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Cantata BWV 34
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe [I]
Cantata BWV 34a
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe [II]

Theodor Glaser | Philipp Spitta | Albert Schweitzer | Woldamar Voigt | Friedrich Smend


Aryeh Oron wrote (June 11, 2003):
BWV 34 - Background [Dr. Theodor Glaser]

The extensive commentary below is quoted from the liner notes to Beringer’s recording of Cantata BWV 34 on Rondeau label. It was written by Dr. Theodor Glaser (2000), Member of the High Consistory (retired). The author used to be suffragan to the Lutheran Bishop of Bavaria. In his clerical capacity, Glaser is in particular demand in the leading sung services, above all in performance of J.S. Bach’s cantatas.

O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe” ("O fire everlasting, O fountain of loving") - thus begins the cantata which Johann Sebastian Bach initially composed during the first half of 1726 for the wedding of a friend who was a Protestant pastor. The cantor of St Thomas' Church later took this festive wedding music and used it for a Whitsunday cantata at some time between 1740 and 1746. The exact year is unknown. Bach made use of the "parody technique", a popular conceit of the period; copying from himself, he took music already composed and performed by him and combined it with new words to suit the occasion. This may be seen to demonstrate the fluidity which existed between "sacred" and "secular" music at the time. In addition, such practice alleviated some of the pressures of work. Bach lifted the opening and closing choruses, as well as the aria, straight from the now missing wedding cantata. The recitatives he composed anew.

Turning the wedding cantata into one suitable for Whitsun was not difficult. The account of Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles 2, 5: 1-13) relates how tongues of fire appeared to settle on the heads of the men in the temple. Along with the wind and the dove, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Fire and passionate love are also undeniably linked. As lovers are ignited with passion for each other, to be consumed by flames of love, so God burns with love for humanity, desiring that we love Him and all His works in return, so that humanity too burns with love. It is likely Bach knew the words written by Martin Luther, "God is Love Incarnate. Were I to paint Him, I would do it thus, that the heart of His divine nature might seem purest fire and immense heat- His love for His people".

Bach paints fire and love with his music. The intentionally huge opening chorus for a large orchestra chronologically encompasses almost half of his cantatas. Musical fireworks go off as timpani and trumpets, stringed instruments, oboes and continuo make their entries. One sees and hears the crackling and licking of the flames. One feels the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit and the glow of love. Though Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, believed that he himself had brought everything to completion with his divinely-glowing heart, it was God's Holy Spirit that succeeded in setting men's hearts on fire.

In the Whitsunday gospel reading we read, "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (John 14: 23). "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you." (John 14: 27). The recitatives, aria and the closing chorus take these texts as their theme. The hearts of men are compared to a house, as the "temple of the Holy Ghost" (1st Book of Corinthians 6: 19). Text and music combine to produce a mystical atmosphere, particularly in the aria, which "numbers one of Bach's most felicitous inspirations" (Alfred Dürr) and is one of the most beautiful pieces Bach ever composed (Alec Robertson).

Muted violins and pastoral flutes echo and compliment the alto line an octave higher, soaring and caressing the mystical love song of the soul to her bridegroom. Albert Schweitzer wrote, "Bach is one of the greatest mystics, for he also knew the world." Yehudi Menuhin added, "A unity existed between him and the Divine."

Bach's library contained works by mediaeval mystics who commented, "There in our deepest innermost selves is where God desires to be. God desires to dwell within your heart, as you yourself dwell within in your house. From out of the very depths of your soul, he will revive and inspire you with his divine presence. Thus is the soul imbued with clarity, truth and kindness, and so is made oblivious to all tribulations. Through time and space it grows until at last it stands in the outer courtyard of eternal salvation." The closing Chorus takes the listener there. Majestic, triumphant, jubilant fanfares by the trumpets proclaim a chorale of thanksgiving, worshipping the power of God's love. An intercession for "Peace [to] be over Israel" is included peace for a new Israel and anew Church, but also in our own century, for the actual country and people of Israel in Palestine. The effect is truly celestial, as if the music has been sent down by the angels, a prelude to vita aeterna, a foretaste of everlasting life and peace.

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 15, 2003):
BWV 34/34a - Commentaries:


Out of a wedding cantata, which has only been preserved as a fragment, but which seems to have been a very significant and interesting composition, Bach fashioned a Pentecost cantata (c. 1740 or 1741) known as BWV 34. It contains 2 choral mvts. and between short recitatives there is in the middle an alto aria “Wohl euch ihr auserwählten Seelen.” The transformation from its original state is quite noticeable in the brevity of the final choral mvt. which did not serve as a concluding mvt. in the original wedding cantata. Likewise, the nuptial atmosphere of the alto aria is quite undeniable. Of all the compositions which Bach composed as wedding music, this aria, without a doubt, presents through its purity, intoxicating aroma, magical sound, and sweet melodies that which is of the highest and simply unattainable quality. Also hovering about the splendid flower of the 1st chorus there is the glow of very human flames of love, which due to Bach’s purity and idealism are not at all disturbing to the overall mood of Pentecost, but this glowing is only properly understood when seen through the original purpose which this mvt. served.


The cantata BWV 34 is shown by the existence of a set of older parts to be founded on a mourning cantata of the same title. (The declamation of the revised text is not always faultless as may be seen from the Tölzer chorus.) [This is a surprising revelation by Schweitzer, for he must have been acquainted with Spitta’s comments on this work at least 1 or 2 decades earlier than Schweitzer’s published work. I do not have the original French or German versions of Schweitzer’s work, but I suspect that the translator confused the difference between “Trauer” (mourning) and “Trauung” (wedding), these words having superficial similarities.] The semiquaver figures of the 1st violins (1st 4 ms. of Mvt. 1) run through the whole of the 1st chorus like the lambent flames that are to set the heart on fire. The lulling music of the alto aria is not fully explained by its present text. This is one of the cases in which the mere knowledge of Bach’s musical language is sufficient to make us decide that the music was originally written for another text. (The theme belongs to the category of the “cradle-song” motifs.) The splendid chorus “Friede über Israel” seems to have been abbreviated from its original form.


This cantata was compiled from bits and pieces of an original wedding cantata which has only been preserved in a fragmentary condition. It was originally composed for the 2nd marriage of a pastor. The music of some of the pieces from this wedding cantata were simply taken over with few or no changes and with some slight, clever changes in the text to make it suitablfor the church services on Pentecost. All of this is possible because Bach’s music tended to surpass generally the texts written for specific occasions and actually served to add depth to them.

The 1st chorus is very expansive and extremely splendid, lively and yet ceremonious/solemn. The uniquely restlessly flickering movement of the 1st violins may have arisen from the imaginative conception/depiction of the flames of the Holy Ghost that appeared on Pentecost and filled the entire assembly room. The motif consisting of a single note held for a number of beats on the word ‘ewiges’ [eternal] appears at first homophonically, but is later developed and used as one of the themes of the double fugue.
[Voigt then discusses the problems associated with the trumpet parts: he recommends the use of valve trumpets with the filler parts (those not carrying the melody) to be played an octave lower, or even the possibility of clarinets if trumpets are not available.]

The beautiful alto aria gets its pastoral character from its original text which describes the peace that comes to a congregation through the protection offered it by the faithful shepherd (either Christ or the pastor.) The new text that is used deepens the understanding of this idea even further. A very special device which Bach uses to express the heavenly peace that will come to those souls that have chosen to live with God is the con sordino (muted strings) of the 1st and 2nd violins.

The mighty cry “Peace over Israel” has received an even more prominent and significant place in the reworking of this cantata. In the original, this was reserved only for the congregation, but here it appears as spoken by God.

There is no final chorale because this music was positioned in the middle of the service. But I recommend using the final chorale from BWV 29 which also uses trumpets and timpani as a fitting, brilliant conclusion to this cantata.


This grand Pentecost cantata is from the early 1740s. This was a time when Bach was involved in revisiting earlier works and revising certain mvts. which he deemed worthwhile for serving another purpose. It was during the 1740s that Bach took from the 1723 version of the SJP (BWV 245) the monumental choral fantasia “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” and added it to the SMP (in 1727 this mvt. in the SJP had been replaced by the choral mvt. “Herr, unser Herrscher.”

This Pentecost cantata is a parody based upon a wedding cantata which has been preserved only as a fragment. From the few fragmentary mvts., nevertheless, it is possible to come to the conclusion that its large-scale conception far surpassed what is left over in the Pentecost cantata. Bach only carried 2 choral mvts. and one aria over to the parody and even changed the order in which they originally appeared. The mvt. “Friede über Israel” was not intended as a conclusion to the wedding cantata, only as the mvt. concluding the 1st half of the cantata just before the actual wedding ceremony.

We also encounter a similar sound of muted violins supported by flutes in the higher octave (Mvt. 3 alto aria) in the tenor aria of the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” which is in similar fashion a parody of a secular work. The expressive musical figures in the alto aria “Wohl euch” bear a resemblance to the figured chorale “O Mensch, bewein” already mentioned above.

Only when you begin to understand the early stages of this cantata will it begin to make sense; for instance, the repeated emphasis upon the blessing which was intoned liturgically (Numbers 6:24-26) during the wedding service. The fact that not a single Pentecost chorale is sung is another such point that needs to be considered. Nevertheless a close connection is made between the text and the Pentecost Gospel (John 14: 23-31.) The text of every mvt. is an interpretation of this Gospel reading for this feast day. The dwelling of peace is the Church, which is primarily described in the Bible using the picture of the Bride of the heavenly Lord. The time of Pentecost concentrates upon this Church of the Holy Spirit/Ghost. In this way the use of nuptial music become understandable here.

This cantata includes magnificent choral mvts., particularly the stunning opening of the final mvt. which is introduced by a bass recitative that leads directly into it. The festive brilliance of the instrumentation coupled with the strict form (double fugue sections, etc.) makes this one of the most significant cantatas that Bach ever composed.


Cantatas BWV 34 & BWV 34a: Details & Complete Recordings of BWV 34 | Recordings of Individual Movements from BWV 34 | Details & Recordings of BWV 34a | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources


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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:32