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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

Cantata BWV 20
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [I]
Discussions - Part 5

Continue from Part 4

Discussions in the Week of May 18, 2014 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (May 18, 2014):
Cantata 20

The first in his series of chorale cantatas, Bach’s Cantata BWV 20, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, you word of thunder), is an extensive, well-planned work with musical elements Bach had explored extensively in his first cycle. It was an ambitious piece as his introduction to a unified cycle based upon Lutheran hymns so popular in Leipzig. Lasting a half an hour, Cantata 20 in two parts before and after the sermon fuses elements of the rigid strophic hymn stanzas set to popular melodies with the modern Italianate cantata with its madrigalian choruses, arias and recitatives. Notable are five mostly two-part arias, three in generic ¾ time, and three extended recitatives that paraphrase, sprinkled with hymn quotations, the internal stanzas in a libretto by an unknown librettist who stays close to Johannn Rist’s original thought of the chorale, “A Serious Consideration of Endless Eternity.”

Cantata 20 is an austere and severe musical sermon that befits many of the chorales on earthly themes sung during the Trinity Time of teachings and admonitions of the church. The Sunday Gospel (Luke 16:19-31) is the parable of the rich man and the poor man in the Christian dialectic of now and forever, sadness and joy, fear and hope, rebellion and submission, damnation and redemption. At the same time Cantata 20 has pleasing elements such as the comforting plain chorales closing both parts, an imposing, momentous opening chorus fantasia set as a slow-fast-slow French Overture in prelude and fugue style, and the soaring trumpet in the opening chorus chorale melody and the opening bass aria of Part 2. It shows Bach in absolute command of his musical materials with an unerring sense of the meaning of a chorale found in the last thematic category, “Apostles Day, Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Life,” from his Leipzig hymnbook.

Cantata BWV 20, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, you word of thunder) was premiered on the 1st Sunday after Trinity, June 11, 1724.1 In planning Cantata BWV 20, Bach chose a chorale, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort,” that had 12 stanzas in his NLGB hymnbook, with the heading “A Serious Consideration of Endless Eternity.” In compliance with his chorale cantata model, he chose three stanzas to be set verbatim: opening chorus fantasia (Mvt. 1 with Stanza 1), and the two plain chorales closing Parts 1 and 2, Mvt. 7 with Stanza 8 and Mvt. 11 with closing Stanza 12. Bach’s Cantata 20 libretto relies on the 12-stanza version of the original total 16 stanzas, omitting Stanzas 4, 5, 7, & 8. Bach directed the anonymous librettist to set the work in two parts, quoting NLGB stanzas 1, 8 and 12, (originally Stanzas 1, 11, and 16).

The Cantata 20 remaining eight movements of three recitatives (Mvt. 2, 4, & 9) and five arias (Mvts. 3, 5, 6, 8, & 10) were paraphrased by the librettist who added direct quotes from certain lines, probably at Bach’s direction. These are found in bold face in Alfred Dürr’s Cantatas of J. S. Bach.2 The text lines quoted are the last line of Stanza 2 quoted ending Mvt. 2 recitative, first three lines of Stanza 3 opening Mvt. 3 aria, two lines of Stanza 5 (first & penultimate) in Mvt. 4 recitative, the 4th-5th-last line in Stanza 6 in Mvt. 5 aria, second line of Stanza 10 and penultimate line of Stanza 9 quoted in Mvt. 9 recitative, and 12th stanza quoted in Mvt. 11, closing plain chorale. In all, Bach set seven chorales of Johann Rist (1607-1667, see BCW Short Biography,

While many of Bach’s chorale cantatas deal only with thematic teachings found in the hymns, Bach was able to portray in the selection of texts set to innovative music the relationship of the chosen hymn to the Gospel and Epistle lessons for the 1st Sunday after Trinity. The Readings are: Epistle: 1 John 4:16-21 (God is love); Gospel: Luke 16:19-31 Parable of rich man Dives and poor and Laarus), (German text Martin Luther 1545, English translation Authorized King James Version 1611). The Introit reading is Psalm 62, Nonne Deo? (Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from him cometh my salvation, KJV),, according to Martin Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar.2 Cantata 20 in two parts was presented before and after the sermon on June 11, 1724, at the early main service of the Nikolaus Church with Superintendent Salomon Deyling preaching the sermon on the Gospel, Luke 16:1931 (Petzoldt, Ibid.: 40).

Chorale Text “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort,” of Johann Rist 1642 is set literally in Movements 1, 7, & 11 and paraphrased in Mvts. 2-6, and 8-10); Rist German text and Francis Browne English translation, Cantata 20 German text and Francis Browne English translation, The Rist chorale text is found in the Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (NLGB) of 1682 in the shortened version, No 394 under the last thematic category, “Apostles Day, Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Life,” with 12 of 16 stanzas printed, omitting the original Stanzas 4, 7, 8, 12. Frances Browne's full English translation of all 16 verses is found in BCW,

Chorale Melody, O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort

The Chorale Melody is based on “Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich” (Johan Schoop 1642) as well as “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (Johann Johann Crüger 1653); see BCW “Chorale melodies used in Bach’s Vocal Works,”
Johann Schoop set the original melody (Zahn 5819) of "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" as a sacred song, "Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich, Lasset uns den Herren preisen" (Wake up, my soul, rise up, let us praise the Lord), in the 1642 early version (not in the <NLGB>). Johann Crüger adapted and slightly modified the melody (Zahn 5820), set to the Rist text, "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," published in 1653. Information on the text and melody is found in BCW, The chorale is not cited in Günther Stiller's JSB and Liturgical Life in Leipzig.

In Cantata BWV 20, there are three chorale uses in F Major: No. 1 chorale fantasia (S.1); No. 7 (S.11[8]) "Solang ein Gott im Himmel lebt" (As long as God lives in heaven); and No. 11 (S.16[12]) "O Schwert, das durch die Seele bohrt (O sword that pierces through the soul). The closing plain chorales of both parts are the same musical setting with different stanzas (11 and 16).

The melody also is found in plain chorale BWV 397 in F Major (S. 13 [9], "Wach auf, o Mensch, vom Sündenschlaf" (Wake up, O Man, from the sleep of sin), which probably is used in the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247/30, where the apostles sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. The hymn was a popular sacred song in the Bach household, found in Anna Magdalena's 1725 Notebook, BWV 513, No. 42 (last item, p. 121) in F Major for soprano and basso continuo in Anna Magdalena's early handwriting. There also is an organ chorale prelude setting, BWV <deest>, Emans No. 146 (NBA KB [Criticial Commentary] IV/11), of doubtful authenticity and therefore not published in the Neue Bach Ausgabe.

Bach also set the first stanza as a chorale chorus in Cantata BWV 60 (see BCW First performed on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, November 7, 1723, Cantata BWV 60, "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," is a dialogue between the alto (solo or chorus) representing Fear and the tenor representing Hope with the bass representing the consoling Jesus Christ. In the opening chorale chorus adaptation, the alto sings the first stanza of Johann Rist's 1642 original 12-stanza hymn,”O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," set to the Johann Schoop 1642 melody.

Movements, scoring, initial text, time signature, and key are:3

First Part 1. Chorus French Overture (SATB); Tromba da tirarsi col Soprano, Oboe I-III, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo: 4/4 prelude, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (O eternity, you word of thunder); ¾ fugue, “O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit”(O eternity, time without time), 4/4 Tempo I, “Mein ganz erschrocken Herz erbebt” (My heart completely terrified shudders); F Major.
2. Recitative (Tenor), continuo: “Kein Unglück ist in aller Welt zu finden / Das ewig dauernd sei”(No misfortune can be found in all the world / that may last for ever); 4/4; a minor to c minor.
3. Aria two parts (Tenor;) Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo: A. “Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange” (Eternity, you frighten me); B. “Es erschrickt und bebt mein Herz” (My heart is terrifiied and shudders); ¾; C Major.

4. Recitative (Bass, Continuo): “Gesetzt, es dau'rte der Verdammten Qual” Just suppose that the torture of the damned were to last); 4/4; g minor to d minor.
5. Aria da-capo (Bass); Oboe I-III, Continuo): A. “Gott ist gerecht in seinen Werken” (God is justified in all he does; B. Sünden dieser Welt / Hat er so lange Pein bestellt” (for the sins of this world / he has decreed such long pain; 4/4, B-Flat Major.
6. Aria (Alto); Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo): “O Mensch, errette deine Seele” (O man, save your soul); ¾; d minor.
7. Chorale (SATB; Tromba da tirarsi e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe III e Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo: “Solang ein Gott im Himmel lebt” (As long as God lives in heaven);

Second Part. 8. Aria two-part dal segno (Bass; Tromba da tirarsi, Oboe I e Violino I, Oboe II e Violino II, Oboe III e Viola all' unisono, Continuo): “Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe” (Wake up, wake up, you lost sheep); B. “Wacht auf, eh die Posaune schallt” (wake up, before the trumpet sounds); 4/4; C Major.

9. Recitative (Alto, Continuo): “Verlaß, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt” (Abandon, o man, the delights of this world); 4/4; a minor.

10. Aria two-part (Duetto) (Alto, Tenor; Continuo: A. “O Menschenkind, / Hör auf geschwind, / Die Sünd und Welt zu lieben”; B. “Ach spiegle dich am reichen Mann” (Ah see yourself in the rich man); ¾, a minor.

11. Chorale (SATB; Tromba da tirarsi e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe III e Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo): “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, / O Schwert, das durch die Seele bohrt” (O eternity, word of thunder, / o sword that pierces through the soul; 4/4 F Major.

Questions Raised

As the first in his series of chorale cantatas, BWV 20 raises important questions, has similarities and differences with Cantata 75 of the same Sunday in the previous year as his inaugural cantata (both have great opening choruses), and shows considerable planning and benefit of experience, says Julian Mincham in his Cantata 20 analysis in his on-line The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.4 <<The position of this cantata, the first of an uninterrupted sequence of forty works each commencing with a gigantic chorale fantasia, marks it as one of special interest. Its placement suggests several fascinating questions. What does it say to the congregation? To God? What may we learn of Bach's development as a composer of church music? And what does it tell us of Bach's intentions and ambitions as a provider of ‘well regulated church music’ as he embarks upon his second year at Leipzig?
One might take a moment to compare it with C 75, the first work of the first cycle, heard just over a year previously. Firstly, it can safely be assumed that Bach intended to begin each of his first two cycles with a flourish. Both Cs 75 and 20 are in two parts and both have more than the usual 5-8 movements. They each require strings and oboes, and call upon a trumpet when a more positive character is required.

Clearly, in each case Bach was keen to assert himself. Here I am; this is what you can expect from me! And on both occasions came 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 works refer to the parable of the rich man whose wealth will not buy his place in heaven; but in C 20 Bach, and his librettist, were clearly more concerned with the themes of eternity, everlasting torments and their implications for humans. For all of the contrasts of rich and poor, joy and sorrow, redeeming faith and destructive disbelief, C 75 never attains quite the range we find in the later work. (C 75 was actually written while Bach was at Cöthen and, like the even earlier C 4, gives us fascinating glimpses into Bach's evolving approaches to text and compositional technique).

The opening choruses of these works make the point clearly. Both have more than one section and contrasting tempi but the assertive dotted rhythms of the later work convey a strength and confidence that contrasts with the reflective, almost regretful, wisps of elegiac oboe melody in C 75. Similarly, the tortuous melodic lines depicting the torments of human agony in the pits of the damned (tenor and alto arias) have no counterparts in the earlier work. (Further contextual information may be found in vol 3, chapter 17 on C 39, also composed for this day. A more complete study of C 75 is in vol 1, chapter 2).

C20 followed the experience of composing, arranging and performing cantatas at the rate of more than one a week for a full year. Bach clearly drew upon that experience to embark upon a new and particularly innovative stage of his creative life. And whilst he seldom reused pieces of his own music in the second cycle, chorales were a part of the heritage of the church and always available for recycling. For example, that which forms the basis of the opening chorus of this cantata had also been used to create the dialogue duet of C 60, a very different movement. The keen student will delight in comparing Bach’s distinctive uses of the same basic material (see vol 1, chapter 26).

As mentioned in the previous chapter, further evidence of Bach's long term planning comes from the fact that in the first four cantatas of the cycle he presents the chorale melody in different voices; here in the sopranos, next altos (C 2), tenors (C 7) and basses (C 135). There was no real reason why he should have done this, other than to set himself the type of challenge which seemed to stimulate his imagination and inventiveness. Perhaps it was an implied 'musical contract' with his choir; everyone was to have a piece of the action!

Part 1 seems to have been planned with a very precise sense of order and balance. A recitative and aria for tenor is followed by a recitative and aria for bass. This section closes with an alto aria and the first statement of the chorale which will also conclude Part 2. In C 75 the chorale had been much more richly adorned with a flowing oboe and violin line. Bach does adorn his chorale on occasions in this cycle (see, for example, the added horn obbligato in C 1 and the orchestration in C 107) but his preference is usually for the plain four-part setting.

Part 2 has its own (different) balance: aria, recitative, duet and chorale. One wonders why, in a work of this length and complexity containing eight arias and recitatives, Bach did not call upon the soprano as soloist. It is possible that a favoured performer was indisposed. But there is no evidence that he re-wrote any movements in a hurry and in any case it is difficult to believe that Bach spent only a few days composing this work which he must have viewed as a highly significant statement. Even if he had only begun composing it at the beginnof the week of its performance, it beggars belief to suppose that he had not been turning over in his mind both the structure of this piece and the overall cycle strategy 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 major-key nature of the opening movements of each part, this is a work with a sulphurous feel of Satan's caverns of eternal torment and Bach may have felt that the mood was best conveyed through the lower and darker timbres of the other voices.

Additionally, all but one of the arias and recitatives in Part 1 are in the minor modes thus supporting this speculation. Finally, it may be for similar reasons that Bach decided not to employ his festive (and available) trumpet independently in the first movement.>>

In his extensive introduction and background to the chorale cantata cycle,5 Mincham raises important questions about the “imposing chorale fantasia.” “The first forty cantatas all commence with an imposing chorale fantasia. One approaches each with a sense of expectation and wonderment. Will it be in a major or minor key? What is the text about? Which images from the text will Bach particularly emphasise and why? What instrumentation does he employ? How does he write for those voices not carrying the chorale tune? In what ways does he quarry the chorale for motivic ideas? How might the fantasia relate to the rest of the cantata?”

Cantata 20 Details

The importance of Trinity Time, the new chorale cantata cycle, the character and importance of Cantata 20, and musical-textual details are discussed in Johan Eliot Gardiner’s liner notes to this 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage on Soli Deo Gloria. 6 <<Trinity 1 was of particular significance during Bach’s time in Leipzig. It marked the starting point for the first two of his cantata cycles, providing him with the opportunity to announce himself musically to his new community (in BWV 75) and, exactly a year later, to establish a new stylistic orientation (with BWV 20). It also marked the beginning of the second half of the Lutheran liturgical year: the Trinity season or ‘era of the Church’ in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored, in contrast to the first half, known as the ‘Temporale’ which, beginning in Advent and ending on Trinity Sunday, focuses on the life of Christ, His incarnation, death and resurrection. The three surviving cantatas for Trinity 1 are all large-scale, bipartite works, musically ambitious and of the highest quality. All three take their lead from the Gospel of the day, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, and the theme of pursuing riches on earth or in heaven, and from the Epistle, which defines love of God and the need for brotherly love. Bach’s treatment of these themes in each of the cantatas is diverse. Our grouping them together in a single programme made for a fascinating glimpse into the workings of his imagination – a display of his virtuosic mastery of varied musical rhetoric.

Still more imposing is BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, composed a year later. Confronted by the baffling and disquieting subject of eternity, and specifically the eternity of hell, Bach is fired up as never before. The text expounds the paradox that we can only work towards our salvation by dealing with the here and now. Johann Rist’s chorale of 1642 runs to sixteen verses, here reduced to twelve, three of which are retained verbatim, the others paraphrased. This work opened Bach’s Jahrgang II, consisting of chorale-based cantatas; it is a radical switch, not just of musical style but of theological emphasis, underlining the severity of God’s judgement, the flip side to the forgiving, loving nature referred to in the Epistle. Fear, rather than comfort, is now the theme, the prospect of an eternity of pain and suffering the spur to man to save his soul (No.6), with the imminent arrival of the coffin-cart clattering across the cobbles to the front door (No.9). Does Bach take his cue from the Epistle – the need for ‘boldness in the day of judgement’?

BWV 20 opens with an elaborate choral fantasia fitted over a French overture. Three oboes confront the string band: each group hammers out a whole bar’s worth of semiquavers, suggesting a heart-thumping terror. The rising melodic cantus firmus (‘O Ewigkeit’) doubled by the martial (almost-apocalyptic) tromba da tirarsi carries the lower three voices in its wake up to a top F, before they splinter off in the double-dotted style of the instruments (‘du Donnerwort’). In the vivace the oboes and strings join together to present a double fugue, the second of which descends chromatically, appropriate to the text ‘With my great grief, I do not know which way to turn’. The lower voices are now more detached from the tune, containing several powerful cross-accents and a huge upward sweep for the basses on ‘Traurigkeit’. Abruptly the orchestra grinds to a halt on a diminished seventh: out of the dramatic silence, terse and horrific fragments are tossed from oboes to strings and back again before the choir resumes with ‘My terrified heart quakes so, that my tongue cleaves to my gums’. The fragmentation and disjointed nature of the discourse is uncompromising and leaves no room for hope. We seem to have been propelled forward by some eighty years to the world of Beethoven.

The tenor prolongs the mood of torment (Nos 2 and 3) – ‘as Jesus says, there is no redemption from agony’ – ramming home the themes of anxiety, pain, hell and the quaking heart. Bach uses a varied thematic armoury: long notes and undulating quavers to suggest eternity, chains of appoggiaturas stretched over tortuous figurations to suggest fear, wild runs for flames and burning, broken fragments, chromatic and syncopated, for the quaking heart. Sudden silences at phrase-ends add to the sense of disjointedness and terror. Yet all this profligacy of dramatic imagery is perfectly and seamlessly integrated into the overall design.

The bass soloist (Nos 4 and 5) climbs back into his pulpit – literally in our performance, as Dietrich Henschel strode purposefully from his place in the back row of the choir – to deliver another harrowing contemplation of ‘a thousand million years with all the demons’. Suddenly we are in the world of opera buffa, or rather of ducks, three of them (all oboes), and a bassoon, quacking in genial assent to the singer’s claim that ‘Gott is gerecht’. The mood seems to jar horribly. Have we been conned by all the earlier fire and brimstone? Or was it a deliberate ploy to dissipate the gloom – like bleeding an over-pressurised radiator – offering a glimmer of hope to the now-battered Christian soul? Dietrich Henschel suggested that Bach’s purpose here is to insist that there really was ‘kein Problem’: all that is required is for the believer simply to trust in God. You can almost see him sitting back in his chair, favourite pipe in mouth, blowing smoke circles contentedly. If so, the reprieve is only temporary. The strange sequel, an aria (No.6) in triple time for alto and strings, ‘O mankind, save your soul’, is presented with extravagant rhythmic dislocation, no doubt representative of ‘Satan’s slavery’, regular 3/4 bars alternating with single or double hemiolas. Stranger still is the way that Bach repeats the singer’s second phrase with orchestra alone: twenty-three bars of singer-silent Nachspiel out of a total of sixty-four. A pessimistic, even nihilistic chorale stanza (No.7) closes Part I: ‘Torment shall never cease’.

What did the preacher use as his sermon text? Perhaps the call to the lost sheep to throw off the sleep of sin, the subject of the superb bass aria in C major for trumpet and strings (No.8) which opens Part II, Bach’s answer to Handel’s ‘The trumpet shall sound’ from Messiah. It is immensely taxing both for singer and trumpeter, requiring technical control and dramatic delivery.

The alto soloist now launches into a threatening tirade against the carnal world, which leads to an alto/tenor duet (No.10) with continuo only, made up of successions of six chords over a dquaver line, proto-Verdian in its terse, tense working out. The parallel thirds and sixths in the voice parts give way first to imitative and answering phrases, then to lavish chromaticism, anguished when they evoke the bubbling stream and the drop of water denied to the parched Dives. The voices join in one last evocation of the forbidden water, the continuo play their last furtive snatch of ritornello, then... black out... dissolve. Extraordinary! Only the final chorale (No.11), this time ending with a plea to God to be taken from life’s torments and temptations and the ghoulish spectre of eternity, brings a glimmer of hope to this technicoloured cantata.>> © John Eliot Gardiner 2004, from a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Making of a Chorale Cantata Cycle

Bach’s chorale cantata cycle, a possible precedence in honor of the bicentennial of the first Lutheran hymnbooks of 1524, and the collaboration of Bach and his librettist, are discussed in Klaus Hofmann’s liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki BIS cantata recordings.7 <<The cantata that Bach wrote for the first Sunday after Trinity, performed at the Leipzig service on 11th June 1724, marked the beginning of the largest musical project that the composer ever undertook: the ‘chorale cantata year’. It would seem that Bach and his text author planned that, every Sunday for a whole year, the church service should feature a cantata that did not relate primarily to the gospel reading for that day but was associated instead with a well-known hymn. It was part of this plan that, in each case, the first strophe of the hymn should be heard as a large-scale movement for chorus with its original words and the melody that was current at the time, and that the final verse – likewise unchanged in text and melody – should be heard as a simple concluding chorale. The verses in between would normally be transformed into recitatives and arias. Bach’s project was certainly undertaken with the consent of the Leipzig clergy; indeed, they may even have suggested the idea. The point of departure was a reflection upon traditions: in 1690 the pastor of St. Thomas’s, Johann Benedikt Carpzov, had publicly announced that he would, as he had done the previous year, not only deliver a sermon based on the gospel for the day but also shed light upon a ‘good, beautiful, old, evangelical and Lutheran song’, and that the director of music, Johann Schelle (Bach’s pre-predecessor), had offered to present these hymns ‘in attractive music, and to play them… before the sermon’. The immediate impulse, however, was provided by an anniversary: 200 years earlier, in 1524, the first hymn books of the new, evangelical church appeared; it seems certain that this historical connection would have been recognized in the orthodox Lutheran city of Leipzig with its important faculty of theology. Whoever provided the inspiration, however, Bach’s ‘chorale cantata year’ became one of the most splendid and beautiful artistic tributes ever paid to the evangelical hymn.

It is to be regretted, though, that Bach’s project was not taken through to its conclusion: with the reperformance of the much earlier cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV4) at Easter 1725 the series of chorale cantatas breaks off abruptly, after the composition of forty works. The reasons for this are unknown, but fate may have played a part: on 31st January 1725 the Leipzig theologian Andreas Stübel (b. 1653) died unexpectedly; it has been suggested that he was the author of texts for Bach’s chorale cantatas. We have no evidence concerning the way Bach’s chorale cantatas were received by the Leipzig congregation – but they must have earned widespread approbation because, after Bach’s death, these were only works that the city of Leipzig asked to keep from his estate. Even during the time of Bach’s successors in Leipzig, certain chorale cantatas were performed on numerous occasions.

In many respects Bach and his librettist must have started this cantata year as an experiment, as a spiritual adventure. There were no immediate artistic models; the project was a foray into unknown territory – the combination of the modern cantata style with traditional hymns for the congregation. Rarely has an artistic synthesis proved so rewarding. Bach and his poet must have been conscious of the balancing act that they were attempting, and seem to have undertaken to do full justice not only to their artistic ideals but also to the moral purpose of sacred music. And thus, in these cantatas, what was then referred to as ‘popular’, as universally comprehensible, comes especially to the fore. At a high level of artistry – and at the same time in an easily understood and unmistakable manner – the music illustrates the meaning of the text; words and music come together in a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ and, simultaneously, a ‘musical sermon’ in which the function of the music is vividly to convey and imprint the meaning of the text upon the listener. @ Klaus Hofmann 2003


1 Dürr, revised and translated by Richard D. P. Jones (Oxford University Press: New York, 2005: 387-90).
2 Petzoldt, Theologisch Musikwissenschaftlicke Kommentierung der Geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastan Bachs; Vol. 2, Die Geistlichen Kantaten vom 1.Advent bis zum Trinitatisfest; Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007:23).
3. Cantata 20 BCW Details & Discography, German text and Francis Browne English translation, Score Vocal & Piano [2.29 MB], Score BGA [3.42 MB], Scoring: Soloists Alto, Tenor, Bass; 4-part Chorus; Orchestra: trumpet, 3 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo. References: BGA II (Cantatas 11-20, ed. M. Hauptman 1852), NBA KB I/15 (Cantatas for Trinity Sunday, ed. James Webster 1968), Bach Compendium BC A 95, Zwang: K 74.
4 Mincham, A listener and student guide, Revised 2014; see
5 Mincham, The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, VOLUME 2 PART 1: THE SECOND LEIPZIG CYCLE 1724-5. CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND.
6 Gardiner notes,[sdg101_gb].pdf; BCW Recording details,
7 Hofmann notes, BCW[BIS-CD1321].pdf; BCW Recording details,

William Hoffman wrote (May 19, 2014):
Chorales: Liturgical Year, Trinity Time, 1st Sunday after Trinity

See: Motets & Chorales for 1st Sunday after Trinity

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 29, 2014):
Cantata BWV 20 - Revised & Updated Discography

The discography pages of Cantata BWV 20 “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” [I] for alto, tenor & bass; trumpet, 3 oboes, 2 violins, viola& continuo on the BCW has been revised and updated. See:
Complete Recordings (11):
Recordings of Individual Movements (8):
The revised discography many listening/watching options to recordings directly from the discography pages, just below the recording details.

I believe this is the most comprehensive discography of this choral cantata. If you are aware of a recording of BWV 20 missing from these pages, or want to correct/add details of a recording already presented on the BCW, please do not hesitate to inform me.


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

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