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Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch, created between 1482 and 1516. Flames, as mentioned in the tenor aria, everywhere on the middle and right panel, “Posaunen” (trumpets) in the middle panel, as mentioned in the bass aria, and God hovering above the clouds (left panel, at top) as mentioned in the chorale at the end of Part I : “So lang ein Gott im Himmel lebt und über alle Wolken schwebt.”

On this First Sunday after Trinity (or “Trinity 1” for short) in 1724, Bach started his second cycle of cantatas in Leipzig.* He was well aware of the importance of this occasion, and wrote one of his most dramatic cantatas for this day: cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. The cantata features a wealth of opera-style writing for the soloists, and such a stately French overture, that one wonders if the use of this style was ironic: see, if you behave in this rich, arrogant way, things will end horribly for you. A lesson like this would be fitting for this cantata, because the Gospel  reading for this Trinity 1 Sunday was that of Lazarus and Dives: The poor leper Lazarus lies in front of the rich man Dives’ house, asking him for food every day. Dives ends up in hell when he dies because he didn’t share his blessings/wealth with those in need.

Over the course of writing this blog, whenever a cantata contains significant operatic writing, I tend to give the prize for best recording/interpretation to Gardiner, because he and Harnoncourt seem to be the only ones not shy to “overdo” it in these cases. This time it is no different. I especially love Paul Agnew in the tenor aria and Wilke te Brummelstoete and Paul Agnew together in the duet, where they illustrate the “chattering of teeth” perfectly.  Bass Dietrich Henschel does a good job too, though I’m not sure I prefer him over Peter Kooy on the Herreweghe recording. Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort : here on YouTube

Find the text here, and the score here.

Bach marked this “second beginning” in Leipzig in several different ways, for himself as well as for others:

First of all,  on this Sunday he starts an entire series of new** cantatas, which we now call his chorale cantatas. For nine and a half months, including the entire Christmas season, he would write every cantata according to this same template: the opening movement is a chorale fantasia on the first stanza of an existing Lutheran hymn or chorale, with the tune appearing as a cantus firmus. The last movement has the last stanza of the same hymn as text, in a four-part harmonization of the tune. The text of those choral, outer movements was used verbatim, while the text of the solo, inner movements was paraphrased, but still based on the inner stanzas of the same hymn.

If you believe in the theory that Bach lost his soprano soloist sometime in the spring of 1724, and was having trouble training a new one, this concept of a chorale cantata would have been a brilliant move to solve this problem. This way, Bach still presented a series of impressive cantatas (arguably more impressive than his 1723/1724 cycle), while limiting the rehearsal hours needed with the choir boys. In many of these cantatas, as is the case for today’s cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, the choir boys would only have to sing the chorale melody in the opening chorus, and there would be no soprano recitative or aria among the inner movements at all. If in later cantatas in this series the boys would get assigned something a bit more complicated, it would still be based on the chorale melody they already knew by heart, so it would require much less rehearsal time with them.

As if with this dramatic cantata 20 Bach didn’t already make enough of a splash, he most probably intended for the first four chorale cantatas of this 1724 Trinity season to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order,  if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:

  1. Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano
  2. Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto.
  3. Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor.
  4. Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass.

We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:

  1. Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen: Choral fugue
  2. Cantata 12 Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen: Passacaglia
  3. Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!: Concerto
  4. Cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis: Motet.

This symmetry with his Weimar days must have been lost on others, even his fellow musicians, since they heard all these Weimar cantatas in Leipzig over the course of the 1723/1724 cycle, but not in this order they were created in Weimar.

In today’s cantata, cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, there are more links to other compositions nobody or only a few fans would have noticed: In the music as well as the text, Bach makes some pretty strong references to the first and the last cantata of the 1723 Trinity season. References to the first one (cantata 75, discussed here on this blog) appear in the decision to go back to this long, two-part format, the use of the trumpet as symbol for the heavens, and the illustration in the music of the word “Flammen” (flames). References to the last one (cantata 70, discussed here on this blog) present themselves in the selection of the chorale that talks about the Day of Judgement, and the operatic writing for the soloists, especially the bass and tenor.

After having followed Bach’s weekly compositions during the Trinity season of 1723, I feel it could be interesting to see this cantata 20, the first of the 1724 Trinity season, as the immediate successor of cantata 70, the last of the 1723 Trinity season. I realize that by doing so, I would ignore a few gems from early 1724, and an entire St. John Passion, but I do believe that as educator of his fellow Lutherans, Bach found Trinity season the most important part of the church year, and perhaps sometimes in his mind indeed ignored all the other stuff in between.

During the Trinity season, the theology moves away from the stories about the life of Christ, and instead focuses on the Lutheran doctrine, how one behaves before God, and on doing good deeds. So with this cantata, and the series that was to come, I think Bach wanted to make sure the Leipzig congregations were fully aware that the Trinity season was starting. The text “Wacht auf, wacht auf” (Wake up, wake up!) in the bass aria is testament to this, but also the writing of the opening chorus and the alto-tenor duet: it all makes you sit up and pay attention.

Wieneke Gorter, June 19, 2017.

*Bach had made his Leipzig debut on Trinity 1, 1723, with cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen. Read more about that fabulous cantata in this blog post.

**During this period, there will be no repeats of existing cantatas at all. It is stunning to realize that Bach made this huge commitment to himself, knowing how often during the 1723/1724 cycle he “recycled” music from Köthen and cantatas from Weimar.