Chapter 26 BWV 60 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
Oh, eternity, word of thunder.
Duet (alto/tenor)–recit (alto/tenor)–duet (alto/tenor)–recit/arioso (alto/bass)–chorale.
The twenty-fifth cantata of the cycle for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity.
This cantata and the next, C 90, both show signs of a deliberate abridging of the scale of works as the Christmas season approaches. Neither contains large choruses and both consist of a mere five movements. But with Bach quality was never associated with scale, and the range of his invention and scope of imagination continues to be of a very high order.
Aficionados will immediately spot that both the chorale melody and verse forming the skeleton of this opening movement, were later to be used in C 20 (vol 2, chapter 2). That is a chorale/fantasia-cum-French Overture, original in structure and massive in proportion. Instructive comparisons may be made between the approaches Bach had taken in moulding the same basic chorale melody into decidedly dissimilar shapes, the one a chorus of impact and authority the other an intimate duet.
This cantata is of the dialogue type of which Bach composed several in the later cycles. Often they depict Christ and the Soul, sometimes using the metaphor of bride and groom with all the implications of uncertainty and reassurance that humans may associate with impending nuptials. In C 60 the scenario is little different, the first three movements portraying the inter-relationships between fear and hope with the alto and tenor voices adopting these roles. In the opening duet the alto, doubled by a horn, has the duty of carrying the eight phrases of the chorale, a decision which obviously determines the scale of the movement.
The alto′s persona, Fear, presents the chorale verse which is literally packed with the ′blood and thunder′ language of the extreme baroque—-Eternity, sword of thunder piercing our souls without beginning or end—-my terrified heart quakes and I know not where to turn. Whereas the emphasis in C 20 is on the eternal aspect of the torments of the sinful, that of C 60 is as much concerned with doubt and its resolution, a recurring theme in this group of Sundays after Trinity. The tenor (Hope) has only the one line, articulated several times as a counterpoint, both musically and poetically against the chorale′s terrors—-Lord I await thy salvation! Clearly this is not a conversation in the traditional sense, nor is it the discourse of two entities exchanging opposing viewpoints such as occurs in Bach′s later dialogue cantatas. This is the simultaneous enunciation of conflicting emotions emanating from the one individual who, we may assume, is adopting the role of the ′confused soul′.
In one sense this is a traditional ritornello movement, the fourteen-bar instrumental section occurring at the beginning, at the end and as episodes separating the chorale phrases. It is constructed of two contrasting ideas, a nervously tremolo string figure heard initially on the upper strings (though at the bottom of their registers), later taken up by the continuo, and an elegant flowing melodic line on the oboes.
Oboe above strings.
It takes little imagination to conclude that Bach intended these ideas to represent agitation and terror on the one hand and hopeful aspiration on the other. What is both more subtle and more significant is that although these ideas are introduced sequentially (bars 1 and 2) they quickly become united (bar 3), a musical demonstration of mixed emotions residing simultaneously within the same human psyche.
The aria is, then, a depiction of the conflicting dualisms that make up the complicated human spirit. The two voices pit the hymn melody, with all its traditional implications, against other seemingly abstract musical ideas. From these appositions emerge the emotionally complex, human-centred centrality of the movement.
The tenor does not enter until over a third of the way through the movement but when he does the effect is electrifying. His phrases are long and angular, sustained notes and extended melismas emphasising the tension of waiting and thereby concentrating less upon the hoped for salvation. The aria is unique in form and architecture, sitting firmly amongst that group of works from C 109 onwards that delve into the workings of the human mind.
The recitative adopts more fully the traditional pattern of discourse between two individuals, a familiar feature of the later dialogue works. There are three statement-response couplets set as secco recitative, two of which emerge into potent and significant moments of arioso. In the first exchange Fear bemoans the arduous path to be assured, by Hope, that the Saviour is at hand and bringing consolation. Fear′s second intervention stresses the terror of death which tortures the very limbs. The tragic, agonising, forever straining arioso which expresses this idea (from bar 8) is infinitely expressive and again, reassurance comes in the form of an image of purification of the soul, the process which death will accomplish.
Fear now alters tack and sees the burden of sin as a further impediment to salvation. Hope′s response is simple and conventional—-God provides escapes from the torments of temptation so that we may be capable of enduring them. His final arioso balances the previous one but how different they are in character. Now the melody flows freely in perfect concord with the similarly fluid continuo line, the latter seeming not to wish to come to a conclusion.
The third movement follows much the same pattern as the last and could, indeed, have been set as a recitative had the overall structural constraints of the work so permitted. As before, there are three exchanges and that is how Bach sets them. Fear′s preoccupation is still with the terror and torments of death and Hope′s reassurances are centred upon the Saviour′s support. The three vocal blocks are not difficult to follow, separated as they are, by sections of the ritornello theme.
Furthermore, Bach′s approach to the setting of the ′conversation′ for the two voices is significant. In each case Fear is heard first, answered by Hope, thence the two melodic lines become increasingly inter-twined, a clear signal of the latter encompassing and reassuring the former. Similarly, the two lines differ in their degrees of complexity, Fear, for the most part with simple uncluttered rhythms, Hope more fluent and confidently flowing, finally triumphing in an exultant melisma embodying the image of the ′house of pleasure′. Even the obbligato instruments have their own distinct characters with the oboe d′amore′s hesitant dotted rhythms (echoed in the continuo) in marked contrast to the flowing scales of the violin.
As with the two voices, they do come together from time to time, most notably in the last vocal section where they are symbolic of Fear′s evolving attitude and gradual acceptance of faith.
Hope, significantly, always has the final word, his melodic line continuing after Fear has spoken.
The penultimate movement could not be anything else but a recitative considering the length of the stanza, nearly thirty lines of text. Here we see an early example of what, in the second cycle, is to become the fully developed ′hybrid′ recitative structure combining elements of arioso, chorale and ritornello entwined within, and superimposed upon, the recitative texture. In his earlier works Bach tended to rely upon the use of beautifully crafted arioso sections to maintain interest and this is the case here, although there does appear to be an embryonic ritornello theme emerging in the continuo.
The tenor voice has now been replaced by that of the bass, presumably representing Christ. If, indeed, Bach did conceive the first three movements as essentially the two elements of the single soul in conflict with each other, it now makes dramatic sense to have an external figure, allaying fears and calming apprehension before the final act of commitment. In fact, Jesus has very little to say, the form of the stanza being much more akin to dramatic soliloquy than to meaningful dialogue; He contributes no more than to offer the assurance that the dead who die in the Lord are blessed! But it seems to be enough.
The structure is simplicity itself and easily followed musically without requiring a detailed translation; the alto is set consistently with free recitative and the bass with arioso, underpinned by a (largely) quaver bass line. Christ′s melodic line always begins with the same theme, a sustained note followed by a reassuring descending scale. This in itself is a musical representation of the fixed surety of the Saviour′s word and bond. His entries are carefully planned, the second a tone higher than the first and the third is lower and considerably extended.
It is interesting that, although the cantata is principally a reassurance about the positive nature of death, Bach still marks the word—-sterben—- with a series of anguished suspensions, painfully seeking upward resolutions (bars 42-43).
Time and again he reminds us that, whatever the message and the dogma we are invited to accept, the processes of death and bereavement are not without personal sorrow.
The closing chorale, with its whole-tone opening phrase and oddly disconnected phrase lengths, is one of the oddest that Bach set. It remains in the Lutheran repertoire, however, and will be recognised by listeners familiar with Alban Berg′s violin concerto as the chorale he inserted into the second movement of that work. Bach′s setting is unremarkable except for the third to last phrase where allusion is made to the leaving of one′s miseries on earth. The bass descends chromatically and the harmony is bleak and forlorn as the vision of despair and its persistence on earth is reflected in the musical structure, surely a precursor of the harmonic language of the late nineteenth century.
Otherwise, the acceptance of death is seen to be complete and welcomed—-if Lord you are pleased so to do, release me—-good world, I go in peace and security to my heavenly abode—-it is enough.
Fear and apprehension have been successfully allayed and death is the welcome doorway through which we pass en route to better things. But seen within the context of the works Bach presented to his Leipzig congregations at this time, this is another of his explorations into the human psyche. Dialogue, confessional and quasi-soliloquy approaches are melded together in a miniature art piece that delves into the nature of opposed and conflicting human emotions and their resolution. Clearly this psychological approach fascinated Bach at this time and it may be detected in a number of the highly original works that precede the more traditional honouring of Advent.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.