Cantata No. 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”
Johann Sebastian Bach
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: horn, 2 oboes d’amore, strings, continuo, chorus, and alto, tenor, and bass soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Newly appointed in April 1823 to the prestigious post of organist and cantor at the two Leipzig churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicolas, Bach produced an astonishing sequence of cantatas during his first year in office. There was a new one every week, and even if he occasionally drew on music he had composed earlier, the task of composing, copying, rehearsing, and performing this amount of never easy music must have been superhuman.
Cantata No. 60 was prepared for the 24th Sunday after Trinity, November 7, 1723, using a text by an unknown author in the form of a dialogue between the allegorical figures Furcht (Fear) and Hoffnung (Hope). The subject of the cantata is the fear of death, which, for a Christian, is always to be balanced by the hope of the hereafter. Fear is represented by the alto soloist, Hope by the tenor. The choir sings the final chorale.
The opening aria is actually a duet, with Fear (supported by a horn) stating a chorale melody and Hope intervening with elaborate melismas to express the expectation of salvation. The words “O eternity, thou thunderous word” are illustrated by long notes (the bass line at the beginning) and clusters above it in the strings. With his usual effortless skill, Bach has his two oboes d’amore and the strings weaving endlessly inventive counterpoints around and between the strains of the chorale melody.
In the first recitative, Fear bewails the tortures (“martert,” vividly illustrated) while Hope responds with faith that man can endure them (“ertragen,” drawn out).
The next aria pairs an oboe d’amore with a solo violin. The clear distinction between the expression of Fear and Hope in the two solo voices is reflected in a clear distinction between the music given to the oboe d’amore and the bass line (dotted rhythms), and the violin (flowing scales). Hope quite properly has the last word.
In the second recitative Fear’s obsession with death is confronted by the bass soloist in a measured arioso citing the Book of Revelation: “Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord from henceforth.” At the end Fear accepts that death is the sleep of hope and peace.
A chorale closes the cantata. The melody is by the 17th-century composer Johann Rudolf Ahle, but the rich harmonization is by Bach himself. The unusual opening phrase inspired Alban Berg to incorporate this chorale in the final section of his Violin Concerto when he realized that the first four notes matched the last four notes of the twelve-note series on which the concerto was built.