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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O Eternity, thou thunderword)

Cantata 20

  • First Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: 1 John iv. 16-21 (God is love)
  • Gospel: Luke xvi. 19-31 (Dives and Lazarus)
  • Rating: 2

Inevitably this cantata invites comparison with BWV 60 and almost as inevitably it doesn't match up to its astonishing sibling. Still, there's some very attractive music in this piece even if the words leave one with a sense of having had too large a dose of hellfire and damnation! The opening chorus, cast in the form of a French Overture, is based on the same hymn verse and melody as that of BWV 60 and features a stern opening section followed by an agitated change of tempo. It's not surprising, the poor sinners' terrified heart is contemplating the sword that bores through the soul! The first recitative amplifies this by pointing out that no worldly misfortune is so bad as the possibility of eternal misfortune. After this, the first aria (for tenor) suggests thatEternity, you make me fearful. I'm not surprised. The low string accompaniment here effectively amplifies the sense of disquiet. A long recitative follows, hammering in the message about the eternal torment of the damned….BUT….the following bass aria points out, to a very jolly accompaniment from three oboes, that God is just. Phew. Then when you had thought that the mood had changed for the better, along comes a brief reminder in the final aria of the first half (the alto this time) that man jolly well ought to save his soul before he is condemned to the sulphurous cavern. The first half ends with a straightforward harmonisation of the chorale melody. (Especially here, you may wish to make the comparison with BWV 60). There is often this journey from darkness into light in the cantatas but rarely is the dark featured for quite so long.

The second part of the cantata starts with a rousing wake up call from the bass, ably assisted by the trumpet and continues with a rather gruesome recitative again suggesting that the soul may wish to consider redemption through renunciation as a viable long term option. Finally a duet between the alto and the tenor provide a last reminder about the prospect of wailing and gnashing of teeth as an alternative to turning to the Lord. The accompaniment here is particularly spare and I have the feeling that Bach could have made something more of this movement had he wished. The cantata ends with a chorale setting similar to that which ended the first half.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.

Trumpet