Chapter 2 Bwv 20

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Chapter 2 BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort

O Eternity; the sound of thunder.


Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale.


Aria (bass)–recit (alto)–duet (alto/tenor)–chorale.

The first cantata of the cycle for the first Sunday after Trinity.

(It is suggested that this essay is read in conjunction with chapters 1, 3, 4 and 5 in order to give a more comprehensive picture of Bach’s wholly original approach to this cycle.)

The position of this cantata, the first of an uninterrupted sequence of forty  works each commencing with a substantial and sometimes gigantic chorale fantasia, marks it as one of special interest. Its placement suggests several fascinating questions. What does it say to the congregation? To God? What may we learn of Bach’s development as a composer of church music? And what does it tell us of Bach’s intentions and ambitions as a provider of ′well regulated church music′ as he embarks upon his second year at Leipzig?

One might take a moment to compare it with C 75, the first work of the first cycle, heard just over a year previously. Firstly, it can safely be assumed that Bach intended to begin each of his first two cycles with a flourish. Both Cs 75 and 20 are in two parts and both have more than the usual 5-8 movements. They each require strings and oboes, and call upon a trumpet when a bold and emphatic character is required.

Clearly, in each case Bach was keen to assert himself; here I am and this is what you can expect from me! And on both occasions came the scarcely concealed message that music would never be the same again in the great Leipzig churches!

Whilst noting the similarities, nevertheless there are a number of important differences. Both works refer to the parable of the rich man whose wealth will not buy his place in heaven, but in C 20 Bach, and his librettist, were clearly more concerned with the themes of eternity, everlasting torments and their implications for humans. For all of the contrasts of rich and poor, joy and sorrow, redeeming faith and destructive disbelief, C 75 never aspires to, or attains the range we find in the later work. (C 75 was actually written while Bach was at Cöthen and, like the even earlier C 4, gives us fascinating glimpses into Bach’s evolving approaches to text and compositional technique).

The opening choruses of these works make the point clearly. Both have more than one section and contrasting tempi but the assertive dotted rhythms of the later work convey a strength and confidence that contrasts with the reflective, almost regretful, wisps of elegiac oboe melody in the former. Similarly, the tortuous melodic lines depicting the torments of human agony in the pits of the damned (tenor and alto arias) have no counterparts in the earlier work. (Further contextual information may be found in vol 3, chapter 17 on C 39, also composed for this day. A more complete study of C 75 is in vol 1, chapter 2).

C 20 followed the experience of composing, arranging and performing cantatas at the rate of more than one a week for a full year. Bach clearly drew upon that experience from which to embark upon a new and particularly innovative stage of his creative life. And whilst he seldom reused pieces of his own music in the second cycle, chorales were a part of the heritage of the church and always available for recycling. For example, that which forms the basis of the opening chorus of this cantata had also been used to create the dialogue duet of C 60, a very different movement. The keen student will delight in comparing Bach′s distinctive uses of the same basic material (see vol 1, chapter 26).

As mentioned in the previous chapter, further evidence of Bach’s long term planning comes from the fact that in the first four cantatas of the cycle he presents the chorale melody in different voices; here in the sopranos, next altos (C 2), tenors (C 7) and finally, basses (C 135). There was no real reason why he should have done this, other than to set himself the type of challenge which seemed to stimulate his imagination and inventiveness. Perhaps it was an implied ‘musical contract’ with his choir; everyone was to have a piece of the action!

Part 1 seems to have been planned with a very precise sense of order and balance. A recitative and aria for tenor is followed by a recitative and aria for bass. This section closes with an alto aria and the first statement of the chorale which will also conclude Part 2. In C 75 the chorale had been much more richly adorned with a flowing oboe and violin line. Bach does adorn his chorale on occasions in this cycle (see, for example, the added horn obbligato in C 1 and the orchestration in C 107) but his preference is usually for the plain,  four-part setting.

Part 2 has its own (different) balance: aria, recitative, duet and chorale. One wonders why, in a work of this length and complexity containing eight arias and recitatives, Bach did not call upon the soprano as soloist. It is possible that a favoured performer was indisposed. But there is no evidence that he re-wrote any movements in a hurry and in any case it is difficult to believe that Bach spent only a few days composing a major work which he must have viewed as a highly significant statement. Even if he had only begun composing it at the beginning of the week of its performance, it beggars belief to suppose that he had not been turning over in his mind both the structure of this piece and the overall cycle strategy for some time.The decision not to include a soprano aria or recitative would have been   an artistic one, perhaps linked to the general theme of the work. Despite the extrovert major-key nature of the opening movements of each part, this is a work with a sulphurous feel of Satan’s caverns of eternal torment and Bach may have felt that the mood was best conveyed through the lower and darker timbres of the other voices.

Additionally, all but one of the arias and recitatives in Part 1 are in minor modes, thus supporting this speculation. Finally, it may be for similar reasons that Bach decided not to employ his festive (and available) trumpet independently in the first movement.



The massive opening movement of C 20 is a chorale/fantasia (see chapter 1) which clearly, that of C 75 is not. Additionally, it is an imposing French Overture such as those with which the four Orchestral Suites begin. It has the usual three sections, the first and last displaying assertive, almost aggressive dotted rhythms, separated by a contrapuntal central section. (Students may, incidentally, wish to examine Cs 61, 110, 119, 194 and 97. All display brilliant and contrasting uses of the French Overture).

The text, whether intentionally or not, suggests, or at least allows for such a structure. The opening lines bewail the isolation of eternity, the sword of which lacerates the soul. The middle section expresses the personal tragedy of one caught in the maelstrom of unredeemable eternity—-I do not know which way to turn! Finally comes an expression of the terror which inevitably eventuates from such situations. Infinite eternity– sorrow and confusion–dread and horror–these are the interlocking themes of the three musical sections which make perfect musical and liturgical sense.

But the remarkable aspect of this movement is the way in which Bach combines the chorale melody with the French Overture. The structure of these fantasias is constricted by the chorale phrases and their tonalities and, as we proceed throughout the cycle, we shall notice the endlessly imaginative ways in which Bach surmounts this problem.

Noteworthy is the way in which Bach sets the eight phrases of the chorale. The first three are absorbed into the A section of the French Overture, against the dotted rhythms of the instruments. When repeated they are heard against the semi fugal writing of the faster middle section (B). The final two phrases are incorporated into the returning A section where, for the first time, the choir adopts the broken rhythms into its melodic lines.

The sopranos (supported by trumpet) sing the chorale, traditionally in long notes, above a rather constrained support from the three lower voices. There is no discussion of its melodic material by the altos, tenors and basses, no preparing of the chorale phrases, no richly entwined tapestry of counterpoint such as we will frequently discover in later cantatas. Even in the faster middle section (imitative, but not fugal in the sense that we would normally expect, and do in fact, find in C 75), the lower voices are largely homophonic. This may well be because Bach wished the writing to suggest the hammer blows of thunder, the lacerating sword and the attendant terror.

This chorus sets the scene for the smell of the sulphurous fires of eternal Hell which become more explicit in successive movements. But the opening bars are stately and dignified. There is, as yet, no dramatic  representation of thunder or the piercing sword; this is a civilized acceptance of the inevitable. The theatrical force and the inevitable torments of hell and damnation are yet to come.

There can be no more striking example of Bach’s eclectic musical personality than this first movement. The French Overture, with its connections with opera and the court of Louis IV, was the antithesis of traditional, solid German church music, exemplified by the motet. It had implications of the worldly, the wealthy and the powerful. Yet here Bach uses it as a vehicle not only to begin his important second cycle, but also to launch the chorale/fantasia structure which would open this and every one of the following thirty-nine cantatas. It could be seen as a breath-taking act of impudence and arrogance but with the wisdom of hindsight it is, perhaps, more accurate to view it as an example of Bach, the liberated eclectic, equipped and prepared to employ any style, structure, idea or technique appropriate to requirements.

Furthermore, he was not reticent about announcing this in musical and dramatic terms to the world at large. ‘See’, he seems to be telling his congregations, ‘I can do it all!’ (Nevertheless, he took pains in the following week (C 2) to revert to a more traditional motet style for the opening chorus).

One notes an interesting and subtle irony. Bach has chosen the French Overture, symbol of courtly power, wealth and influence as the vehicle with which to convey the message that these are the very attributes which will not get us into heaven! The parable of the rich man, unambiguously described in the later alto recitative is, as yet, only implicit. Nevertheless, the fragmented and chromatic writing in the final section of this chorus may well be interpreted as the social edifice of wealth and luxury being eroded and ultimately destroyed by the corrosions of sin.

Of note in the opening chorus is the flickering repeated figure on oboes (then strings) which is heard four times against the first two choral entries, never to reappear (bars 13, 17, 23 and 27).

Bach seldom disposes of his material in such a cavalier way and his purpose was certainly imagic, possibly suggesting the flickering flames of Hell. The contrapuntal writing for orchestra in the middle section has an artistic sense of ‘purposelessness’ suggesting a ′not knowing′ which way to turn as described in the text. Doubtless this is why Bach rejected a stricter fugal format; a strict fugue, at least one by Bach, might have had too great a sense of purpose and direction!

The reprise is no lazy da capo repeat but a complete rewriting of the opening material, disjunct intervals and minor harmonies suggesting the fear of the trembling heart. Dürr (p 391) draws our attention to a number of words vividly painted in the music e.g. Ewigkeit—-eternity, Donnerwort—-word of thunder, erschrocken—-terrified. As noted above, the rhythms become increasingly unsettling.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor secco recitative muses on the theme of eternal damnation and the perpetual misery from which there is no escape; earthly misfortunes may be finite but pain and punishment go on forever. The commonly recurring Lutheran idea of continuous torment suffered for an infinite period is now established as a major theme of the cantata. The painting of personal distress on the words ach! Aber ach!—alas, alas—-pierces the soul.

Note the alien note of b natural with which the continuo begins, an immediate suggestion of foreboding. This is enhanced and concentrated by the rapid tonal movement passing through five keys, all of them minor, in eleven bars; A, D, G, F and C. The bass line moves in quavers just the once, in bar 3, punctuating the tenor’s sustained note denoting  ‘endless endurance’.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is extraordinary. The concept of eternal torment, noted in the first movement, has now become explicit. Bach seeks to convey both the ponderousness of time, which hangs around us forever, and the agonies of the flames of hell. Bach’s painting of physical and metaphorical imagery here is worth concentrating upon for a moment as a basis for further discoveries of this kind throughout the cycle.

The cumbersome, grinding string quavers doubtless represent both a feeling of discomfort and the inexorable nature of eternal, ponderous time as do, in a different way, the tenor’s long notes. The first vocal phrase fights its way upward, but, inevitably, is dragged back into the pits of fire.

The melodic lines are packed with downward, drooping inflections indicating sighing and lamentation. Flowing semi-quavers emerge on the word flammen—-flames (from bar 43). Even from the place (bar 65) where we might expect the middle section  to offer a contrasting view or mood, Bach reinforces the feeling of dread as the heart quakes with terror at the thought of eternal torment. There is little vestige of hope for sinners here!

Bass recitative.

The long bass recitative adds little to the narrative but rather dramatically reinforces the concept of eternal misery. Much of the writing is high in the vocal range, conveying a tension and a sense of the apprehension associated with this scenario. The fundamental image is one of never-ending torment, lasting as many years as there are blades of grass—-time cannot be calculated and even then it revolves upon itself simply to begin again. The concept of ′eternity upon eternity′ is clearly intended to terrify the uncommitted or misguided!

Bass aria.

But the following bass aria, returning as it does to the major mode largely abandoned since the opening chorus, offers some hope: ′God is just, as are his decreed, lasting punishments’ the singer declaims; and it is no coincidence that this is the bass, traditionally employed as the voice of authority—-Take heed of this message, Oh Child of Man!

This da capo aria is surprisingly upbeat, almost jolly, and it may be justified in two ways. Firstly it is clearly not a pessimistic notion to proclaim the justice of the Lord; this is, or should be, a matter for rejoicing. But Bach is always aware of the need for musical balance and here he finds his point of moderation. A lengthy cantata cannot sustain an unremitting outpouring of wretchedness, pessimism and terror; there must be some light and contrast. However, it is interesting that Bach maintains a slightly more somber sound quality through the choice of three oboes rather than what could have been the lighter, brighter qualities of flutes or strings.

Alto aria.

But any respite is temporary. The alto aria plunges back into the wretchedness of the sinner’s condition—-Save yourself from the sulphurous pits, flee Satan and free yourself from sin. The proclaimed message is conveyed with awesome conviction through the uneven phrase lengths and strangely halting rhythms .

The picture is one of mankind writhing in the pits of burning sulphur. Images of sin, damnation, a physical gnawing of the body and a metaphysical tearing at the soul all permeate this music.

Rather enigmatic is the extended instrumental coda which some might think is too long for the balance of the movement.  Is it to allow the congregation a few moments of reflection upon the awesomeness of the message?

Or is it an aural picture of the desolate landscape of hell where the sinner′s soul is eternally tormented?  The image is graphic and the message is plain; only you can save yourself  from this!


The same chorale melody is heard in three of the eleven movements. The text of the fantasia is largely repeated to conclude the cantata, but here a different verse is used. Lines from other stanzas are skilfully interwoven into most of the arias and recitatives.  Trumpet oboes and strings resignedly double the voices.

It is a sturdily reflective tune, the first phrase climbing upwards through a full octave, overtly suggesting the ′God who dwells above the clouds′. The torments, we are told, will endure as long as God exists.

But the mood is more that of calm acceptance rather than further reinforcement of the images of damnation.


Bass aria.

If part 1 of the cantata sets out to frighten us, part 2 arouses us from our stupour.  Bach begins with an extrovert wakeup call—-stir yourselves while you can before the last trumpet sounds; arise from your graves and prepare for judgment!

The trumpet is explicitly mentioned in the text but Bach’s use of it is multifaceted. It begins with a fanfare which recalls the dotted rhythms from the opening French Overture, another example of Bach’s structural overview of the work. It also suggests the power and primacy of the Lord.

And finally, it echoes the dramatic sound of the very instrument that summons us from our graves on the Day of Judgment.

This, the second and final aria in a major key, also helps to restore the balance between unrelenting Lutheran sin (and its punishment) and Bach’s natural sense of optimistic redemption. There is joy in this movement and relief at the realization that salvation is both possible and attainable. The optimism is conveyed musically through a combination of the energizing dotted rhythms, the noble trumpet and the violin scales, always rising, never descending.

Alto recitative.

The alto recitative refers specifically to the parable of the rich man unable, simply by means of his worldly acquisitions, to gain access to heaven. This theme was implied before but it has now become explicit—-forsake worldly pleasures and repent, for this might be your last day on earth.

Note the striding bass line in the opening bars. Yet again the dotted rhythms remind us of the French Overture. They convey a sense of the hollow power, pride and vanity of the wealthy, perhaps also with implications of the opera buffo figurations with which Bach is, elsewhere, wont to depict Satan and his ilk.

To what extent might such ideas have exercised Bach’s mind on his many encounters with the rich and powerful notably that, a generation later, with Frederick the Great? Did they impinge at all upon the thoughts of the affluent members of his congregations?

Alto/tenor aria.

The penultimate movement is a ritornello duet for alto and tenor. This is the first of nearly twenty magnificent duets in this cycle. Indeed, we will discover a number of examples where the duet seems to stand out as the most memorable of a cantata’s several movements.

Bach’s genius here is to combine two apparently contradictory ideas: that of childlike innocence, contrasted against the barbaric pain inflicted as a consequence of sinful actions. Bach does this with confidence, technical assurance and aplomb and, as a consequence, this duet may be viewed as the keystone of the whole cantata—-Child of Man, relinquish sin so that you are not eternally tormented—-remember the rich man who may not even be permitted his droplets of water.

The opening instrumental bass figure is bizarrely threatening and still rooted in the somber minor mode.

Throughout, its malevolent twistings remind us (again) of the serpentine writhings and lurid temptations of Satan and the serpent.

The initial vocal phrases are very different in character; simple, unsophisticated and childlike. But as the text moves to consider the gnashing of teeth, infinite pain and the predicament of the deluded rich man, even the vocal writing becomes tortuous. The word Qual—-torment—- is extended and convoluted (from bar 55) only to be repeated (from bar 72) where it is further intensified by the powerfully expressive falling chromatic phrases.

There is still room, however, for a final, vivid musical image, the semi-quaver vocal phrase depicting flowing water—-Wasser (bars 86-7). Life-giving water is present, but the sinful cannot reach it and the rich cannot buy it.

It is a movement of considerable complexity and subtlety; every bar is an exquisitely wrought gem.


The final chorale repeats the  unembellished harmonisation of the seventh movement and the congregation may have joined in; we do not know what the custom was and contemporary opinions vary. Available instruments double the vocal lines, as is common practice. The text largely repeats the words and themes of the opening chorus; but now there is an element of hope—-time has no end and I know not where to turn—-nevertheless, take me when it pleases You. Thus this arresting cantata concludes on a note of resignation and acceptance and with a humble prayer for Jesus to receive us.

Congregation members paying close attention might have noted the operatic nature, dramatic extremes of expression and demanding levels of technical virtuosity apparent in much of this cantata. One can only wonder whether, in the moments of reflection afforded by the chorale, they had any degree of insight into to what was in store for them in the following weeks!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.