This sacred cantata by Bach is a combative cantata written for Reformation Day (October 31st) as a battle song of the Reformation. Military references are found not just in the words, but in the music as well, built up by Bach over the years.
I love Bach’s masterful use of word painting in this cantata.
This cantata can be interpreted as a literal battle cry urging physical combat, or it can be seen as calling each Christian, who is a spiritual soldier in God’s Army, to combat sin, both in ourselves and as we find it in the world, in others.
In the seventeenth century, there were closer links between music and warfare than nowadays. A soldier with a flute was a cliché in the sixteenth century. This connection was due in part to metaphors about belief and battle that were set to music; metaphors that had only recently become merely metaphorical. In Bach’s day the thirty-year war had only just ended – in 1648 – and this war trauma was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
This militancy is seen primarily in the words of the cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: in the chorale of the same title, written by Luther. The war metaphors with which the text begins, based on psalm 46, soon turned the chorale into the battle song of the Reformation. So no wonder it was sung on 31 October: Reformation Day, which was a festival in Saxony, in Bach’s day. The definitive version of the cantata was built up by Bach over the years. The first version for Leipzig, performed in 1730, was based on music he had already composed in Weimar. The big opening chorus was still missing, but he did add the fifth movement. It was only for a new performance in 1735 that Bach started the cantata with a large-scale opening chorus.
Military references are found not just in the words, but in the music as well. In the seventeenth century, the oboe was still strongly associated with the army, and Bach used no fewer than three in this cantata. The sound of three oboes playing exactly the same, as in the opening chorus, was a typical ‘marching noise’. The concordant chorus in unison is reminiscent of the uniformity and order of a well trained army. In the midst of instrumental tumult – as in the fifth movement of the cantata – the chorus sounds like a disciplined military unit that marches in perfect synchrony across the battlefield.
By the way, this performance by the Netherlands Bach Society has become my favorite performance of the piece. My second favorite is the one conducted by Joshua Rifkin (probably the foremost pioneer in the HIP – Historically Informed Performance [Practice] movement) with the Bach Ensemble recorded in September 1985. Rifkin and Shunske Sato (conductor of the piece we’re listening to in this post) both employ OVPP (one voice per part) for the soloists (SATB), but the tempo is noticeably slower. This has pluses and minuses. One positive, in my view, is that it allows the vocal lines to be clearly articulated and differentiated contrasting with the instruments. However, one potential negative is that it can get a bit too languid and the performance may lose some of its dynamic impact on listeners. Also, the instruments seem much more in the background and softer in the Rifkin recording than in this performance conducted by Sato. You can enjoy the Rifkin recording here.
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), BWV 80 (also: BWV 80.3), is a chorale cantata for Reformation Day by Johann Sebastian Bach. He reworked it from one of his Weimar cantatas, Alles, was von Gott geboren, BWV 80a (also: BWV 80.1). The first Leipzig version of the church cantata, BWV 80b (also: BWV 80.2), may have been composed as early as 1723, some five months after Bach had moved to Leipzig. Some years later he reworked the cantata one more time, writing an extended chorale fantasia as its opening movement. The text of the BWV 80a version was written by Salomon Franck and contained one stanza of Martin Luther‘s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott“; for his chorale cantata versions, BWV 80b and 80, Bach added the complete text of this Lutheran hymn.
Bach scored the cantata for four vocal soloists, a four-part choir and a Baroque chamber ensemble of up to three oboes of different kinds, strings and continuo.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ein_feste_Burg_ist_unser_Gott,_BWV_80
Netherlands Bach Society
Shunske Sato, violin and conducting
Isabel Schicketanz, soprano
Franz Vitzthum, alto
Thomas Hobbs, tenor
Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass
0:00 Ein feste Burg (Chor)
5:23 Mit unser Macht (Arie)
8:51 Erwäge doch (Rezitativ)
10:53 Komm in mein Herzenshaus (Arie)
14:01 Und wenn die Welt (Choral)
17:10 So stehe dann (Rezitativ)
18:33 Wie selig sind (Duet)
22:31 Das Wort sie sollen lassen (Choral)
|Cantata BWV 80|
Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott
English Translation in Interlinear Format
Cantata BWV 80 – A mighty fortressis our God
|Event: Feast of the Reformation|
Readings: Epistle: 2 Thessalonians 2: 3-8; Gospel: Revelations 14: 6-8
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 2, 5, 8); Salomo Franck (Mvts. 3, 4, 6, 7)
|1||Chorus [S, A, T, B]|
|Oboe I-III all’ unisono, Violino I/II, Viola, Violoncello, Violone, Organo|
|Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,|
A mighty fortress is our God,
Ein gute Wehr und Waffen;
a good defence and weapon;
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,
he helps us freely out of the distress
Die uns itzt hat betroffen.
that we have now met with.
Der alte böse Feind,
The old evil enemy
Mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint,
earnestly plots against us,
Groß Macht und viel List
great might and many forms of deceit
Sein grausam Rüstung ist,
are his fearsome weapons,
Auf Erd ist nicht seinsgleichen.
on earth there is none to match him.
|2||Aria [Bass] and Chorale [Soprano]|
|Oboe, Violino I/II, Viola all’ unisono, Continuo|
|Alles, was von Gott geboren,|
All that is born of God
Ist zum Siegen auserkoren.
Is destined for victory.
|Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan,|
By our own power nothing is accomplished
Wir sind gar bald verloren.
We are very soon lost.
Es streit’ vor uns der rechte Mann,
the right man fights for us
Den Gott selbst hat erkoren.
Whom God himself has chosen.
|Wer bei Christi Blutpanier|
Those who by the bloodstained banner of Christ
In der Taufe Treu geschworen,
have sworn faithfulness in baptism
Siegt im Geiste für und für.
gain victory in the spirit for ever and ever.
|Fragst du, wer er ist?|
Do you ask who he is?
Er heißt Jesus Christ,
he is called Jesus Christ,
Der Herre Zebaoth,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
Und ist kein andrer Gott,
and there is no other god
Das Feld muss er behalten.
He shall hold the field of battle.
|Alles, was von Gott geboren,|
All that is born of God
Ist zum Siegen auserkoren.
is destined to victory.
|Erwäge doch, Kind Gottes, die so große Liebe,|
Only consider, child of God how great his love,
Da Jesus sich
since Jesus himself
Mit seinem Blute dir verschriebe,
with his blood has given his pledge for you,
Wormit er dich
Zum Kriege wider Satans Heer und wider Welt, und Sünde
for the war against Satan’s army and against the world and sin,
He has enlisted you!
Gib nicht in deiner Seele
Do not give any place in your soul
Dem Satan und den Lastern statt!
to Satan and depravity!
Laß nicht dein Herz,
Do not let your heart,
Den Himmel Gottes auf der Erden,
God’s heaven on earth,
Zur Wüste werden!
become a desert!
Bereue deine Schuld mit Schmerz,
Repent your guilt with sorrow
Dass Christi Geist mit dir sich fest verbinde!
so that Christ’s spirit may be firmly united with you!
|Komm in mein Herzenshaus,|
Come into my heart’s house,
Herr Jesu, mein Verlangen!
Lord Jesus, my desire!
Treib Welt und Satan aus
Drive out the world and Satan
Und lass dein Bild in mir erneuert prangen!
and let you image renewed within me shine in splendour!
Weg, schnöder Sündengraus!
Away, loathsome horror of sin!
|5||Choral [S, A, T, B]|
|Oboe d’amore I/II, Taille, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo|
|Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär|
And if the world were full of devils
Und wollten uns verschlingen,
and they wanted to devour as
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr,
then we would not be very afraid,
Es soll uns doch gelingen.
we would still be successful.
Der Fürst dieser Welt,
The Prince of this world,
Wie saur er sich stellt,
however grimly he presents himself
Tut er uns doch nicht,
can do nothing against us,
Das macht, er ist gericht’,
since he is already condemned,
Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.
a little word can fell him.
|So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbten Fahne,|
Then take your stand by Christ’s bloodstained banner,
O Seele, fest
O soul, firmly,
Und glaube, dass dein Haupt dich nicht verlässt,
and believe that your leader will not forsake you,
Ja, dass sein Sieg
yes, that his victory
Auch dir den Weg zu deiner Krone bahne!
Will open the way to your crown!
Tritt freudig an den Krieg!
March joyfully to war!
Wirst du nur Gottes Wort
If only God’s word
So hören als bewahren,
is both heard and kept by you
So wird der Feind gezwungen auszufahren,
then your enemy wull be forced to withdraw,
Dein Heiland bleibt dein Hort!
your saviour remains your protector!
|7||Aria (Duet) [Alto, Tenor]|
|Wie selig sind doch die, die Gott im Munde tragen,|
How blessed are those who bear God in their mouths,
Doch selger ist das Herz, das ihn im Glauben trägt!
but more blessed is the heart that bears God in faith
Es bleibet unbesiegt und kann die Feinde schlagen
Such a heart remains unconquered and can strike its enemies
Und wird zuletzt gekrönt, wenn es den Tod erlegt.
and will in the end be crowned after death has been defeated.
|8||Chorale [S, A, T, B]|
|Violino I e Oboe d’amore I, Violino II e Oboe d’amore II, Viola (Taille), Continuo (Organo)|
|Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn|
They shall pay no heed to God’s word
Und kein’ Dank dazu haben.
And have no thanks for it.
Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
He is indeed with us on the field of battle
Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
With his Spirit and his gifts.
Nehmen sie uns den Leib,
Let them take our body
Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib,
wealth,honour, child and wife
Laß fahren dahin,
let them be taken away,
Sie habens kein’ Gewinn;
they gain nothing by this;
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.
The kingdom must still remain ours.
|English Translation by Francis Browne (July 2008)|