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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God)

Cantata 80

  • Reformation Festival
  • Rating: 1*

Straight down to business with an enormous chorale fantasia on Luther's hymn Ein' feste Burg. This is one of Bach's pieces that I initially found very daunting: Great, yes; To admire, of course; But to love? Well, these days I not infrequently find myself humming one of the fugal voices, whistling another and trying to hold the rest going in my head. Anyone observing this act must think that I'm bonkers. But what the heck, it is a very beautiful edifice.

Two wonderful arias follow, separated by a recitative. The first motors along to a machine-gun accompaniment on the strings, the seconds swings beautifully in triple time. The chorale that follows does both. Next is a tenor/alto duet with accompanying oboe da caccia and finally an excellent four part harmonisation of the chorale melody. Do try to hear this cantata in both "modern" and "original" performances: The former to get more of the grandeur of the piece, the latter to hear it in the original instrumentation (especially the oboe da caccia. Why did this wonderful beast die out? Well, OK, it was probably a pig to play and keep in tune but it does make a lovely noise!)

There is a very interesting essay about the genesis and publication history of BWV 80 in Christolph Wolff's excellent collection Bach - Essays on His Life and Music. If you're used to hearing this cantata with trumpets and drums, then you may be surprised to learn that their inclusion (in the Bach-Gesellschaft edition) is probably derived from a parody of this cantata that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach devised for his own purposes. J.S.B probably had nothing to do with them at all!

Copyright © 1995 & 1997, Simon Crouch.