O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20

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O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
BWV 20
Chorale cantata by J. S. Bach
Leipzig Nikolaikirche um 1850.jpg
Nikolaikirche, c. 1850
Occasion First Sunday after Trinity
Performed 11 June 1724 (1724-06-11): Leipzig
Movements 11 in two parts (7, 4)
Cantata text anonymous
Chorale "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort"
by Johann Rist
  • SATB choir
  • solo: alto, tenor and bass
  • tromba da tirarsi
  • 3 oboes
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • continuo

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, you word of thunder),[1] BWV 20, is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed it in Leipzig for the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday and first performed it on 11 June 1724. It is the first cantata he composed for his chorale cantata cycle, the second annual cycle he started in Leipzig. The cantata is based on Johann Rist's hymn "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" (1642), with a chorale melody by Johann Schop.

History and words[edit]

Bach composed the cantata for the First Sunday after Trinity.[2] The Sunday marks the beginning of the second half of the liturgical year, "in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored".[3] The year before, Bach had taken office as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.[4] He was responsible for the education of the Thomanerchor, performances in the regular services in the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche and others.[2] He had started the project of composing one cantata for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year,[3][5] termed by Christoph Wolff "an artistic undertaking on the largest scale".[4] In 1724 he started a project on the first Sunday after Trinity to exclusively compose chorale cantatas, based on the main Lutheran hymn for the respective occasion, beginning with this cantata.[3] Leipzig had a tradition of concentrating on the hymns. In 1690, the minister of the Thomaskirche, Johann Benedikt Carpzov, had announced that he would preach also on songs and that Johann Schelle, then the director of music, would play the song before the sermon.[6] Bach composed some forty chorale cantatas in his second cycle.[6]

The prescribed readings for the Sunday were from the First Epistle of John, "God is Love" (1 John 4:16–21), and from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). The text is based on Johann Rist's hymn in 16 stanzas "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort", using 12 of the stanzas.[3] The hymn, considering death and eternity, is well suited to match the parable of the rich man who has to face death and hell.[6] It is subtitled "Ernstliche Betrachtung der unendlichen Ewigkeit" (A Serious Consideration of Endless Eternity).[7] The text of three stanzas is kept unchanged, 1, 8 and 12, used for movements 1, 7 and 11.[3] An unknown author rephrased the other stanzas of the chorale to recitatives and arias, generally alternating and using one stanza for one cantata movement. The poet combined two stanzas, 4 and 5, to form movement 4. He used the lines "Vielleicht ist dies der letzte Tag, kein Mensch weiß, wenn er sterben mag" (Perhaps this is your last day, no one knows when he might die)[1] from stanza 9 in movement 9 which is otherwise based on stanza 10. In movement 10 he inserted a hint at the Gospel. In general, he stays close to the text, which is characteristic for the early cantatas in Bach's second annual cycle.[2] The poet was possibly Andreas Stübel, who died in 1725, a possible explanation why Bach did not complete the full cycle, but ended on Palm Sunday.[6]

The chorale theme was composed by Johann Schop for the hymn "Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich", which appeared in his collection Himlische Lieder (Lüneburg, 1642). It is featured in all three movements using Rist's text.[8]

Bach first performed the cantata on 11 June 1724.[2]

Scoring and structure[edit]

The cantata is festively scored for three vocal soloists (alto, tenor and bass), a four-part choir, tromba da tirarsi to double the cantus firmus, three oboes, two violins, viola, and continuo.[2] The work contains eleven movements in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon.[6]

Part I

  1. Chorus: O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
  2. Recitative (tenor): Kein Unglück ist in aller Welt zu finden
  3. Aria (tenor): Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange
  4. Recitativa (bass): Gesetzt, es dau'rte der Verdammten Qual
  5. Aria (bass): Gott ist gerecht in seinen Werken
  6. Aria (alto): O Mensch, errette deine Seele
  7. Chorale: Solang ein Gott im Himmel lebt

Part II

  1. Aria (bass): Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe
  2. Recitative (alto): Verlaß, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt
  3. Duet aria (alto, tenor): O Menschenkind, hör auf geschwind
  4. Chorale: O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort


The opening chorus, beginning not only the cantata but also the second annual cantata cycle, is in the style of a solemn French Overture in the typical three sections slow – fast (vivace) – slow. The French Overture was designed to mark the entry of the king.[6] The melody is sung by the soprano as a cantus firmus in long notes, doubled by the slide trumpet. The chorale is in bar form. The first Stollen of three lines is handled in the slow section, the second Stollen of lines 4 to 6 in the fast section, the Abgesang of lines 7 an 8 in the concluding slow section. The lower voices are mostly in homophony. The development of themes happens in the orchestra. The rising theme of the slow section in dotted rhythm is derived from the beginning of the chorale tune, whereas the theme of the fast section is not related to the tune. The fast section is not a strict fugue. Bach seems mostly interested in illustrating the text,[2] Ewigkeit (eternity) is rendered in long notes in the lower voices and the instruments, Donnerwort (thunderous word) appears as a sudden change to short notes with a melisma in the bass, on the words große Traurigkeit (great sadness)[1] a downward chromatic line, a counterpoint in the fast section, also appears in the voices,[6] erschrocken (terrified)[1] is rendered in jarred rhythms interrupted by rests, first in the orchestra, then also in the voices, klebt (cleave)[1] is a long note in the voices.[2] John Eliot Gardiner describes: "The fragmentation and disjointed nature of the discourse is uncompromising and leaves no room for hope", and summarizes regarding the cantata: "Confronted by the baffling and disquieting subject of eternity, and specifically the eternity of hell, Bach is fired up as never before".[3]

The recitatives are mostly secco, with an arioso only in movement 9 on the words Pracht, Hoffart, Reichtum, Ehr, und Geld (splendor, pride, riches, honor, and wealth)[1] from the chorale. The arias contrast, interpreting the text in its affekt and in single phrases.[2] Gardiner notes about the first pair of recitative and aria:

The tenor prolongs the mood of torment ... 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.[3]

In movement 8, the call to wake up is intensified by trumpet signals and fast scales, evoking the Last Judgement.[6] The first motif in movement 10 is sung by the two singers of the duet on the words O Menschenkind ("o child of man") and are repeated instrumentally as a hint of that warning.[2] Both parts of the cantata are concluded by the same four-part chorale setting, asking finally Nimm du mich, wenn es dir gefällt, Herr Jesu, in dein Freudenzelt! (Take me, Jesus, if you will, into the felicity of your tent).[1][6]

Selected recordings[edit]

The sortable listing is taken from the selection provided by Aryeh Oron on the Bach-Cantatas website.[9] The type of choir and orchestra is roughly shown as a large group by red background, and as an ensemble with period instruments in historically informed performance or a choir of one voice per part (OVPP) by green background.

Recordings of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Orch. type
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 39 Rilling, HelmuthHelmuth Rilling
Frankfurter Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Hänssler 1970 (1970)
J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk • Complete Cantatas • Les Cantates, Folge / Vol. 5 Harnoncourt, Nikolaus Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Concentus Musicus Wien
Teldec 1972 (1972) Period
J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 10 Koopman, TonTon Koopman
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Antoine Marchand 1998 (1998) Period
Bach Edition Vol. 18 – Cantatas Vol. 9 Leusink, Pieter JanPieter Jan Leusink
Holland Boys Choir
Netherlands Bach Collegium
Brilliant Classics 2000 (2000) Boys Period
Bach Cantatas Vol. 1: City of London / For the 1st Sunday after Trinity Gardiner, John EliotJohn Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Soli Deo Gloria 2000 (2000) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas for the First and Second Sundays After Trinity Smith, CraigCraig Smith
chorus of Emmanuel Music
orchestra of Emmanuel Music
Koch International 2001 (2001)
J. S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 8 – Leipzig Cantatas Suzuki, MasaakiMasaaki Suzuki
Bach Collegium Japan
BIS 2002 (2002) Period
J. S. Bach: "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort" – Cantatas BWV 2, 20 & 176 Herreweghe, PhilippePhilippe Herreweghe
Collegium Vocale Gent
Harmonia Mundi France 2002 (2002) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year Vol. 7 Cantatas BWV 20 · 2 · 10 Kuijken, SigiswaldSigiswald Kuijken
La Petite Bande
Accent 2007 (2007) OVPP Period


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Dellal, Pamela. "BWV 20 – "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I"". Emmanuel Music. Retrieved 16 June 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dürr, Alfred (1981). Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach (in German). 1 (4 ed.). Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag. pp. 333–336. ISBN 3-423-04080-7. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Gardiner, John Eliot (2004). "Cantatas for the First Sunday after Trinity / St Giles Cripplegate, London" (PDF). bach-cantatas.com. p. 2. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Wolff, Christoph (1991). Bach: Essays on his Life and Music. ISBN 9780674059269. 
  5. ^ Mincham, Julian (2010). "Chapter 2 BWV 75 Die Elenden sollen essen / The first cantata of the cycle for the First Sunday after Trinity.". jsbachcantatas.com. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hofmann, Klaus (2002). "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20 / O eternity, thou thunderous word" (PDF). bach-cantatas.com. p. 5. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  7. ^ "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort / Text and Translation of Chorale". bach-cantatas.com. 2003. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "Chorale Melodies used in Bach's Vocal Works / Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich". bach-cantatas.com. 2005. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  9. ^ Oron, Aryeh (2006). "Cantata BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (I)". bach-cantatas.com. Retrieved 23 June 2015.