and treated it euphemistically.

I'm not sure why we were treated to a burst of anti-catholic semtiment, but as historians we can never separate the beautiful from the brutal. The works of art which we love and which transform our lives were often created in truly horrible social and political situations: the 16th century Spanish composer, Guerrero wrote exquisite polyphonic motets to accompany an auto-da-fe of heretics, Handel was part of a social system which encouraged the castration of young boys to create great singers, Strauss wrote a stunning tone poem in the 1940's to celebrate the Japanese imperial dynasty. Every year, this list faces the difficult questions around the Bach Passions: can we ever really understand either the 1st century milieu which produced the scriptural passion gospels or the 18th century attitudes to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in which Bach worked?

At the same time, I don't think we can surrender to the Romantic impulse which Eric describes in which we draw away from the theological and social contexts of the music and say that we don't need to understand the context because we can discover higher, universal truths which are more palatable to our individual philosophies and moral systems.

I have HUGE emotional responses to various works of Bach which I really don't understand. When in the St, Matthew Passion (BWV 244) the bass begins "Am Abend", I am literally reduced to tears. Every time I listen to the SMP (BWV 244), I try to analyze why I have this response. Is there a hidden personal meaning in the text? (I cant find one, Dr. Freud!) Is the music especially affective at that moment? ("Embarme dich" is probably more beautiful). Or perhaps I've been caught up in the musical tension of those amazing crowd choruses and am responding with relief as Bach intended that it's all over.

I think that we have to balance the two attitudes to Bach. We have to admit that there are aspects and dimensions of Bach which we will never understand but we have to keep struggling to deepen our knowledge. And we have to celebrate our emotional responses without imposing modern attitudes and world-views which Bach did not share.

Julian Mincham wrote (May 29, 2006):
Robert Newman wrote:
< It would be preposterous to make any image of Bach that was morbid if we were to hear his work as a whole. >
Well said. And this is one of the keys to the dilemma. Bach, and never more than in this second cycle, is NEVER totally morbidly despondant. There are, even in those wroks which appear to be obsessively pessimistic, always elements of optimism. These are expressed in a number of different and infinitely subtle ways e.g.a bass line or inner part which has a very different feeling from the main vocal line, carefully chosen uses of major and minor modalities, opposing imagic motives within the same movement or, indeed the same ritornello.The balance and the ultimate message of optimism is always there in one form or another.

I hope to be remarking on some of these instances as we proceed through this cycle.

Raymond Joly wrote (May 29, 2006):
[To Robert Newman] Mr. Newman can rest assured that Bach scholars and Bach lovers who are upset or confused by the inhuman aspects of Lutheran theology do not ponder these matters in order to launch a wave of popish protestant bashing. If some are indeed still fighting those wars of a couple of centuries back, they must be very few. Anyway, God having his own son tortured to atone for mankind's sin was dogma in Rome as well as in Wittenberg.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 29, 2006):
BWV 515 [was:May 28: Introduction BWV 20]

Alain Bruguieres wrote:
>>This reminds me of a poem attributed to Bach about pipe-smoking, which ends up with a jocular remark that, if his finger slips by accident inside the furnace of the pipe, he experiences a prefiguration of the pains of hell. Bythe way is this poem authentic?<<
BWV 515 from the "Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach 1725" has a rather complicated history due to the great interest musicologists and Bach experts have demonstrated in this "Aria: So oft ich meine Tobacks-Pfeife".

Here are some facts and speculations about it as contained in the NBA KB V/4, primarily pp. 89-91, (with an additional commentary by me on the meaning of the text):

1. There are two versions of it, the first one possibly in the handwriting of Gottfried Heinrich Bach (1724-1763), a son who had a musical gift, particularly for playing keyboard instruments which, as the famous obituary on Bach kindly puts it: "War ein großes Genie, welches aber nicht entwickelt wurde...." ["[he - Gottfried Heinrich] was a great genius, who did not reach full development"]. The actual truth of the matter is that he, the eldest son of Maria Magdalena and J. S. Bach, became mentally retarded ("geistig zurückgeblieben") and remained that way for the remainder of his life. This song may be evidence of the concern on the part of both parents that Gottfried Heinrich should receive the greatest encouragement possible for the single gift that he did possess. Both Anna Magdalena and J. S. Bach took the simple piece which their son had either heard or composed and transposed it to a more singable key. Anna Magdalena did the transposition of the melody line (up a 4th) and J.S. Bach then added the new bass line as possible instruction for his 11-year-old son.

2. The entry of BWV 515, in its both forms, did not take place before 1735 and probably not much later than this date.

3. It becomes a matter of speculation as to whether Gottfried Heinrich actually composed the melody along with the bass line. Some think that he might have and that his parents capitalized on this opportunity to encourage his further musical development.

4. The text is from an anonymous broadside/broadsheet that was published in Leipzig and contained both the text for this song and "Willst du dein Herz mir schenken" (BWV 518). The text appears in somewhat altered forms on other broadsides. There is documentation of a different version of the melody that was being sung in Silesia at the time. It is possible that other melodies were being used as well for the same text.

5. A further complication in the initial version of BWV 515 is that the composer of the melody and bass may or may not have been Gottfried Heinrich and that the handwriting analysis of the individual who wrote or copied this song has been identified as Anonymous II who also helped to copy out some parts for SMP (BWV 244) (later version, of course). It remains conjectural whether Gottfried Heinrich is this same Anonymous II.

6. Only the 1st verse was included (in AMB's handwriting) in the 2nd, transposed version of the song. The complete text, by an unidentified copyist, was added much later on, most likely after Bach's death in 1750.

7. The entire text demonstrates a 'tongue-in-cheek' attitude toward all the references to death and the tortures of hell. The last verse explains that "I can have all these edifying thoughts regarding how many aspects of smoking a pipe can relate to the transitoriness of life at the same time that I still continue to really enjoy smoking my pipe" or "just because I am taking the time out right now to smoke my pipe, I am able to contemplate the nature of life, death, and the afterlife."

Eric Bergerud wrote (May 29, 2006):
[To Robert Newman] I don't think anyone is suggesting that there was anything morbid about Bach's belief systems. I'm not sure what the point of the Counter Reformation is supposed to be. Maybe 18th century Popes wanted to roll back the clock but when the Spanish Army was smashed at Rocroi and the Empire mauled at Freiburg by Catholic France in 1643-44, the political world was changing in a major way. (I'm away from all of my books right now, but wasn't the King of Saxony in Bach's day a Catholic so he could push a claim to the Polish throne? It didn't seem to bother Bach if so.) Tension between Catholics and Protestants did not evaporate as Louis XIV's persecution of French Protestants illustrated (as did the Glorious Revolution) but Europeans found secular reasons to continue killing each other. (I've always wondered if whether the end of witch hunts corresponded with the end of religious warfare in Europe. Whatever, the stake was pretty much retired from the European world until the 20th century.)

But there's no doubt that death had an ugly presence over the not so distant past that moderns can hardly grasp. Imagine putting ten children into the grave like Bach did. Indeed, I think the reason that belief systems like 18th century Christianity (you could find dozens of others throughout history) were so deeply rooted is that death came so quickly and with no obvious cause. Nightmares like the 30 Years War were very much the exception. Having your wife and daughter in hale and hearty on Saturday and dead both dead the next Friday was nothing odd in the least. And I wonder if some of those giggles Doug heard weren't a bit nervous - or maybe that's the historian in me.

Raymond Joly wrote (May 30, 2006):
[To Eric Bergerud] Sorry! I am not "suggesting", but claiming vociferously that a lot is morbid about Bach's belief system, as indeed about any belief system. They all consist of someone pretending to know why humans are as fallible and unhappy as they are, and telling them to follow his teachings if they want to change all that. That necessarily implies a lot of (self-)deception and willingness to trample on everybody in order to go on thinking one is right.
We are definitely skirting the boundaries of a Bach Cantatas website, where musical experience meets experience at large. But let us not shrink.

I think that Bach's music was born out of an effort to make sense out of being a human being. He used the pitiable tools at his disposal in his time, place and station. Ours are not that much better, as you will have realized if you ever open some newspapers and have a look at what happens in the block where you live. But we are most peculiar beasts, and what we contrive with our minds can transcend (or so it seems, and for some people) so-called reality. Counterpoint will not silence a preacher, a judge or a boss, or death for that matter, but it helps. To quote Pascal: the stone crushes me, but I know that I am crushed.

I hope Eric Bergerud is proud at what he has started. No one will study Bach less ardently and derive less joy out of his music, but aesthetic smugness has had a beating (I feel).

Santu de Silva wrote (May 30, 2006):
Eric Bergerud writes:
>>> ... The question obviously raised for believers is why did Christianity for much of its history required this element of terror. One might think that the promise of eternal life for the believer would have been adequate incentive and the possibility of oblivion adequate sanction. ... <<<
Indeed!

While The Church --including all denominations-- has put forth the belief in Jesus and his message as a 'good' in itself, there has been always a major emphasis on the material benefits, or the tangible benefits, or the concomitant benefits of heaven, versus the terrors of hell. Many of us feel a --what's the word?-- a kind of disappointment, I suppose, is the best I can do, that this approach has been thought necessary.

Marx called religion the opiate of the masses for this reason, that The Church promised a better life in heaven, if one was patient with the life one was given on Earth. That obviously worked well in the Middle Ages; what is interesting is that the fire and brimstone rhetoric has escalated all through history.

It seems that nobody can believe that (a) Hell is not a deterrent, and that (b) mankind has moral instincts apart from religious teaching. This is the background agwhich I view Bach's music and choice of text. Sometimes I seem to see Bach recognizing that the knowledge of good and evil --read "moral sense"-- is inborn, and his works seem to preach a more universal gospel, a pleading for love, or charity, or a willingness to forgive, or a call for repentance, that needs no specific appeal to the Christian gospel. At other times we have more Heathen- condemning messages that are sometimes hard [for me] to bear.

Julian Mincham wrote (June 1, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Bach's use of the French overture in a cantata is intriguing, and I wonder if its courtly symbolism carries a suggestion of the approach of Christ as king and judge at the Last Judgement. There is something of the same "affect" in Cantata BWV 61, "Nun Komm Der Heiland" where a quite frightening French overture announces the approach of Christ the King. >
I'm trying to think of other cantatas with French overture choruses. "Gott Fahret Auf Mit Jauchzen" has a loose overture form although I've never heard it performed with a Gallic snap. I'd have to look at the text of "Preise
Jerusalem Den Herrn
" to see if there's royal symbolism.

In response to the above, some thoughts on Bach's use of the French Overture in the cantatas (and here I am indebted to Thomas for helping me to locate them quickly)

BWV 20 and BWV 61 have already been discussed. BWV 43, BWV 75 and even the well known BWV 140 (sleepers Awake) have all been mentioned at some time as having the French Overture as their geneses, but I think they are too far removed from the genre to merit consideration within this context.

BWV 110 is an excellent example using, as it does the overture from the 4th orchestral suite. The text here asked that our mouths and tongues be filled with laughter and praise for the Lord who has achieved great things for us. Very different from the eternity, thunder, sorrow and terror of BWV 20!

BWV 119 (which, incidentally uses the largest forces which Bach had called upon to this date at Leipzig) is an exhultant song of praise for the lord who' protects and strengthens'.

BWV 194 has a massive opening French overture, very festive in character and calling for a welcome to the festive day celebrated to God's glory. It is notable for the return of the chorus on the words 'welcome this day of joyous festivity' right at the end of the return of the opening dotted section (which in this case forms an introduction to the movement proper. Sometimes Bach included the chorus in this section, other times he waits for the middle fugual section).

BWV 97 was possibly intended as a wedding cantata and has similar celebratory overtones. It is notable that the dotted rhythm opening section does not return to close the movement giving it even more the feel of an introduction to the main choral statement.

There don't seem to be any clear conclusions to draw from all this. Bach used the form for both secular and non-secular cantatas. He modified the form by bringing in voices in different ways and by omitting the final A of the A-B-A structure. There does seem to be a loose celebratory theme connecting these movements; but then there are many more celebratory pieces which have nothing to do with the French overture.

As I said in an earlier posting I suspect that Bach was simply being his natural eclectic self, taking forms and structures from all styles and traditions and adapting them to immediate purpose. BWV 20 still emerges as perhaps the most interesting of these works combining, as it does, the form associated with wealth and power with the counsel that these are the very trappings of earth that will not get you into heaven!

Peter Smaill wrote (June 3, 2006):
BWV 20, "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort", initiates the second cycle with a meditation on a favourite concept to the librettists - that of Time.

It relates therefore to the "Alpha and Omega" theme analysed by Eric Chafe, in "Anfang und Ende," which focuses on the theme from Revelation and Bach's working out of it in BWV 41, BWV 31, BWV 61, (also with a French overture), BWV 75 (also for the First Sunday in Trinity), the lovely duet in BWV 190, and BWV 70 (the end of the world). Chafe detects that most of these works were conceived either at the beginning or end of the calendar or liturgical years. To these we can add the time-allusions of pizzicato clock effects in BWV 8 and BWV 27 where there is a meditation on death as with BWV 20.

"This I find baffling," says Robertson, referring ot the last line of the Chorale closing the first part of BWV20:

"Denn wird sich enden diese Pein,
Wenn Gott nicht mehr wird ewig sein
"

("For this pain will end
When God is no longer to be eternal")

At first pass this is a heretical view of God, whose attributes are Eternal, also Sinless and Impassible - i. e., not in Himself suffering. However, the librettist here is I think alluding to a thread of Christian tradition which anticipates the End of Time, in which mankind is no longer subject to the passage of the years relative to the unchanging Deity.

Just why Time concepts were so significant to the Lutheran world is explained by the theologian Damian Thompson in his book, "The End of Time ":

"It was not until the Reformation that the practice of naming centuries by their ordinal numbers translated into a frame of mind which automatically divided history into centuries...In 1559 a group of Lutheran scholars in Magdeburg published the [anti-Roman Catholic] Magdeburg Centuries, which was intended to be published in sixteen volumes, one for each century. 'Never before in the Christian West had the long span of history been conceived in terms of centuries laid end to end.'

The end of the sixteenth century is an important moment in the development of orientation by measured time. Timepieces accurate to the second began to appear, and the word "second' passed into popular currency....During the seventeenth century, the conjunction of time and event was immeasurably strengthened as the population of the West began to use calendars as means of day-to-day reference. The celebration of birthdays became the norm....".

So it is perhaps unsuprising that in Lutheran Leipzig that the concept of Time was liable to be a focus of Cantata texts, given the Lutheran initiative in its measurement and also in the context of the search for the musical pattern reflecting the created order, the "Harmony of the Spheres".

Neil Halliday wrote (June 3, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
"BWV 20 still emerges as perhaps the most interesting of these works combining, as it does, the form associated with wealth and power with the counsel that these are the very trappings of earth that will not get you into heaven!"
I don't think the dichotomy between these two ideas is necessarily part of the meaning of the opening chorus of BWV 20 (we are talking about the French overture form). Certainly, the awe inspiring nature of the wealth and power, and pomp and splendour of the (French) royal courts, is associated in the opening movement of this cantata with the awe that humans sense when confronting the concept of eternity/infinite time: "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort". The torments of hell are secondary, in this movement, to the concept of eternity itself.

Hence the performances that best express the solemnity and majesty associated with this awe, will be the most successful.

Thanks for listing the French overtures that occur in the cantatas, presently standing at BWV's 20, BWV 61, BWV 97, BWV 110, BWV 119, BWV 194, all showing the different uses to which the "magnifence" of the form can be put.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 7, 2006):
BWV 20

When I joined BCW a few months ago, I was anticipating this week (May 28) in the discussions to introduce the Emmanuel Music CD, and to make a comparison with Harnoncourt on LP [2]. I see that Aryeh has previously done so. I would particularly like to refer you to his quotes from the booklet notes by Craig Smith [6], and his comments on the overture and chorus. Continuing from the 2003 discussion with a few thoughts on Part II, and general comments.

I am willing to accept that Harnoncourt [2], with authentic (or anyway, old style) instruments, particularly the trumpet, comes closer to sounding like a Bach premier than does the Smith/Emmanuel performance [6]. The HIP (as of 30 years ago) makes an enjoyable comparison, but for listening enjoyment, Smith/Emmanuel is greatly superior. Nowhere more noticeable than in the opening aria with orchestra of Part II, where the Harnoncourt trumpet might as well be be in a different key. Perhaps this is what Bach endured with those various organ tunings? And what some of the negative posts re Harnoncourt have in mind?

BWV 20 is as far from chiastic symmetry as possible, the crux of the cantata (for me) is the A/T duet before the final Chorale. In every way, Bach announces the start of something different, a new series. The most cheerful, optimistic, music (and text) is presented at the last minute, and by the most modest forces. The only suggestion that this might be coming is the bubbling oboes accompanying the Bass Aria in Part I, "God is just in his works". Amidst the almost unrelenting gloom, everything can be well (A/T): "O mankind, stop loving the sinful world."

If you are interested in experiencing the breadth of Bach Cantata performance, you will want to have a Smith/Emmanuel CD [6] in your collection, and you will want to know Peggy Pearson, first among the bubbling oboes. Don't take my word for it, see Uri Golumb in the Articles section. Might as well grab this CD while you can. As Aryeh noted, perhaps the first of a set. As of now, still first and only. The organization by liturgical calendar is unique, and Craig Smith's comments and analysis add new insight.

Aryeh mentioned that better soloists might improve the CD. Perhaps, but I think this misses the point: Emmanuel Music has been performing (and perfecting) Bach in a Sunday church setting for thirty years or so. Some of the performers have been there from the beginning. The soloists have always come from the choir. Some have gone on to international careers. They return for nostalgic visits, not always as soloist. It is the long
term dedication that this CD represents, I think successfully. It is unfair to single out individuals, but I think if you listen to Pamela Dellal's alto, consider her translations, you will get the flavor of the commitment to Bach by Smith/Emmanuel as a group [6]. I find all soloists at least satisfactory, and sometimes outstanding. I will do a bit more listening, and let you know if I have a best of show recommendation. Not out of the question.

Still, there is nothing quite to match the old brown boxes of Harnoncourt [2], complete with scores. I have not had mine from the beginning, rather inexpensive acquisitions for the closet as the LP/CD transition took place. Many only played once, so it is a particular pleasure to have a reason to get them out, and a bonus for a non-professional to have the score at hand. Personally, I enjoy having an hypothesis of an authentic performance, for comparative purposes if nothing else. Some that have been my only holding I have enjoyed listening to many times. You don't know what you've got till it's gone. Not exactly the phrase, but you know what I mean.

Neil Halliday wrote (June 8, 2006):
It's interesting to click on the amazon examples of all the recordings of BWV 20 (available at the BCW).

Smith's performance of the trumpet aria [6] seems very fast; notice that Leusink [4] has a slower tempo that captures the pomp of the aria. Both these conductors succeed with a moderate tempo in the other dotted rhythm movement, namely, the opening chorus. (Smith's performance sounds more polished).

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 9, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Smith's performance of the trumpet aria [6] seems very fast; notice that Leusink [4] has a slower tempo that captures the pomp of the aria. >
I have listened to a snatch of Leusink [4] at Amazon.de (at your suggestion), and returned to my Harnoncourt LP [2] as well, which to me sounds similar (perhaps even a tad slower) than Leusink. I was originally more struck by the difference in trumpet sonority and didn't pay much attention to the tempo distinction, but what you point out is confirmed by a more careful listen, as well as by timings: Smith/Emmanuel, 2:20 [6], Harnoncourt, 2:44.

This was my first listen to any Harnoncourt [2] since joining BCW. The extensive background discussion prepared me to hear (1) quick tempos, and (2) sloppy brass. So much for open ears and mind. I will give the authentic trumpet another chance, it didn't sound quite so bad the second time through. I still prefer the Smith/Emmanuel sonority [6], but now that you point it out , the tempo is a bit quick. Wacht auf (wake up), I suppose is the justification.

It is a bit difficult for me to be objective about the local band, but I do find the Smith/Emmanuel [6] to be superb for a continuous listen, and an accurate representation of their weekly performance practice. A regional treasure, going worldwide one of these centuries.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 20: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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