Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 14th November-24th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach-cantata BWV 60-,O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort’-

Oct 28, 2021

This interesting, innovative and historically important cantata, is both dramatic and theatrical, as well as being, musically, extremely.

It is dominated by a rising sequence, sometimes nearly scalic and moving by step, other times fragmentary and most famously, in the closing chorale, in three tones.

This idea of note sequence, links this piece with dodecaphony and in particular to Berg’s violin concerto, with which it is intimately connected

The closing chorale has alone spawned the bulk of the thought, comment and creativity surrounding this composition. There is no chorus, as such, three voices, alto, tenor, bass sing the arias and recits, string and continuo, are joined by three oboe d’amore. A single Corno reinforces the choral melody, in both the opening and the final chorale, and that is joined by a single soprano voice, in the final chorale.

In addition to this rich musical content, and with the exception of that final chorale, each and every movement takes the form of a musical duet, -a doubling, also creating a textual and theatrical dialogue, between the alto and tenor voice, -or ‘fear’, ,Furcht’and ‘hope’, ,Hoffnung’, conversing, in the face of death’ with the exception of movement 4, where the alto voice is joined, this time, by the bass voice, – vox christi, or the authority of God.

The contrast, between hope and fear is always considerable, rather like that between optimism pan Hope… (and eventually Christ), constantly have the final word.

BWV is, among many other things, a good example of an allegorical-cantata.


An opening chorale arrangement, in the form, -eventually, of a duet, as the tenor does not appear until 33.

FEAR/Furcht: ‘O eternity, your word of thunder! O sword that pierces our soul! O beginning, with no ending! O eternity, a timeless time! With my great sorrow, I do not know which way to turn. My terrified heart quakes, so that my tongue, sticks to the roof, of my mouth.’

HOPE/Hoffnung: ‘Lord, I wait for your salvation.’

One snap-shot moment of terror, during an eternity of time.

The text informs us of,

‘a word of thunder’

‘a sword that is piercing our soul’

and all this, happening, with a‘beginning’, but with ‘no ending’. -a ‘timeless time’ indeed.

And, as well, consequences:

Sorrow, -either as a condition, or a result, terror, heart palpitations, and a dry mouth.

A perfect storm, of cause and effect.

Bach’s storm in a major key and it does seem timeless, not in its metre, but in its relentlessness.

One way in which he achieves this, is with his relentless, ostinato semiquavers, which never seem to cease.

These anticipate the opening choral tune…and also the closing choral tune.

Notice his D major opening, with a held tonic and repeated A, very Beethoven, even Bruckner.

These semiquavers soon broaden out, -remember the rising first violin part, an upward note sequence, as it will make relevant appearance, later on- tonic pedal + dominant 7th and the oboes are upon us.

They make a twist, -in both tonic and dominant flavour, which is then imitated, between the both of them.

At 6, a new slashing-quaver-figure starts to cut through the oboe line. They stand their ground, holding on, eventually succumbing to the overwhelming semiquaver onslaught.

At 14, the alto soloist arrives.

The word of thunder, -semiquavers, and the slashing sword, -quavers, piercing our souls.

But none of this sounds very sorrowful, or indeed terrifying.

The heart palpitations are there, in amongst, or as a result of, hose words of thunder.

And where is the dry mouth?

Hopefully, not troubling our soloist, -Hope, or Furcht, who has to sing, loudly, over all this tumult.

Happily a willing horn player, is at hand, standing the ground, in much needed support.

At 33, the tenor, or hope, or Hoffnung sets off on his wait for salvation.

This is of a completely different nature to the choral melody so clearly and precisely articulated.

A richly embellished counterpoint, a sort of arioso, of orchestral ritornello parts, with held and florid notes.

The contrast could not be more different.

Of course, the words of hope encircle and envelope the words of fear, hopefully cancelling, and certainly overwhelming, and words of fear.


FEAR: ‘A hard road to the struggle, the last battle.

HOPE: My help, is at hand, for my Saviour, is by my side, bringing comfort and consolation.

FEAR: The fear of death, -the final pain, overtakes and surprises, my heart and torturing my body.

HOPE: I lay down this body, before God, as a sacrifice, even though the conditions, of the fire, of afflictions, is fierce. It is worth-it, as it purifies me, towards God’s praise.

FEAR: Now, I see the great process, of my own sins, in front of, my very eyes.

HOPE: God will not, on these accounts, sentence you to death. He will provide a way of escape, from torments and temptations, so that we may get through them.’

Listen for two changes, towards arioso mode and mood, the first at,

,…martert diese Glieder’ or the torturing of limbs,

where Bach teases out the sinews, with consequential agonies, in the musical line, and

,Dass man, sie kann ertragen’

where the ecstasy of the line reflects relief, that the pain, is turned to pleasure.

Nice three bar coda reinforces this idea.


FEAR: ‘My final resting place, will terrify me.

HOPE: The Saviours hand, will protect me.

FEAR: My faith is weak and sinking.

HOPE: My Jesus will bear the burden, with me.

FEAR: The open grave, fills me, with horror.

HOPE: But, for me, it will become, a house, of peace.

This difficult and intense duet forms the central moment, of the cantata and tension between the two protagonists is evident, from the start.

The continuo and oboe, are dominated by dotted rhythm, whilst the violin is constantly concerned, with up and down, scale-like passage work and whenever two voices are joined with two obligato instruments, the structure becomes more 4 part than 2, as in this aria.

Into the scal-ic and dotted mix, is added, by the voices, an‘upward 3 note-followed by a drop’ figuration. This is based on the opening dotted shape, of the oboe.

FEAR starts off and is answered, by HOPE, they then, both combining, at 21, with a wealth of, primary and secondary material, during the first part of the dialogue.

The second dialogue, moves off with an ‘up, then downward 4 note followed by a leap’ figuration, which is combined, imaginatively, as before, between the 4 off them.

At 65 and the moment, of the ‘opening grave’, a new figuration, possibly derived from the bass line crochets, sets HOPE off on a quest to convince FEAR, somewhat frantically, that,

‘…it can be a peaceable habitation.’

That HOPE is continually trying to comfort Fear, seems evident from the weave of the counterpoint, at the start particularly and throughout.


Here, the figure of CHRIST, takes over from HOPE:

FEAR: ‘Death remains hateful, to all humanity and almost drags HOPE, into the ground.

CHRIST: Blessed, are the dead.

FEAR: But, how much danger presents itself, to the soul, on the journey, to death. Perhaps the jaws of hell, will make death terrifying, to me when death attempts to devour me. Perhaps I am already condemned, to an everlasting damnation.

CHRIST: Blessed are the dead, who die, in The Lord.

FEAR: If I die, in The Lord, can Salvation, be my lot and portion? For worms will surely eat my body and my limbs shall return to dust and earth, since I am reckoned, a child of death and seem, in truth, to decay, in the grave.

CHRIST: ‘Forever blessed are dead, who die, in The Lord.

FEAR: Well then, if I am blessed, from now on, HOPE, please appear again, beside me. Then my body may rest in peace and my spirit can glimpse joy.’

This recit is constantly interrupted and contrasted with and by, exquisitely beautiful and expansive, arioso moments, where the voice of Christ, the Vox Christi, quotes from the book of The Revelation. The long sustained vocal notes supported by a walking bass finally seeks to dispel the agitation so often heard in this cantata.


‘All of this, is enough. If it pleases you, then, do unharness me, from my burden. My Jesus, He is coming.

Good night, world. I am going, to my heavenly house. I go, with confidence and peace. I am leaving my misery, down here, on earth.

All of this, is enough.’

This is one of the most important chorales set by Bach and is significant, historically as well as musically.

The text is self explanatory.

The tune, Johann Georg Ahle, is a daring offering, in that, it commences with three rising tones, forming the interval of the augmented 4th, A-D#, or the tritone, -the Diabolus in Musica, an embarrassing, daring, musical and almost social faux-pas, most probably quoted, to evoke, that tricky passage, or cross-over, of any soul, in its migration, from life, to death.

Bach’s approach, to this outstanding feature, is equally outstanding and daring, in that, he chooses to prepare, that offending D#, by placing a D natural, in the previous alto beat, against a C#, creating, in that process, a double-whammy.

Is this to soften the blow?

I doubt it.

In the second stollen, he soften the harmony, which sweetens the pill, and the tritone seems attuned, or conditioned, to us.

Notice the great chromatic descent, in the bass, as, the great misery, or woe, descends, to remain, on earth.

The final three notes of the bass line, seem to remind us, that turmoil, in the central aria movement 3, seems to be finally repealed and reconciled, at the end, as the bass line shape of the chorale is identical with that opening bass line, of the aria.

The affiliation, of this chorale -and indeed, this cantata, with the Berg violin concerto, is a well known fact, and that the composer of that work, had his hand, forced away, from completing his second and final opera Lulu, through the death of a child, -in fact the 18 year old daughter, Manon, of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, whom he immortalised as:

,Dem Andenken eines Engels’ -to the memory of an angel’

within its ethereal sounds, is our gain, despite it costing us, and him, the completed Lulu.

It was Berg’s last completed work and first performed, a year after his death.

By happy chance, the last 4 notes of Berg’s tone row, formed a tritone, B, C#, D#, E#, the opening shape of this chorale, and as this cantata was obviously know, to the composer, this wasn’t lost on him.

And the words fitted the occasion.

How much the cantata, or Bach, or the chorale, or the young dedicatee, or indeed, Berg’s own unknown, but looming death, influenced the composer, directly or indirectly, in the composition of his concerto masterpiece, is an ongoing matter of discussion, as the score is dotted about with clues, especially the chorale-variations, which appear in the final section, where the chorale, with Bach’s harmony, is quote, in full.

Death and life, consume both the cantata and the concerto.

Whatever speculations, truths, or conclusions may be reached, there seems, to me, to be much more than meets the eye, or ear, than is at first apparent, especially on just one hearing, of both.

As so often with Bach, later composers realise that, happily, their own work, -consciously or otherwise, owes much to their (much) greater predecessor.

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