Cantata BWV 20O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort

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Translation

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German TextEnglish Text

Analysis

This is a very interesting (and confusing!) cantata for me, because it is one of very few where I think Suzuki got it badly and completely wrong and Gardiner gets it completely and utterly right. Listen to the Gardiner and the confusion I experienced very largely goes away.

But I get ahead of myself.

The fundamental problem with this Cantata is that the poetry is an unrelenting fantasia upon the theme of eternal punishment and the music… well, it isn’t!

The poem basically says, ‘As Dives in the parable from today’s Gospel suffers interminably, so shall all men if they don’t pull their socks up’. And the gloom of an eternity in Hell is lightened a little only by the contemplation of the fact that you might die quickly and get there sooner than you had hoped! This is much as you might expect from seventeenth century pious sensibilities and the everyday presence of death.

But setting these words of terror and doom, why does Bach open with a robust, almost ceremonial, chorus in the form of a French overture? And why does the rest of the music seem really neither to plumb emotional depths nor reach ethereal highs? Look in particular at the first Bass aria (#5) which, to me, seems utterly ridiculous in its jaunty perkiness when you read the text it’s setting!

Specifically referring to the opening Chorus (#1), Dürr says I am very wrong to think that maybe Bach just fitted some words to music he’d written in a completely different context, as he identifies various points at which the chorus ‘strikingly illustrates’ the words of the text, namely:

  • Ewigkeit (‘eternity’) – long notes in the vocal parts and strings
  • Donnerwort (‘thunder-word’) – sudden change to short notes with a melismatic figure in the bass
  • Traurigkeit (‘sorrow’) – a falling chromatic line in the instruments
  • erschroken (‘terrified’) – jerky rhythms interrupted by rests, first in the instruments, then in the lower choral parts
  • klebt (‘cleaves’ or ‘sticks’) – held forté notes in the vocal parts

Perhaps… but I think he’s clutching at straws, myself! I don’t dispute that the things he mentions are present in the score, but I’m hard-pressed to associate any of them with particular emotions evoked by the text at the time they happen.

But I now think that’s all probably because I was listening to the Suzuki version of this cantata: in Gardiner’s slower, more ceremonial, version of the opening chorus, I think the effects Dürr says he can hear are very much more plausible. The pace is slower and grander than Suzuki’s, the dotted rhythms more emphasized, the discords more emphatic. Gardiner’s tenor in his first aria (#3) is, by contrast, faster than Suzuki’s …and sounds positively terrified, as the text says he should be. Compare the two directly here (Suzuki first, Gardiner second):

Suzuki makes the opening orchestral parts of that movement sound like a lovely, rippling pool of water, and the tenor sounds like he is in ecstasy contemplating the view. Gardiner’s opening is altogether more business-like and the tenor sounds like he’s in trouble.

Similarly, I thought even Suzuki makes the duet for tenor and alto (#10) a rare example of where music and words chime well, especially at the chromatic melismas around the words “Wo Heulen und Zähnklappen sein” (wailing and gnashing of teeth). But Gardiner speeds this up and makes it a real ‘night of terrors’ thing. I don’t know whether this is completely inappropriate or not, but his version of movement #10 immediately made me think of the ‘night of terrors’ opening to Act 3 of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana:

From Suzuki’s recording, I was prepared to write this cantata down to a grade D, to be honest; but then I listened to the Gardiner version and realised that, perhaps more than most cantatas, this one demands a really sensitive performance to stop the music sounding laughably irrelevant to the text. Where Suzuki will have you wondering why Bach set ‘nice’ music to ‘nasty’ words, I think you will hear in the Gardiner a much closer correspondence between the two. Accordingly, my music samples at the top of this page are now (and uniquely, at this point!) from Gardiner’s recording, not Suzuki’s and the piece gets a B rating. But beware deficient performances: they will have you wondering what on Earth Bach was thinking of!


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