BWV 20 Jahrgang II - 1st Sunday after Trinity (6/11/1724)
When Bach became cantor at Leipzig in 1723 it seems to have been the fulfillment of a long-held dream. For all of his genius as a court composer of chamber and orchestral music in Cöthen, the life of a religious composer was what he desired. Bach entered into a well-established and rigorously organized program when he came to Leipzig. The city fathers were heavily involved in the most minute aspects of the music program at the Thomaskirche. The liturgical expectations were set and the biblical basis for the cantatas that Bach was to write had been in place for many years. The lectionary, the list of designated Bible readings for each Sunday and feast day, was unchanging year in and year out. Bach was expected to come up with cantata texts based upon these readings.

The so-called liturgical year, the cycle of readings for a whole year, was divided into two parts. From Advent (four Sundays in December that describe the prediction of Christ’s coming), until Trinity Sunday (the Sunday celebrating not only the completion of the founding of the church after Christ’s ascension but also the completion of the doctrine of the Trinity), the lectionary uses events from Christ’s life to teach the values of the church. This takes approximately six months. The rest of the year is taken up with Sundays after Trinity, in which the readings use the parables and teaching of Christ to lead the Christian to a better life. Each Sunday has an assigned Epistle reading from the letters of Paul and a Gospel from the actual life of Christ. The relationships between the two readings are often obvious but sometimes quite subtle in their message.

Although the liturgical year begins on the First Sunday in Advent, all of Bach’s cantata cycles begin with the other half of the year, the First Sunday after Trinity. The two parables and their paired Epistle readings thus were chosen by the church fathers to represent presumably the most important lessons to be learned from the stories used in Christ’s teaching. For the First Sunday after Trinity the Epistle reading is from the first Epistle of John, 4:16-21. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Trinity is from Luke 16:19-31. The toughness of these two readings, Paul calling the man that professes love for God but not his brother a liar, and the unbridgeable gap between the world of heaven and hell, makes for a difficult and thorny lesson. Of the three cantatas for this Sunday, two evade the issue by emphasizing the need to feed the hungry. The cantata BWV 20 virtually ignores the issue of feeding the hungry and takes as its central issue the fate of the sinner in eternal suffering for ignoring the prophets.

The second Leipzig cantata cycle is dominated by the use of chorales. Each cantata begins with a fantasia on an appropriate chorale. In BWV 20, the first cantata in this cycle, the melody O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort appears in the opening chorus as well as in the four-part chorale harmonizations that end both sections of the cantata. In addition, interior verses are rewritten to provide the texts for the recitatives, arias and duet that complete the cantata. While the words of the chorale are the source for all of the texts, the music for these movements is not based upon the chorale tune.

The opening chorus is one of the most striking things in all of Bach’s music. He chooses the form of French Overture to portray the endless march of time. The French Overture was traditionally the entrance music of the king, particularly Louis XIV, into the opera. Here the king is replaced by the sword of eternity. The musical structure– slow, pompous dotted rhythms followed by fast imitative music and ending with a repetition of the opening music – is skillfully fitted to the structure of the chorale text. The soprano voices sing the tune in long notes over the elaboration of the other voices as well as the orchestra. The orchestration is particularly pointed with the choir of three oboes providing a snarling backdrop to the string texture. Most French Overtures, even the ones by Bach, limit their harmonic palate. They make their point through rhythmic energy and the counterpoint is inevitable in the middle section. While this movement has wonderful rhythmic energy, it also makes its point with moments of harrowing chromaticism appropriate to the hard-bitten text. There are marvelous details here. At the return of the opening music, the texture fragments almost to a breaking point in illustration of the quaking heart. The harmony itself becomes gluey and stuck at the mention of the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth.

This stupendous chorus is just the beginning of a harrowing journey. The tenor recitative continues the ideas of the opening chorus. There is a little staccato continuo figure under the word ewig that is a new idea, which will become important by the end of the cantata. The tenor aria is as personal and subjective as the opening chorus is stonily objective. Here sustained string chords are underpinned by snake-like winding lines in the continuo. These lines, illustrating eternity at the beginning, turn into the flames of Hell in the middle section. The bass recitative and aria constitute a shocking change of tone. The dread and horror of the opening movements are erased by an ironic, almost joking, quality. The very authority of God is questioned by the three bouncy oboes and the bass’s rather matter-of-fact description of endless damnation as the punishment for brief transgressions of the world. The alto aria with strings is crabbed and difficult; the text is presented as an unsolvable dilemma. The aria is dominated by the opening and closing orchestral passages, each with the most subtle and sophisticated changes of material. The chorale setting that ends the first half of this cantata is almost banal in its plainness. It is as if Bach feels the need to present the most unadulterated version of the chorale.

The second half of the cantata begins with a rousing militaristic bass aria with trumpet. Here the call to arms seems like a desperate attempt to save the brothers of the rich man in the reading from Luke. What follows, however, is one of the most hair-raising things in all of Bach’s music. The call to arms has clearly failed, and the alto recitative begins to describe the last moments on earth. Bach then writes a duet for alto and tenor. Bach’s duets for this combination of voices always portray a Janus figure. There is a sense that the two singers are looking back on their wasted lives and forward to eternal damnation. The short staccato figures in the spare continuo accompaniment, derived from the first recitative, not only portray eternity but are also an uncanny evocation of drops of water, water that the rich man was begging for in the reading from Luke. There is a remarkable word-for word text setting here. Each word is characterized with almost surgical precision. The howling and chattering teeth become harrowing musical gestures, unique in all of Bach.

After such terrifying music, the brutality of the same plain harmonization of the chorale is almost more than the listener can bear. Almost all of Bach’s cantatas have redemption as their denouement. Here the unrelenting starkness of the vision has no relief. It is impossible to know what the parishioners of Leipzig thought of this astonishing vision.

©Craig Smith

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