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Pietà (It is enough) / Pietà (Es ist genug), plate 11 from a series of 11 lithographs O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort by Oskar Kokoschka, 1914/1916. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In Vienna, they were all talking about Bach’s cantata 60 O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort. The astonishing harmonization in the closing chorale as well as the structure of a “dialogue” between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor) made it one of the most unusual among his cantatas, and apparently something worth discussing. In the first half of the 20th century, that is. In 1935  Alban Berg used the “modern” harmonization from the closing chorale Es ist genug in the final movement of his violin concerto To the Memory of an Angel–an instrumental Requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and Mahler’s widow, Alma Schindler.

Several years before, the same Alma Schindler had a short-lived affair with Czech painter Oskar Kokoschka. After they broke up, Kokoschka processed his torment by making a series of 11 lithographs to illustrate the cantata. The dialogue between Fear (the alto) and Hope (the tenor) in the cantata became a dialogue between Alma and himself, in pictures only: click here to see the entire series. Many thanks to Eduard van Hengel for pointing this out.

Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of this cantata on Spotify, with countertenor Robin Blaze and tenor Gerd Türk. Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.

Bach wrote this cantata 60 O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort for the 24th Sunday after Trinity in 1723, the Sunday normally linked to the Gospel story of the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter. However, in 1723–as now in 2016–this day fell on the first Sunday in November: All Hallows Sunday, All Saints Sunday, however you want to call it, but the Sunday on which the congregation would have commemorated all who had passed away that year. None of the commentaries I have read mention this, but I think it is important, because I feel this cantata is much more about how horrible it might be to die, or the thoughts one has when sitting at a loved one’s deathbed, than it is about the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter.

Of all the recordings I listened to, I like Bach Collegium Japan’s the best, because of Robin Blaze’s interpretation of the alto part. I always love his voice, but he is usually quite understated in his singing. He explains this well in this interview on San Francisco Classical Voice. I sometimes wish he would indeed sing with Kate Bush and “let go” a little, so I was thrilled to hear that in this cantata he actually does go a bit wild, for his standards at least, and that Suzuki lets him do it. His conviction in the opening chorale is already terrific (also note the wonderful blend with the horn doubling his part), but the way he sings the text “Und martert diese Glieder” (and tortures these limbs) in movement 2 is amazing, spot-on, and unrivaled by any others I listened to.

As we have seen before in the course of these 1723 Trinity Season cantatas (read for example my post on cantata 105) there are elements of Bach’s passions already present in this cantata. The agitated singing of the tenor in the stunningly beautiful duet (movement 3) resembles the Ach, mein Sinn! tenor aria from the St. John Passion. The repeated tremolo in the violins in movement 1 is something Bach often uses to illustrate fear, and this will show up again in the tenor arioso O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz in his St. Matthew Passion.

For further reading, including all the amazing harmonies in this piece which impressed the Viennese composers of the early 20th century,  as well as other insights, I can highly recommend Gardiner’s journal entry about this cantata (start reading on page 5).

Wieneke Gorter, November 6, 2016, updated November 21, 2020