O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20

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O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
Nikolaikirche, c. 1850
OccasionFirst Sunday after Trinity
Chorale"O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort"
by Johann Rist
Performed11 June 1724 (1724-06-11): Leipzig
Movements11 in two parts (7, 4)
  • SATB choir
  • solo: alto, tenor and bass
  • tromba da tirarsi
  • 3 oboes
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • continuo

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O eternity, you word of thunder),[1] BWV 20, in Leipzig for the first Sunday after Trinity, which fell on 11 June in 1724. Bach composed it when beginning his second year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. It is the first cantata he composed for his second annual cycle which was planned to contain chorale cantatas, each based on a Lutheran hymn. The cantata is focused on Johann Rist's 1642 hymn "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort", with a chorale melody by Johann Schop. The topic of death and eternity matches the Gospel for the Sunday, the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus.

As usual for Bach's chorale cantatas to come in the cycle, selected hymn stanzas were retained while the others were paraphrased by a contemporary poet who transformed their ideas into a sequence of alternating recitatives and arias. For this cantata, the first stanza was used unchanged, and two more stanzas to conclude the cantata's two parts. The first part was performed before the sermon, the second part after the sermon. The first part is in seven movements, and the second part is in four movements.

Bach scored the cantata for three vocal soloists, a

French Overture
, opening both the cantata and the second cantata cycle.

History and words

Bach composed the cantata in 1724 for the

Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche and others. During his first year, he started composing one cantata for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year,[4] termed by the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff as "an artistic undertaking on the largest scale".[5] In 1724, Bach began exclusively composing chorale cantatas for his second annual cantata cycle, beginning with this cantata and totaling some 40 chorale cantatas by the end of the cycle. Each cantata was based on the main Lutheran hymn for the respective occasion.[6] Leipzig had a tradition of focusing on the hymns. In 1690, the pastor of the Thomaskirche, Johann Benedikt Carpzov, announced that he would preach also on songs and that Johann Schelle, then the director of music, would play the song before the sermon.[7]

The prescribed readings for the Sunday were from the First Epistle of John, "God is Love" (1 John 4:16–21), and from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). The text is based on Johann Rist's hymn "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort", which was published in the collection Himlische Lieder (Heavenly songs) in Lüneburg in 1642.[8] The text is based on 12 of the hymn's 16 stanzas.[3] The hymn, reflecting death and eternity, corresponds well to the parable of the rich man who has to face death and hell.[7] It is subtitled "Ernstliche Betrachtung der unendlichen Ewigkeit" (A serious consideration of endless eternity).[9][10] The text of three stanzas (stanzas 1, 8 and 12, used for movements 1, 7 and 11) is kept unchanged.[11] An unknown author rephrased the other stanzas of the chorale to recitatives and arias, generally alternating and using one stanza for one cantata movement. The poet combined two stanzas, 4 and 5, to form movement 4. He used the lines "Vielleicht ist dies der letzte Tag, kein Mensch weiß, wenn er sterben mag" (Perhaps this is your last day, no one knows when he might die)[1] from stanza 9 in movement 9 which is otherwise based on stanza 10. In movement 10, he inserted a hint at the Gospel. Overall, the poet stayed close to the hymn's text, which is characteristic for the early cantatas in Bach's second annual cycle.[11] The poet was possibly Andreas Stübel, who died in 1725, which would explain why Bach did not complete the full cycle, but ended on Palm Sunday.[7]

The chorale theme was composed by Johann Schop for the hymn "Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich", which appeared in the collection Himlische Lieder. It was assigned to the text by Johann Franck in his 1653 edition of Praxis pietatis melica. The tune is featured in all three movements which use Rist's original text.[12]

Bach first performed the cantata on 11 June 1724.[13]


Structure and scoring

Bach structured the cantata in two parts. Part I contains seven movements and is to be performed before the sermon while Part II has four movements and is to be performed after the sermon. Part I begins with a

tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet, Tt), three oboes (Ob), two violins (Vl), viola (Va), and basso continuo (Bc).[14] Alfred Dürr gave the cantata's duration as 31 minutes.[2]

In the following table of the movements, the scoring follows the

Neue Bach-Ausgabe. The keys and time signatures are taken from Dürr, using the symbol for common time (4/4).[14]
The instruments are shown separately for winds and strings, while the continuo, playing throughout, is not shown.

Movements of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, Part I
No. Title Text Type Vocal Winds Strings Key Time
1 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort Rist Chorale fantasia SATB Tt 3Ob 2Vl Va F major
  • common time
  • 3/4
  • common time
2 Kein Unglück ist in aller Welt zu finden anon. Recitative T common time
3 Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange anon. Aria T 2Vl Va C minor 3/4
4 Gesetzt, es dau'rte der Verdammten Qual anon. Recitative B common time
5 Gott ist gerecht in seinen Werken anon. Aria B 3Ob
6 O Mensch, errette deine Seele anon. Aria A 2Vl Va D minor 3/4
7 Solang ein Gott im Himmel lebt Rist Chorale SATB Tt 3Ob 2Vl Va F major common time
Movements of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, Part II
No. Title Text Type Vocal Winds Strings Key Time
8 Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe anon. Aria B Tt 3Ob 2Vl Va C major common time
9 Verlaß, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt anon. Recitative A common time
10 O Menschenkind, hör auf geschwind anon. Duet aria A T A minor 3/4
11 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort Rist Chorale SATB Tt 3Ob 2Vl Va F major common time


The opening chorus, beginning not only the cantata but also the second annual cantata cycle, is in the style of a solemn

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, summarised: "Confronted by the baffling and disquieting subject of eternity, and specifically the eternity of hell, Bach is fired up as never before".[3]

The recitatives are mostly secco, with an

Last Judgement.[17] The first motif in movement 10 is sung by the two singers of the duet on the words O Menschenkind ("o child of man") and are repeated instrumentally as a hint of that warning.[17] Both parts of the cantata are concluded by the same four-part chorale setting,[18] asking finally "Nimm du mich, wenn es dir gefällt, Herr Jesu, in dein Freudenzelt!" (Take me, Jesus, if you will, into the felicity of your tent).[1][17]

Chorale setting


The entries of the following table are taken from the list of recordings provided on the Bach Cantatas Website.

) are marked by green background.

Recordings of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Orch. type
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 39 Helmuth Rilling
Frankfurter Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
1970 (1970)
J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk • Complete Cantatas • Les Cantates, Folge / Vol. 5 Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Concentus Musicus Wien
Teldec 1972 (1972) Period
J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 10 Ton Koopman
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Antoine Marchand 1998 (1998) Period
Bach Edition Vol. 18 – Cantatas Vol. 9
Holland Boys Choir
Netherlands Bach Collegium
Brilliant Classics 2000 (2000) Period
Bach Cantatas Vol. 1: City of London / For the 1st Sunday after Trinity John Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Soli Deo Gloria 2000 (2000) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas for the First and Second Sundays After Trinity Craig Smith
Chorus and orchestra of Emmanuel Music
Koch International 2001 (2001)
J. S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 8 – Leipzig Cantatas Masaaki Suzuki
Bach Collegium Japan
BIS 2002 (2002) Period
J. S. Bach: "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort" – Cantatas BWV 2, 20 & 176 Philippe Herreweghe
Collegium Vocale Gent
Harmonia Mundi France 2002 (2002) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year Vol. 7 Cantatas BWV 20 · 2 · 10 Sigiswald Kuijken
La Petite Bande
Accent 2007 (2007) OVPP Period




  • "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 20; BC A 95 / Chorale cantata (1st Sunday after Trinity)". Bach Digital. 2017. Retrieved 21 June 2017.


Online sources

External links