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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 and first performed it on 11 June 1724. It is the first cantata he composed for his chorale cantata cycle, the second annual cycle he began in Leipzig. The cantata is based on Johann Rist's hymn "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" (1642), with a chorale melody by Johann Schop.

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
BWV 20
Leipzig Nikolaikirche um 1850.jpg
Nikolaikirche, c. 1850
OccasionFirst Sunday after Trinity
Performed11 June 1724 (1724-06-11): Leipzig
Movements11 in two parts (7, 4)
Cantata text
"O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort"
by Johann Rist
  • SATB choir
  • solo: alto, tenor and bass
  • tromba da tirarsi
  • 3 oboes
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • continuo


History and wordsEdit

Bach composed the cantata for the First Sunday after Trinity.[2] The Sunday marks the beginning of the second half of the liturgical year, "in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored".[3] The year before, Bach had taken office as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. He was responsible for the education of the Thomanerchor, performances in the regular services in the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche and others. He had started the project of composing one cantata for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year,[4] termed by the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff "an artistic undertaking on the largest scale".[5] In 1724 he started a project on the first Sunday after Trinity to exclusively compose chorale cantatas, based on the main Lutheran hymn for the respective occasion, beginning with this cantata.[6] Leipzig had a tradition of focusing on the hymns. In 1690, the minister of the Thomaskirche, Johann Benedikt Carpzov, had 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] Bach composed some forty chorale cantatas in his second cycle.[8]

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 in 16 stanzas "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort", using 12 of the stanzas.[3] The hymn, reflecting death and eternity, is well suited to match 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] The text of three stanzas is kept unchanged, 1, 8 and 12, used for movements 1, 7 and 11.[10] 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. In general, he stays close to the text, which is characteristic for the early cantatas in Bach's second annual cycle.[10] The poet was possibly Andreas Stübel, who died in 1725, a possible explanation 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 his collection Himlische Lieder (Lüneburg, 1642). It is featured in all three movements which use Rist's text.[11]

Bach first performed the cantata on 11 June 1724.[12]


Structure and scoringEdit

Bach structured the cantata in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon. Part I contains seven movements, Part II four movements. Part I begins with a chorale fantasia, both parts are concluded by the same four-part setting of two other stanzas of the chorale. The inner movements are mostly alternating recitatives and arias, with the last aria a duet. Bach scored the work festively for three vocal soloists (alto (A), tenor (T) and bass (B)), a four-part choir (SATB), and a Baroque instrumental ensemble: tromba da tirarsi (Tt), three oboes (Ob), two violins (Vl), viola (Va), and basso continuo (Bc).[13] The duration is given 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 Alfred Dürr, using the symbol for common time (4/4).[13] The instruments are shown separately for winds and strings, while the continuo, playing throughout, is not shown.

Movements of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20 – Part 1
No. Title Text Type Vocal Winds Strings Key Time
1 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort Rist Chorale fantasia SATB Tt 3Ob 2Vl Va F major
2 Kein Unglück ist in aller Welt zu finden anon. Recitative T  
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  
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  
Movements of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20 – 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  
9 Verlaß, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt anon. Recitative A  
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  


The opening chorus, beginning not only the cantata but also the second annual cantata cycle, is in the style of a solemn French Overture in the typical three sections slow – fast (vivace) – slow. The French Overture was designed to mark the entry of the king.[7] The melody is sung by the soprano as a cantus firmus in long notes, doubled by the slide trumpet. The chorale is in bar form. The first Stollen of three lines is handled in the slow section, the second Stollen of lines 4 to 6 in the fast section, the Abgesang of lines 7 an 8 in the concluding slow section. The lower voices are mostly in homophony. The development of themes happens in the orchestra. The rising theme of the slow section in dotted rhythm is derived from the beginning of the chorale tune, whereas the theme of the fast section is not related to the tune. The fast section is not a strict fugue. Bach seems mostly interested in illustrating the text,[14] Ewigkeit (eternity) is rendered in long notes in the lower voices and the instruments, Donnerwort (thunderous word) appears as a sudden change to short notes with a melisma in the bass, on the words große Traurigkeit (great sadness)[1] a downward chromatic line, a counterpoint in the fast section, also appears in the voices,[7] erschrocken (terrified)[1] is rendered in jarred rhythms interrupted by rests, first in the orchestra, then also in the voices, klebt (cleave)[1] is a long note in the voices.[14] John Eliot Gardiner, who conducted the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, summarizes regarding the cantata: "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 arioso only in movement 9 on the words "Pracht, Hoffart, Reichtum, Ehr, und Geld" (splendor, pride, riches, honor, and wealth)[1] from the chorale. The arias contrast, interpreting the text in its affekt and in single phrases.[15] Gardiner notes about the first pair of recitative and aria:

The tenor prolongs the mood of torment ... ramming home the themes of anxiety, pain, hell and the quaking heart. Bach uses a varied thematic armoury: long notes and undulating quavers to suggest eternity, chains of appoggiaturas stretched over tortuous figurations to suggest fear, wild runs for flames and burning, broken fragments, chromatic and syncopated, for the quaking heart. Sudden silences at phrase-ends add to the sense of disjointedness and terror. Yet all this profligacy of dramatic imagery is perfectly and seamlessly integrated into the overall design.[3]

In movement 8, the call to wake up is intensified by trumpet signals and fast scales, evoking the Last Judgement.[16] 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.[16] Both parts of the cantata are concluded by the same four-part chorale setting, 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][16]


The entries of the following table are taken from the list of recordings provided on the Bach Cantatas Website.[17] Ensembles playing on period instruments in historically informed performance and a choir of one voice per part (OVPP) are marked by green background.

Recordings of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Orch. type
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 39 Helmuth Rilling
Frankfurter Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Hänssler 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 Pieter Jan Leusink
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