Chapter 60 Bwv 80

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Chapter 60 BWV 80 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott

Our God is a mighty Stronghold.

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

For the Reformation Festival.

(NB the bar numbers in the first movement refer to the score layout which contains four minims to the bar i.e. 114 bars in all. Readers with scores may be using modern editions with two minims a bar, 228 bars in all.)

This cantata has a more complex history than most and much of it is still only partially understood. Its genesis lies in a version, now known as C 80a, dating as far back as 1715 at Weimar (Dürr pp 255/6) with the text, the only part to survive, by Salomo Franck (see also C 168, vol 3 chapter 2).

A further setting of this text was made in Bach′s early Leipzig years although opinions differ as to exactly when. It is thought that this work, lacking the opening chorus as we know it today, was reused around 1730. The splendid chorale/fantasia was probably added in 1734/5 (Dürr, p 709) and stylistically some characteristics do place it alongside C 14 (chapter 61) which has the precise dating of the latter year.

It is not possible, because of the lost sources, to say exactly and in what form the rest of the movements may have been borrowed or parodied from the earlier versions.

Luther′s hymn Eine feste Burg must have been one of the best known to the Leipzig congregations. Bach harmonized it more than once but with changes of detail only. With the repeats it has nine phrases, some of which are short and declamatory. What becomes clear is the fact that Bach, as with C 14, elected to compose a fantasia of even greater complexity and displays of contrapuntal technique than had been apparent in many of his earlier works of this genre. Boyd (p 149) calls the opening chorus ′one of Bach′s contrapuntal masterpieces′.

The theme is that of God as a citadel or bulwark standing between us and our enemies, with implications of the Catholic Church (which is not named) and Satan (who is). It expounds upon Christ′s sacrifice for Mankind and concludes with a rousing hymn acknowledging His Presence and His spirit, attributes deemed to be of vastly greater significance to us than worldly possessions or personal reputations.

In a superficial sense this is yet another expression of God′s Greatness and Protective powers. More significantly it is the recognition of the true God through the true religion as revealed by Luther and the processes of Reformation. Consequently, it emerges as a significant cantata and, with eight movements, slightly more than the usual number, it lasts for a full half an hour in performance.


The opening chorus is truly formidable. The comparison with the fantasia from C 14 (chapter 61) bears scrutiny since both are massively designed movements laden with contrapuntal devices of awe-inspiring complexity. Both hark back to the traditional motet principle whereby instruments double the voices with little independence. Both use instruments instead of voices to articulate the phrases of the chorale melody. True, one is predominantly minor and the other largely major which partially accounts for their highly contrasting characters, but it is still instructive to view them as a complementary pair. They represent a stage of Bach′s composing career which was a turning point between the accessibility of the keyboard, violin and Brandenburg Concerti and the rarefied profundity of works from his final decade.

The best route to an understanding of this fantasia is through a thorough familiarity with the chorale melody. As usual the first two phrases, stolidly Teutonic in spirit and balanced in length, are repeated. Then follow four short, pithy phrases, rounded off by a repetition of phrase two. These various melodic units may be represented thus:

A   B   A   B   C   D   E   F   B.

The fantasia is constructed around the articulation of these nine phrases played on the oboe, the first announced from bar 12. It is a relatively simple matter to follow through the complete fantasia paying particular attention to, and counting, each of these woodwind statements. The hard work begins when we attempt to understand what the choir does prior to each of these entries.

The principle is both simple and conventional within the tradition of motet structure. The voices, all four of them since the soprano is free from the responsibility of carrying the cantus firmus, discuss each phrase imitatively as a prelude to its instrumental entry. The full details of the contrapuntal techniques are beyond the scope of this essay; nevertheless, it may be helpful to chart the earlier entries in some detail.

The chorus begins with a rhythmically adapted version of the first chorale phrase A, sung by the tenors.
    First chorale phrase followed by tenor entry.

Just as in any typical baroque fugal exposition, it is answered in turn by the remaining voices, here in the order A, S, B. The countersubject, however, is formed from the chorale′s second phrase B. This may be heard in the order T, A, S.

Thus the lead-in to the oboe statement of the first complete chorale phrase shows itself to be a four-part fugal exposition making use of both phrases A and B respectively, as subject and countersubject.

For the lead-in to the oboe′s rendition of the next phrase  B, the voices throw this second phrase around in the order A, S, B (from bar 17) whilst the adapted version of A acts as the countersubject.

The second chorale phrase followed by alto version.

So the general pattern, if not the detailed working out, is simplicity itself; nine instrumental chorale phrases, each preceded by a choral  fugato ′prologue′, often with overlapping entries. The various combinations of motives, shapes and complete phrases derived from the chorale abundantly demonstrate the supreme art of the greatest contrapuntalist of his era.

The text of this first stanza is bold and affirmative—-God is our mighty fortress and He defends and saves us from the guile and power of our Enemy. The fantasia is clearly intended as an evocation of the Lord as the all-powerful bastion, the mainstay of our protection.

However, there is more obscure imagery embedded within the texture of the music which also seems to have symbolic significance. This is the evolution from single entities or statements into something more complex and intricate. Every choral phrase is approached in this fashion, melodic lines building, massing and entwining before culminating in the inevitable triumphant statements of the hymn itself. Was Bach thinking of the contrast of the significance of Man with the Mightiness of the Almighty? Was he painting a musical picture of a mighty citadel rising from its basic foundations? Might this have been a portrayal of the massing enemies who besiege us but cannot succeed against the Fortress of the Lord and the simplicity of true faith?

We do not, and cannot, know. But we can be reasonably sure that Bach had in mind metaphoric images of these kinds, devising his structures and textures so as to depict and represent textual images and concepts through various levels of musical complexity.

Soprano/bass aria/chorale.

The second movement, a duet for soprano and bass, offers further evidence for the supposition of evolving from simplicity to complexity. The soprano, oboe doubling, sings each chorale phrase much as in a fantasia, but most are now highly decorated. It is noteworthy that the embellishments are at their richest towards the ends, not the beginnings of the phrases, the single entity developing into the multiple whole.

All the upper strings combine to provide the ritornello theme, a stream of relentless semi-quavers, virtually never letting up throughout the movement. This is one of Schweitzer′s figures of ′tumult′ and it energises the music from the first to the last bar. Bach may have been thinking of the enemies swarming without; or possibly the sheer dogged persistence of those who, with the Lord′s backing, continue to hold the fort! Again, the specific metaphor is uncertain but the musical imagery is precise.

This could almost be viewed just as an aria for bass. His vocal lines swirl around and between the soprano entries, conveying a sense of the universality of mankind—-all who are born of God and baptised in Christ′s name will be victorious! The soprano has a similar but less aggressively assertive premise—-with only our own strength, we will be lost—-we have to call upon Jesus to hold the course.

Bass recitative/arioso.

The next two movements give some respite from the relentlessness of the chorale melody; they are also the only two set in a minor mode. The bass reminds us, like a strict parent, of Christ′s sacrifice on our behalves and the consequent protection we are afforded against Satan. The last line melts into a tender arioso of simple prayer —-may we, and Christ′s Spirit, always remain united.

Soprano aria.

These final few bars lead us gently into the soprano aria which, after the collective and public expressions of the opening movements, begins to explore a more personal perspective. It invites Jesus to come into our hearts′ domain and thus renew and reinforce our rejection of sin. The gently enticing ritornello theme, played only by the continuo, is another of those ideas which seems as if it might become a ground bass but Bach allows himself a greater freedom, detaching segments of the theme as he wishes.

It has the quality of modest entreaty, a feeling reinforced by the long melismas on such words as Verlangen—-a desire or entreaty (bars 7-10)—-and erneuert—a renewal or recharging {of the Lord′s Spirit within us}, bars 16-18.


We may have temporarily lost sight of the chorale melody, but the fifth movement reminds us of it in no uncertain manner. Most unusually, all voices of the choir sing it in unison. Bach used this technique very rarely and mostly for emphasis. Apart from the lilt given to the hymn by the change to a 6/8 time signature, it is entirely unembellished. The musical interest lies, for the most part, in the orchestra: strings, three oboes and continuo as heard in the opening fantasia.

The line of text Bach may have had particularly in mind is that of the host of devils trying to devour us. The mounting semi-quaver and repeated-note passages could well have been devised to conjure up images of hordes of enemies. But we already know that Satan, the ruler of these fiends, can do nothing against the word of God!

Once again Bach devises his material so as to evoke the image of evolution from simplicity into intricacy. The opening unison bars have a very odd sound as the three oboes, right at the bottom of their registers, double the upper strings. But this idea soon emerges into an expanding complexity of semi-quaver motion, ultimately to dominate the movement.

Amidst this the good Christian, as represented by the starkly expressed chorale tune, stands firm against the onslaught of even the most copious of enemy hordes.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative also exhorts us not to yield in battle, because your Saviour is your Protector. There are three easily recognizable melismas, each one longer than the last. In themselves they convey the essential message—-Seele—-soul or spirit, freudig—-joyously—-and Hort—-a shield or bulwark. The Soul enters its battles cheerfully when emboldened by the shield of God.

Alto/tenor aria.

The penultimate movement is another duet. It is relatively rare to find two of them in the same cantata, although examples may be found in C 4 (chapter 42) and C 140 (chapter 55). Here the choice of alto and tenor voices may simply be a matter of musical balance; the first duet was for soprano and bass. Nevertheless, the placing of the two movements is of some significance, the one immediately following the fantasia and the other preceding the closing chorale.

But their characters could hardly be more contrasting, the first driving and bursting with energy, the second reflectively submissive. The fortitude of purpose expressed in the first results, ultimately, in the simple faith and peaceful acceptance of the second. The latter duet, like the soprano aria, is a deeply personal response to the precepts of conventional faith.

Both the ritornello and the vocal sections begin with great simplicity and both develop into a density of musical ideas, resulting in a full texture of five combined melodies.

Again we come to consider the principal metaphors which drove much of Bach′s architectural thinking in the composition of this cantata. Might one of them be this: unquestionable acts of faith and belief are simple, effortless and almost childlike but the world around us, with its divisions and factions, creates the complexities we must find the strength to understand and ultimately resist?

The dignified and slightly darkish tone of the oboe da caccia combines with a solo violin to provide the obbligato lines. The text tells us that the blessedness of those who merely speak of God is as nothing compared to the good Christians who carry Him in their hearts as a Shield against enemies. The flowing, largely semi-quaver movement of the instruments is strongly contrasted with the crotchet/quaver rhythms of the singers. Only when they sing of the schlagen—-the smiting (of our enemies)—-do they join the instrumentalists in an uninterrupted flow of faster notes.

Yet again, the simplicity of faith lodged truly within the human heart and set against the surging antagonistic hordes is an image embedded firmly within the fabric of the music.


The chorale, with string and oboe doublings, produces as positive a musical ending as one could wish for—-let them take what they will—-He stands to defend us and the Kingdom of Heaven will surely be ours. The personal and communal acclamations of these assertions combine to leave the message of words and music ringing in the ears of the Leipzig congregations.

Cs 80 and 14 (chapter 61) begin with what were almost certainly the last chorale fantasias that Bach wrote. Both are massive movements displaying an awesome command of contrapuntal technique, the one extrovertly positive and major-mode the other introspectively enigmatic and minor. Nevertheless, they complement each other perfectly.

Perhaps Bach felt that after composing these two works he had said all that he wanted, or needed, to say through this particular form.


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