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O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20


O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20

This article is about the cantata BWV 20. For the 1723 cantata with the same title BWV 60, see O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60.

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, thou thunderous word), 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 chorale cantata from his second annual cycle, of chorale cantatas, based on the hymn (1642) by Johann Rist on a melody by Johann Schop.

History and words

Bach composed the cantata for the First Sunday after Trinity.[1] The Sunday marks the beginning of the second half of the liturgical year, "in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored".[2] The year before, Bach had taken office as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.[3] He was responsible for the education of the Thomanerchor, performances in the regular services in the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, and until 1725 also for one of two services in the Paulinerkirche.[1] He had started the project of composing one cantata for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year,[2][4] termed by Christoph Wolff "an artistic undertaking on the largest scale".[3] 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.[2] 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.[5] Bach composed some forty chorale cantatas in his second cycle.[5]

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.[2] The hymn, considering death and eternity, is well suited to match the parable of the rich man who has to face death and hell.[5] It is subtitled "Ernstliche Betrachtung der unendlichen Ewigkeit" (A Serious Consideration of Endless Eternity).[6] The text of three stanzas is kept unchanged, 1, 8 and 12, used for movements 1, 7 and 11.[2] 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) 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.[1] 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.[5]

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.[7]

Bach first performed the cantata on 11 June 1724.[1]

Scoring and structure

The cantata is festively scored for three soloists, alto, tenor and bass, a four-part choir, tromba da tirarsi to double the cantus firmus, three oboes, two violins, viola, and continuo.[1] The work contains eleven movements in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon.[5]

Part I

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

Part II

  1. Aria (bass): Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe
  2. Recitativo (alto): Verlaß, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt
  3. Duetto, Aria (alto, tenor): O Menschenkind, hör auf geschwind
  4. Choral: 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.[5] 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,[1] "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) a downward chromatic line, a counterpoint in the fast section, also appears in the voices,[5] "erschrocken" (terrified) is rendered in jarred rhythms interrupted by rests, first in the orchestra, then also in the voices, "klebt" (cleave) is a long note in the voices.[1] 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".[2]

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) from the chorale. The arias contrast, interpreting the text in its affekt and in single phrases.[1] 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.[2]
In movement 8, the call to wake up is intensified by trumpet signals and fast scales, evoking the Last Judgement.[5] 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.[1] 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).[5]




The first source is the score.

Several databases provide additional information on each cantata:

  • Cantata BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (I) history, scoring, sources for text and music, translations to various languages, discography, discussion, bach-cantatas website
  • Emmanuel Music
  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort history, scoring, Bach website (German)
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Alberta
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