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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Nor did he hesitate to write music of utter magnificence, despite the wan forces at his disposal. Undoubtedly his most splendid cantata was BWV 80, written at Leipzig for performance on the Feast of the Reformation, 31 October 1724. (Several of its parts were based on a much smaller cantata written at Weimar.) The Reformationsfest, as it is called in German, is the anniversary of the famous Ninety-five Theses, or articles of protest, which Luther posted on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, 31 October 1517. It is thus the most important feast day specific to the German Protestant church and is always given a lavish celebration.

Bach’s Cantata BWV 80 takes its name from Ein’ feste Burg (“A mighty fortress”), Luther’s most famous chorale, with a tradition of polyphonic settings going back to the early sixteenth century. It takes its musical shape from an alternation of choral movements based on chorale verses with recitatives and arias drawn from Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer (“Evangelical devotional offering,” 1715), a book of devotional verse à la Neumeister by Salomo Franck, the Weimar court poet. At some later time, Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–84), made the piece even more splendid by adding a Stadtpfeifer contingent (three trumpets and timpani) to the scoring, possibly for a special performance to celebrate (in 1730) the bicentenary of the “Augsburg Confession,” the official creed of the Lutheran church, which Protestants regard as their declaration of independence from the authority of Rome. A tour of the chorale movements from this work in its final, collaborative realization will be a trip to the very summit of traditional Lutheran church polyphony in its latest and ripest phase.

To get the full effect of the tour, we will survey the four settings in reverse order, beginning with the concluding Cantionalsatz (no. 8), a setting of the final hymn verse, included here simply as a reminder of the famous tune (Ex. 7-10a). Passing back over a tenor recitative (no. 6) and an alto/tenor duet (no. 7), praising those who show a steadfastness comparable to Luther’s and promising them a reward in the next world, we come to no. 5, a setting of the third chorale verse, which speaks of Christians standing firm in their faith, and through it repelling a host of devils and fiends.

Musical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10a J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, the concluding Cantionalsatz

What a natural for a concerto-style setting! The steadfast Christians are represented by the chorus, singing the successive lines of the hymn in unison (or to be literal, in octaves), alternating with a richly raucous instrumental ensemble—trumpets, alto and tenor oboes, and strings—that portrays the grimacing surrounding host with a wild Vivaldian ritornello, which begins with a diminution of the chorale incipit (Ex. 7-10b), continues through a sequence, and ends with “thundering” rage-tremolandi in the strings and literally unplayable lip-trills for the clarino trumpet that produce the aural equivalent of a scowl or an obscene gesture (Ex. 7-10c). A close look at the score will turn up many extra diminutions of the chorale, thrown in wherever they can be made to fit by dint of a deceptive cadence.

Once again we skip over a recitative/aria pair on a text by Franck (nos. 3–4), except to note that (Franck being a literary disciple of Neumeister) it is a virtual replay of the second recitative-aria pair in Cantata no. 61: exhortations from the bass (concluding in an arioso) followed by an invitation, addressed by the chastened soprano to Jesus, to “Komm in mein Herzens Haus” (“Come dwell within my heart’s abode”). The aria that comes before them (Ex. 7-10d), marked no. 2, is actually a fascinating hybrid: a duet that underscores the relationship between the reflective poetry and the emblematic chorale by combining text and gloss in a single contrapuntal texture.

Musical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10b J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, no. 5, chorus, “Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär,” beginning of ritornello

The soprano sings the second chorale verse to a highly decorated or “figural” variant of the original melody, while the bass carols away to Franck’s commentary on the same verse, set in an unusual (for bass) coloratura style that, by imitating the virtuoso manner of a soprano or even a castrato, seems to reflect the text’s promise that all who accept Christ will triumph over the limitations of the flesh. (As we have already observed, and as we shall observe again, this preoccupation with human limitations was a particularly important principle for Bach. It found reflections of all kinds in his music, with the emphasis sometimes on their exposure, sometimes on their overcoming.) The heterogeneous result could be called a “cantus-firmus aria” or a “sung chorale prelude.” It might be better, though, not to try to give such unique symbolic contrivances names; for they, too, are meant to display transcendence of normal (that is, humanly ordained) categories. At any rate, the unfolding of the cantus firmus takes precedence over the normal aria form, which, shorn of a contrasting section and da capo, resembles a concerto movement more than ever. Both vocal soloists are given instrumental correlates. The chorale-singing soprano is doubled by an oboe that contributes extra decorative contortions to the “figuration” of the traditional melody. Sometimes voice and instrument can even be heard ornamenting a melodic phrase in two different ways at once.

The bass, meanwhile, is paired with massed strings in unison (another typically Bachian effect we first saw in Cantata no. 61) to provide a “spun-out” ritornello at the beginning and the end and elsewhere to act as the bass’s “obbligato” or accompanying counterpoint. The basic motive out of which this string ritornello is spun is enunciated in the very first measure: it is easily recognized as a stylized bugle call, a military tattoo that encapsulates the pervasive martial imagery of Luther’s chorale poem, as it also did in operatic or madrigalian “rage” music going all the way back to Monteverdi.

Musical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10c J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, no. 5, end of ritornello

Having traced the chorale now through three musical incarnations, at last we are ready to take on the cantata’s opening number, a grandiose “chorale fantasia” of a kind peculiar to Bach’s larger Leipzig cantatas. Even here, as everywhere in Bach’s choral music, the method is basically archaic, albeit updated by the most sophisticated handling of tonal harmony anyone anywhere had yet achieved. The form, in its essentials, is that of the motet—a form that goes back to pre-Reformation times and had been discarded everywhere save the Lutheran church, where alone it continued in living and evolving use. (When Catholic composers used the motet style, as we know, it was in the guise of an officially retrospective stile antico in which stylistic evolution was forbidden; eighteenth-century Catholics, when they wrote motets, adopted—or tried to adopt—the sixteenth century “Palestrina style”: not a style whose history went back to Palestrina, but a style whose history had stopped with Palestrina.)

Musical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10d J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, no. 2, Aria con Choral, “Mit unser Macht,” mm. 9–13

Musical Symbolism, Musical IdealismMusical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10e J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, no. 1, Choral Fantasia, “Ein’ feste Burg,” mm. 23–30

Musical Symbolism, Musical Idealism

ex. 7-10f J. S. Bach, Ein’ feste Burg, BWV 80, the four chorale movements, no. 1, harmonic “Far-Out Point”

A motet, takes shape as a series of discrete points of imitation (rather than a series of expositions of a single idea, like a fugue). In the opening fantasia of Cantata No. 80, the successive points of imitation (all accompanied by an independent and very active continuo and punctuated in Wilhelm Friedemann’s arrangement by jocund ejaculations from the Stadtpfeifer band) are based on the successive lines of the chorale. The first of them sets the procedure that will be followed consistently throughout. The chorale line is transformed by passing tones and a cadential flourish into a flowing “subject,” which is then treated according to the rules of tonal counterpoint, in alternation with its “tonal answer,” in which the first (tonic) and fifth (dominant) scale degrees are exchanged reciprocally. (Thus the tenors, entering with the subject, descend a fourth from D to A; the altos, entering with the answer, descend a fifth from A to D, and so on.) This sounds like a normal enough fugal exposition, but in fact it would be hard to find another fugue that begins with the tenor and alto entries. All the fugues we have seen thus far have proceeded either from top to bottom or from bottom to top. Deviations from this pattern, being deviations, require reasons, and such reasons are most often to be sought in the “poetic” or symbolic realm. In this case, the reason for opening out from the middle of the choral texture to the extremes becomes clear after the vocal exposition of the first “point” is complete. Unexpectedly, it is capped by the instruments (Ex. 7-10e), playing the cantus-firmus melody, sans figuration, in a marvelous canon that is close-spaced in time but could hardly be wider-spaced in pitch register. Both instrumental lines are doubled at the octave in Wilhelm Friedemann’s arrangement: the oboe by the clarino trumpet above (replacing Bach’s original scoring for three oboes in unison), and the continuo both by the violone or double bass and by the 16-foot “trombone” (Posaune) pedal stop on the organ.

Bach hardly ever specified organ “registration,” that is, the precise choice of “stops,” the settings that determined exactly which ranks of pipes were to be activated by which keys and pedals. This, too, was a deviation from his normal practice and had a special “poetic” motivation. Thanks to these octave doublings, the capping statement of the “symbolum”—the emblem or article of faith—exceeds at both ends the range of the human voice, betokening transcendence. The special nature of this fugal exposition, then, has a multiple poetic purpose. The chorale is literally heard to spread out from the “midst” of the chorus—the human vehicles of the word—and pass into the all-encompassing universal reach of the divine.

This symbolism informs the exposition of the chorale’s every line. What varies, once the basic format has been established through repetition (and recalling that the chorale is in the venerable AAB form), is the order of vocal entries. Bach’s virtuosity in controlling this teeming contrapuntal microcosm is joyously displayed at a level that few composers, if any, could match. Study of the piece will bring many exhilarating discoveries, beginning with the way the fugal entries of the second line are dovetailed with those of the first, so that the chorale melody is actually set in counterpoint with itself.

Perhaps most noteworthy of all is the way Bach contrives a FOP—the harmonic far-out point, requisite for a fully articulated “tonal” form—between the penultimate line of the chorale and the final one. The penultimate line of the chorale melody ends on F♯. Bach interprets this note as an applied dominant (“V of vi”) and follows it with a choral exposition (Ex. 7-10f) in which the last line of the text is sung to an adjusted version of the first phrase of the tune that goes through a circle of fifths—tenors cadencing on B (vi), basses on E (ii), sopranos on A (V), and altos on D (I), thence to the instruments who bring in the actual last phrase of the melody for a properly “achieved” conclusion in the tonic. In this way Bach supplies a “modern” harmonic structure that is unavailable in the original chorale melody (which of course was composed in “pre-tonal” times), without actually departing from or interrupting the progress of the tune.

The wonder is that, from all that we know of the conditions under which Bach worked, he never had at his disposal the musical forces that could do anything approaching justice to this mighty fortress of a chorus. Documents survive that inform us both as to the puny resources Bach had to work with, and those that he would have thought adequate if not ideal. The most telling document of this kind is a memorandum he submitted to the Leipzig Town Council on 23 August 1730, a couple of months before the celebrations at which Cantata no. 80 may have been performed in his son’s “big band” arrangement.16 The title already tells the story: “A Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music; Together with Certain Modest Reflections on the Decline of Same.”

Bach’s main concern was the choir, which consisted in large part of the boys he trained himself as head of the church music school. “Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses,” he wrote, “so that even if one happens to fall ill (as very often happens, particularly at this time of year, as the prescriptions written by the school physician for the apothecary must show) at least a double chorus motet may be sung. (And note that it would be still better if the classes were such that one could have 4 singers on each part and thus could perform every chorus with 16 persons.)” Next Bach lists the minimum stable of instrumentalists who should be at the disposal of any self-respecting music director. It hardly seems a coincidence that (with the exception of the bassoons, which were probably assumed to be doublers of the continuo line) the ensemble he describes is exactly that called for in Cantata no. 80. Indeed, Bach immediately follows the list below with a supplementary list of instruments—flutes, recorders, etc.—that are also needed from time to time. But this is the minimum:

2 or even 3 for the

Violino 1

2 or 3 for the

Violino 2

2 for the

Viola 1

2 for the

Viola 2

2 for the


1 for the


2, or, if the piece requires, 3, for the

Hautbois (oboe)

1, or even 2, for the


3 for the


1 for the


summa 18 persons at least, for the instrumental music

By Bach’s own avowal, then, he considered thirty-four persons (plus himself and another keyboard player, who went without saying) to be the bare minimum required for a performance of a maximal piece like Cantata No. 80—and that number would have been thought puny indeed at any aristocratic, let alone royal, court. (Just recall Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, with its band of fifty-five wind players.) Except for avowed attempts to re-create the conditions of Bach’s time (as in the so-called “historically authentic” performances that have been popular since the 1970s), the number would be considered stingy for a professional performance today. Yet Bach declares himself content with it, if only.

For the same memorandum reveals that in reality Bach could only count on eight regular instrumentalists (relying on local students or his own choristers to pinch-hit when possible), and that of the choristers at the school, whose services were required not just at Bach’s own church, St. Thomas’s, but at all four Leipzig churches (and who also had to pinch-hit as instrumentalists, as noted), Bach considered only 17 to be “usable” for music of “artistry” and “gusto” (taste). It has been suggested (by Bach scholar and performer Joshua Rifkin) that Bach’s church music was normally performed by no more than one singer or player to a part, if that (for, as Bach complains, most of the time some parts had to be omitted from the texture altogether due to absences).17 One often daydreams about what the music heard today sounded like when first performed. It would seem that in the case of Bach, it might be better not to know.


(16) “Short But Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music,” in The Bach Reader, eds. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel (rev. ed., New York: Norton, 1966), pp. 120–24.

(17) Joshua Rifkin, “Bach’s Chorus,” Musical Times CXXIII (1982): 747–54; the controversy over this article has lasted more than twenty years and generated a sizeable literature of books, articles and manifestoes.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07008.xml