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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (Oh eternity, thou thunder-word)

Cantata 60

  • Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: Colossians i. 9-14 (Prayer for the increase of grace)
  • Gospel: Matthew ix. 18-26 (Raising Jairus's daughter)
  • Rating: 1*

This cantata is one of those miniature gems that few seem to know about but once discovered, it is never to be forgotten! There are two duets and two lengthy recitatives finished off with a chorale. In total perhaps fifteen minutes of music, one third the length of the most substantial cantatas. But what quality!

The whole cantata is a duet between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor) (there is little relationship to the bible readings of the day). The start of the opening duet immediately lets you know that we're in for something special: The oboi d'amore's cascading chase after the thudding, rising strings and continuo provides one of the best introductions in all the cantatas! This accompaniment continues over the beautiful duet between alto and tenor. The first of the two recitatives has a wonderful extended phrase to the word tortures. The second duet perhaps doesn't provide the musical contrast that the words would seem to require but is still very beautiful. Then a long and very effective recitative leads into the most astonishing of all the chorales: Es ist genung. Alec Robertson puts it as well as anyone: "…the remarkable harmonisation of the first two bars still has the power to startle, the chromatic harmonies six bars before the end, to amaze". Alban Berg uses this chorale in the final movement of his beautiful violin concerto. I find something about Berg's quotation deeply strange, spooky even, which I can only express by an analogy in my own field: A famous mathematician remarked that the occurrence of a recent discovery was as if some twenty-second century mathematics had dropped through a timewarp into the twentieth. It's as if Alban Berg's chorale harmonisation had dropped back into the eighteenth century for Bach to use!

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.

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