Chapter 27 BWV 62 Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland
Come now, Saviour of heathens.
With this work Bach begins the new church year. We have noted that the first two Leipzig cycles are registered from the time he began performing his cantatas in May 1723. That point came almost exactly half way through the Church year which begins on the first Sunday in Advent, around four weeks before Christmas.
The general listener may wish simply to enjoy this short, compact cantata and not delve into its intricacies; and why not? The inquisitive student, however, will find it instructive to compare it with the earlier work performed for the first Sunday in Advent in the first Leipzig cycle and built upon the same chorale, the Lutheran Advent hymn. C 61 was, in fact, initially composed whilst Bach was in Weimar and in his thirtieth year (Dürr p 76). Nevertheless, that fine work demonstrates both his musical eclecticism and his early attempts at composing the ‘regulated’ church music it had long been his ambition to produce. Consequently, it is worth spending a few moments in order to become familiar with the earlier work.
C 61 is, in almost every respect a work of lesser stature. It is shorter than C 62 and more lightly orchestrated; strings and bassoon supporting the continuo are all that is required although there are two viola parts. It does, however, demonstrate Bach’s interest in, and mastery of, both French and Italian styles and techniques. The da capo aria and recitative were borrowed from Italian opera and were, in the early years of the century, beginning to be adopted into some of the less conservative centres of German church music as was the French Overture. Both cantatas have a similar macro-structure, opening and closing choral movements framing a pair of arias and recitatives.
The opening chorus of C 61 is of particular interest since there we can find seeds planted that will only come fully to fruition a decade later in the second great Leipzig cycle. The form is that of the French Overture (and interesting comparisons may also be made with the fantasia with which the second cycle commences in 1724 see C 20, chapter 2). The first and last sections are stately and powerful, that in the middle energetically contrapuntal. In the first part, the initial chorale phrase is sung four times, by the sopranos, then altos, tenors and basses, finishing with the second phrase in four-part vocal harmony.
The faster middle section sets the third phrase and the busy imitative counterpoint represents the hordes on earth. The original dotted rhythms then return to close the movement with a triumphant, full choral version of the last phrase, marvelling at the Virgin Birth.
Thus Bach divides his four lines of text so as to be accommodated by the three sections of the French Overture. C 61 can, therefore, be viewed as an early template not only for C 62 but also for the general concept of the chorale/fantasia as exemplified in the second cycle. The study of the one throws much light upon the other.
Although the first movement of C 62 sets the same stanza as its ancestor, the musical treatment is very different, clearly demonstrating the development in Bach′s compositional thinking. Scored for oboes and strings (horn doubling the chorale melody) this is a highly sophisticated ritornello movement. The lines of text are not divided into three sections as we discovered in C 61, but the almost obsessional preoccupation with the first phrase of the chorale remains.
We hear it in both continuo (bars 3-4) and oboes (15-17) in the opening and closing ritornello statements and, just for good luck, again in the oboes shepherding in the chorus’s second phrase (from bar 31).
Much is made of this melodic line by the lower voices, often imitatively, and particularly noticeable as they usher in the first and last chorale phrases. Presumably the compulsive repetition of the first chorale phrase is to stress two things in musical terms; that Christ is indeed the Saviour of mankind and His coming provides us with the opportunity to marvel at Him. There may also have been other symbolic reasons for Bach to repeat and develop this one phrase so consistently in both cantatas but the simplicity and significance of these two statements may provide an explanation.
Otherwise the chorus follows the expected format of the ritornello/chorale fantasia. The sopranos carry the cantus firmus and the orchestra envelops it in a complex texture woven from combinations of the three-note ‘joy’ motive and rushes of semi-quaver scales. The three lower voices do not, for the most part, make use of the ritornello material except, in the third phrase. Here, and for the only time, they take up the scale passages, a clear piece of word painting designed to represent the spread of mortals all over the world.
This is a concise and highly focused movement that does not waste a note. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to follow aurally Bach’s development of the instrumental ideas or his uses of the chorale melody.
How would you describe the mood? We can certainly detect the proclamation of the joyous news of the Virgin birth, a fact about which all Christians should rejoice. But is there not also a slightly downbeat or even tentative feeling suggested by the broken rhythms? An implication of sadness, self-effacement or possibly humility, brought about by the combination of the minor key, the light orchestration and the descending string motive? It is difficult if not impossible to describe in words, but there is definitely a moderating factor ensuring that the celebration of the event falls short of unalloyed euphoria. Perhaps it is the humility of Christ, which all good Christians should emulate, that Bach wishes to remind us of, gently but decisively.
Another explanation may come from an idea embedded within the text of subsequent movements. One of the themes that has attracted the interest of the librettist is the contrast between Christ’s strength and human feebleness. Perhaps it is the apposition of these apparently contradictory qualities that Bach is expressing in a way that only music can properly encapture.
The chorus is immediately followed by a tenor aria of infectious gaiety. If there was a suggestion of humility before, it has now been replaced by entirely positive affirmation. This aria carries the essentially joyous and unambiguous message of the Virgin Birth.
Several of the cantatas which come near the beginning of this church year have one peculiar point in common; they all contain an aria of exceptional length. In C 91 it is the soprano and alto duet. In C 121 it is the bass aria and in C 133 that for soprano. In this cantata it is this aria for tenor which is likely to last for seven and eight minutes, over one third of the length of the entire work. Movements this long must be viewed as having singular and particular significance within the overall structure, marking how Bach may present a single movement as the keystone of the entire cantata.
The key is major, the rhythm that of a French passepied although listeners may well receive it as a bouncing minuet. (Both are in triple time the former likely to be at a somewhat faster tempo). A hint of the scale of the complete movement is given by the ritornello theme; in microcosm it is a complete binary form movement in itself, twenty-four bars long, moving from G to D and back to G major before a single note is sung.
When the tenor does get his turn, his first task is to remind us how much we should admire and marvel at the great mystery of the Virgin Birth. Oboes double violins throughout, although note how Bach, by changing the nature of the writing but not the instrumentation, achieves a subtly different tone in the middle section (from bar 139). There we are reminded of the treasure of Heaven revealed to us all by means of the unstained and pure Virgin Birth.
The tenor has to cope with some melismas of awesome length, created to stress significant ideas. Three of the most notable come on the words höchste—-highest—-(bars 41-47), Beherrscher—-rulers (62-72) and beflecket—-literally ‘stain’ but here referring to the unblemished wonder of the Holy Virgin (168-174).
The bass recitative tells us, again, of the coming of God’s Son in order to bring us our redemption. The melisma stressing the word laufen—-to run, is obvious; the tonal planning less so. The recitative begins and ends in the major, reminding us how much these modes dominate this cantata; only the first and last movements are predominantly minor. Elsewhere the message is tonally painted in strongly affirmative terms.
The bass aria finds Bach at his most extrovert. The continuo line is, unusually, doubled by all the upper strings for added power and emphasis. The rising fanfare motives suggest force, strength and conflict.
Schweitzer (vol 2, pp 90-91) calls this a motive of ‘tumult’, doubtless suggested by the opening word Streite—fight, argue, contend. The textual theme is that of the recognition of the power of the Saviour and the aspiration that His Might may strengthen us despite our own state of feebleness.
Bach develops this structurally conventional da capo aria much as we would expect. The middle section takes us into minor keys but there is no diminution of the ′rousing to action′. There is, however, a final melisma stressing the important word Schwachen—-those of us who remain weak (bars 73-4). We are not permitted to ignore the frailty of the flesh but nor are we expected to dwell upon it; at least not in this aria!
The rhythmic impetus of the ritornello drives unabated through the minor keys, the original major key section is reprised and the overall impression is always one of strength and power. Our human fragility is alluded to but at this moment it is little more than an afterthought. The main emphasis now is upon Christ’s potency rather than our vulnerability.
The penultimate movement is a recitative, somewhat unusual in that it is set for not one, but two singers. The soprano and alto voices largely double each other in thirds and sixths, providing a nuance of colour not yet heard in this work. They offer up a simple, humble and personal prayer—-we honour and praise You for what You have given us—-no longer are we troubled by darkness when we bathe in Your light.
The shimmering string chords which accompany throughout suggest both the Saviour’s protective light and His warming and all-encompassing presence.
This recitative began in the major but cadences in B minor, thus leading us neatly into the closing chorale. Indeed both movements remind us, tactfully, of our own feebleness and lack of strength.
The chorale offers praise to the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Ghost. Its first and last phrases are identical but Bach contrives to harmonise them in quite different ways; we conclude on a final, muted but never-ending extolling of the Holy Trinity. Perhaps, and possibly despite the emphasis on the positive aspects of the Virgin Birth celebrated in the middle movements, it is ultimately the sense of our own weaknesses and vulnerability which Bach leaves us to reflect upon.
This is an immensely subtle cantata, communicating many understated shades of emotion, with a particular lightness of touch. It continues to intrigue even after numerous re-hearings.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.