Chapter 29 BWV 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Come now, Saviour of the Gentiles.
Chorus--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--chorale.
The twenty-eighth cantata of the cycle for the first Sunday in Advent.
For his last cantata before the Christmas celebrations Bach turned yet again to a work from his Weimar years, composed in 1614 (Dürr p 76). This was the only day of the pre-Christmas period in which a cantata was permitted at Leipzig, thus giving Bach a breathing space in which to make the final preparations for that very important festival.
It should not be thought that the Leipzig congregations were being short-changed by the reuse of Bach’s earlier works. For one thing, it is unlikely that many people were even aware of it. For another, many of the movements were scrupulously reworked to adapt to the new occasions and environments. Finally, Bach himself could not have thought so because even the cantata for Christmas Day itself, C 63, was a reworking of a Weimar cantata. Bach’s attitude always seemed to be that music should be completely fit for purpose and if he deemed it to be so, then it didn’t much matter when, or from where, it originated.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the assemblage of cantatas from C 70 onwards were all works that commenced with large commanding choruses designed to attract immediate attention, something that had not been a feature of the previous group.
The first movement of C 61 is significant in that it was one of the first uses by Bach of the French Overture in liturgical music. This could not have been an insignificant event. The French Overture was a secular structure with implications of the court, monarchy and upper middle class wealth. Just as 'operatic style' was frowned upon by a certain proportion of the Leipzig fraternity at the time of Bach’s appointment, the introduction of ‘worldly’ structures probably was likewise. In fact, Bach did not often incorporate this format into his religious music, the main examples being located in Cs 20, 97, 110, 119 and 194. Perhaps the most striking of these is the opening movement of C20, an ingenious combination of French Overture with chorale/fantasia, acting as a prelude to the massive bipartite work that opens the second cycle.
The opening chorus of C 61 is scored for strings and continuo with the violas divided into two parts, a practice that defines it as an early composition as it tended to occur in Bach's early years. It is possible that oboes were required to double some or all of the upper string parts, their presence sometimes being assumed and not marked in the score. However, the cantata works very well with just strings, continuo and voices and many conductors will be content to perform it thus. In any case, if oboes were to have been intended it is likely that they would have doubled only the first violins and not other parts.
The chorale melody, or Lutheran Advent hymn, around which Bach bases this chorus is short, consisting of only four two-bar phrases, the last of which is identical to the first.
Bach’s insertion of it into the orchestral texture at the beginning of the movement is direct and obvious, lacking the subtlety to be found in many of the second cycle fantasias. In fact, direct comparisons may be made since this chorale formed the basis of the opening fantasia of C 62 (vol 2, chapter 27) a work of considerably greater finesse. C 36 (vol 3, chapter 34) also concludes with a four-part harmonisation of the same melody; furthermore, it is no coincidence that all three cantatas were composed for the same day of the church year.
Bach’s French Overture commences with the first phrase of the chorale in the continuo line underpinning a majestic rising figure on the violins. This same phrase is then taken up in turn by the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, all repeating the same entreaty for the Saviour of the Gentiles to approach us. Each utterance is devoid of any supporting vocal harmony, a clear indication of Bach’s intention to ensure that this rousing appeal is heard and understood! The first section concludes with the second phrase, now in four-part harmony----recognised as the Child of the Virgin.
The second section of a French Overture is traditionally faster and often fugal. In this case the tempo is certainly heightened and the time changed from four to three beats to the bar. But the writing is imitative rather than fugal, the voices initially entering with the same motive derived from the third chorale phrase.
The text for this whole section----the whole world stands in awe---- is that of the third chorale phrase, the shape of which also provides the main musical material. The music conveys a sense of marvelling in a number of ways, the waves of quavers streaming in all parts, the soprano trill from bar 59 (an almost physical representation of awe -truck wonderment) and the sweeping melismas leading to the cadence before the reprise.
A much shortened version of the imperious opening then returns, encompassing one four-part statement of the chorale’s final phrase----God has ordained Him for such a birth. As a full study of the canon reveals, this is by no means the most sophisticated of Bach’s chorale choruses but it is still an imposing movement with an appropriate sense of the Lord’s majesty. Its structural proportions disclose more than the micro details. They reveal an emphatic emphasis upon the marvel of the Lord and a strong desire for the message to be heard and understood. Indeed, the very minimalism of the musical architecture is, in itself, highly effective as a means of depicting the splendour of the Saviour.
Bach’s habit of sculpting flowing ariosi from traditional recitative textures was apparent from his very early works, a probable inevitable consequence of his innate and seemingly effortless melodic gifts. The tenor informs us that He has come, accepting us as kin despite our feebleness----oh God, what is there that You have not done and do not yet do for Your people? The answer given is the Sacred Light which He shines upon us, a sentiment which demands tender and affectionate expression. The tenor and the bass lines form a united two-part texture which the latter seems particularly loathe to relinquish.
The tenor aria stands at the important central place of the cantata. It requests Jesus to come to the Church and grant us all a blessed New Year. The obbligato melody is played by violins and violas in unison, a combination Bach frequently employed, sometimes for prominence and emphasis, at others because of the richer, slightly darker tones or (as in this case) to exploit the more dignified timbre that violas lend to their brighter cousins.
The time signature is 9/8, the ultimate rhythm of three-within-three beats to the bar. This often has symbolic significance and although there is no specific mention of the Trinity in this text, Bach may have had in mind the Trinity of Christ, pulpit and altar all of which are referred to. But in any case the rollicking gigue-like character of this rhythm is ideally suited to the message----come, promote Your name, maintain the doctrine and bless both pulpit and altar.
The aria is in conventional da capo form, the minor mode of the middle section adding gravitas to the calls upon His powers before returning to the appeals for His Advent.
The bass recitative is well known in Bach literature and justly so. The pizzicato effect replicates the ‘knocking at the door’ referred to in the text. The string voicings, particularly with the addition of the two viola lines, create a four-part texture above the continuo, producing an eerie, almost supernatural effect. Even the vocal line briefly replicates the sounds and actions of ‘knocking’ (bar 3). The text states simply----I stand and knock on the door, and whosoever shall come, we shall sup together. The ultimate impression is one of indefinable spirituality.
Violins and violas pizz above voice and continuo.
The second and final aria is for soprano and continuo and whilst it maintains the theme of Jesus approaching, the emphasis is more upon the individual Christian’s reaction----Open my heart and allow Him in. The ritornello theme suggests precisely the described events, knocking, waiting and drawing near i.e. a three-note head motive followed by a brief rest, thence continuous quaver activity.
Is Bach also depicting the command to lay open one’s heart into which Jesus makes His spiritual entrance? Whatever the imagery, the theme sets a technical problem for the keyboard player. Should he fill in the gap(s) or allow the moments of nothingness? The obvious link to the text strongly suggests the latter.
So many of these continuo arias appear to be constructed upon a strict ground bass but, in fact very few of them are. Bach’s practice is often to repeat the theme unchanged two or three times, thence between vocal blocks and finally at the end. Otherwise he extracts pithy motives from it with which to construct each of the melodic lines. This is his strategy here, made all the more apparent by the highly contrasting middle section, an adagio setting conveying a complete acceptance of the Divine spirit----though I be made of dust and clay, He will accept me and delight that I have become His host. At this point the original continuo line disappears to be replaced by flowing quavers and ultimately caressing semiquavers.
The first section is completely reprised with an unaltered da capo repeat.
It is, perhaps, ironic that a cantata so preoccupied with the notion of ‘coming’ or ‘approaching’, an obviously apt theme for Advent, should seem so anxious to end and depart. Most unusually, Bach sets only the last two phrases of the chorale, sung by the sopranos and apparently not reinforced by other instruments. For those who wish to examine Bach’s later, more conventional harmonisation of the complete melody, see C 36 (vol 3, chapter 34).
It is, indeed, a mystery why this movement should be truncated in this way. Pressures of deadlines may be discounted; Bach always seemed to find the time to accomplish that which was necessary and appropriate. Perhaps the original version of the work had to be shoehorned into a limited time scale. Conceivably the most convincing explanation lies, as it so often does, within the text----Amen, come wondrous Crown, do not delay, I await You longingly. The hymn tune itself, through its very abbreviation implies a sense of urgency and the feeling of being unable to defer any longer.
But even as we wait we can rejoice, and the three lower voices combine in an outpouring of affectionate longing below an ecstatic violin obbligato which rises to an exultant high g, two octaves above the sopranos. Our patience may be short, our longing for the blessed event great, but our ‘amens’ remain strong and will surely still rise to heaven!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.