The grand reformation cantata BWV 80 “Ein’ feste Burg” has a complex history. It began life in Weimar as a chamber scale cantata for the first Sunday in Lent called Oculi. The reading for that Sunday is the passage from Luke where Christ throws out the devil. He himself is accused of being the devil and replies with the famous passage about a house divided against itself. The monumental struggle between good and evil brought forth a muscular and powerful libretto from Salomo Franck. This original version began with an aria for bass and strings in which an oboe played a highly ornamented version of “Ein’ feste Burg.” It continued with a secco recitative and soprano aria with continuo and a secco recitative for tenor and a duet for alto, tenor, violin and oboe da caccia. It ended with a four-voice harmonization of the second verse of “Ein’ feste Burg.”
Some time early in his tenure in Leipzig, Bach expanded this cantata. There was no music at Thomaskirche during Lent, and the Reformation day festivities were a grand event in Leipzig. He added a large motet style movement using the first verse of the chorale, added a soprano, and presumably cut the oboe into the bass aria, using the text for the second verse of the chorale. After the soprano recitative and aria he added a large chorale movement with strings and chorus in octaves. The final chorale harmonization was modified to fit the last verse of the chorale instead of the first. There are many extent period scores of the piece. At some time 3 oboes were added to the unison chorale, along with somewhat primitive trumpet and drum parts composed by Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. There are versions of both the opening motet and the unison chorale movement. Even when these versions are sorted out, there are certain anomalies, particularly in the first motet. For all of its problems and the several layers represented in the score, there is no doubt that this is one of the most important and magnificent of Bach cantatas. It is in a sense the ultimate Lutheran piece, the grand climax of Lutheran music.
“Ein’ feste Burg” has always been Luther’s most famous chorale, and it is one of his best. Bar-form chorales are actually not too common in Luther, but here he not only has written the arch-typical bar-form piece, but uses the form ingeniously to lay out his text. The battle between Jesus and Satan, which is here whipped into a frenzy, is not only fought out in this hard-hitting and tough text, but is fought out in the oppositions inherent in the form. The Stollen are almost always reserved for a description of the righteous Christian. The Abgesang is usually a description of the forces of Satan. The last phrase, which in characteristic bar-form fashion recapitulates the end of the Stollen, describes the triumph over Satan. This is not always the case, but it happens in enough verses that it is clear that the opposition of good and evil was on his mind when he set the words in this chorale.The motet chorus is a magnificent achievement. In a genre in which Bach was the absolute master, this is probably the greatest motet chorus. It is laid out on very broad lines. There are certain almost arbitrary decisions that the performer will have to make before taking on this piece. The chorale tune is presented in long notes by the two oboes in unison. This is in canon with the pedal of the organ and the violone. Here is a piece that requires a large and loud organ, and if one is not available the bottom line should be doubled by a bass trombone playing at the 16’, the organ stop specified in one of the extent scores. The balance is often skewed in this movement because the bass is not strong enough. The texture of the actual motet is quite complicated: there are four voices plus an independent continuo line. In addition there are the trumpet parts written by W. Friedemann Bach. It is fashionable nowadays to leave them out. But the piece sounds hollow without them. One suspects that they were written at the instruction of J.S. Bach. The battle between good and evil is brilliantly articulated. In the Stollen the lines and the text of both phrases in each version of the A are broadly mixed together. There is a conscious breadth and lack of differentiation between these two phrases. We only know where we are in the form by the canon between the oboes and low bass. The Abgesang on the other hand is tightly and clearly phrased. Each line of text is clearly defined not only in the canon but also in the voices and continuo. The harmony becomes progressively more chromatic, and reaches a hair-raising pitch in the penultimate phrase. The last phrase not only recapitulates the last phrase of the Stollen, but also the breadth of its delivery at the beginning of the movement.
It was a brilliant and daring gesture for Bach to put a movement before the first movement of his Oculi cantata. But the breadth and majesty contrasts wonderfully with the energy and liveliness of the Weimar movements. This bass aria is one of Bach best pieces from Weimar. A concerto grosso type figuration for all of the strings is played against bravura scale passages in the voice. Most scores print both the oboe and the soprano versions of the chorale melody. They probably were never played together, for the two versions produce some interesting heterophony. In Weimar Bach made some of his most interesting advances in recitative writing. Here, at the end of the secco recitative #3, the text speaks of being bound and united with Christ’s soul. Bach sets up a pattern of imitation between the voice and the continuo, particularly the three-note motive on the words “Christi Geist.” The two are bound together by the canonic writing.
The soprano aria is the first really intimate and lyrical thing in the cantata. Franck comes up with a lovely metaphor, “come into the house of my heart.” Over and over again in these Weimar cantatas Franck finds an every day image that is just right for the idea that he is expressing. The music is floating and ethereal. Particularly striking is the opening line of both the continuo and voice that seems to float down from heaven. Even the more aggressive sides of the text are miniaturized, very much in keeping with the child’s voice.
The Leipzig unison chorale bursts in impressively. Here the trumpet parts are more problematic. One spot, a big octave doubling of the string melody, seems particularly ungainly. There are problems with the doubling oboe parts, also. There is something to be said for revising the trumpet parts and leaving out the oboes. It is a magnificent movement however; and the only example of extended unison chorus writing in Bach gives the piece a particular congregational feel.
Then the piece returns back to two Weimar movements. As wonderful as the unison chorale is, something is lost from the Weimar version of having the piece remain quiet through the soprano and the alto-tenor duet. The tenor recitative again has an extended and impressive arioso section, this time with florid passagework on the words “my Savior is my shield.” The gorgeous duet for alto, tenor, violin and oboe da caccia is a heavenly picture of being in a state of grace. Bach has been using tonic-dominant oppositions all during the cantata up to this point. Here he avoids the dominant and prefers the sub-dominant. The passivity of the subdominant also reminds us that the cantata is coming to a close. Here is an effect much more in common with classical rather than Baroque music. Bach writes a duet for alto and tenor for the first time here. Already there is a sign of the psychological complexity and ambiguity of that combination. This is a qualtiy that would be present throughout his career. The combination of violin and oboe da caccia is inspired. The dark fruity tones of the tenor oboe combine wonderfully with the violin, which is kept mostly in the bottom part of its range. The counterpoint is at times quite elaborate, and the words are vividly characterized. One should notice how the two voices join together on the same low g at the end on the words “Tod erlegt.” Bach made some adjustments in the four-voice chorale in Leipzig to fit a different verse of the text. This is, in a way the ultimate Bach chorale harmonization. It is so well known, and is in virtually every Protestant hymn book in the world that it has become every person’s idea of what “Ein’ feste Burg” is.