If you only have a bit of time but are yearning for some pretty music for the first Sunday of Advent, listen to the soprano aria from cantata 61 by Seppi Kronwitter (soprano) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cello), and then to the soprano aria from cantata 36 by Nuria Rial (soprano) and John Holloway (violin). The aria from cantata 61 was one of my mom’s favorites and she must have played this recording every year on the first Sunday of Advent. I have fond memories of listening to it with her.
Bach performed this cantata 61 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland in Leipzig on November 28, 1723, as a “rerun” of the first performance in Weimar in 1714. Why did he not write a new cantata? The prevailing scholarly answer is that Bach was giving himself a break from composing in between the three-week frenzy of cantatas 60, 90, and 70 and the new works (including a Magnificat) he was planning for the Christmas days. I think Bach was proud of his Weimar cantatas, and I believe he wanted to show off the special features in this cantata to his colleagues and to the thousands of Lutherans that he knew would flock to the Leipzig churches on holidays.
I myself am proud of having followed Bach’s cantata writing of 1723 every week for the entire Trinity season. After all this listening and reading, I see a pattern in Bach reviving some of his Weimar cantatas on Leipzig feast days*, and I now look at cantata 61 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland in a new way.
This cantata had already been in my top five because of the incredible interpretation of the soprano aria by Seppi Kronwitter (soprano) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cello) on the Harnoncourt recording from 1976. I had always found the bass recitative that precedes it very charming, with the musical illustration of the knocking on the door, but not more than that. I had seen this recitative in the context of all the Bach cantatas and passions that I knew, and had compared it with other typical Bach “Vox Christi” writing for bass. But those were all written after November 28, 1723. So now, after having tried to place myself in the shoes of the Leipzig congregations for the entire 1723 Trinity season, I am fully aware that they had not heard a “Vox Christi” at all in any of the cantatas leading up to this one.** And thus I finally realize how it must not have been charming, but truly moving to them to hear this announcement presented in this way, on the first Sunday they started looking forward to the birth of Christ.
In the text of the recitative, Jesus says: “See, I am in front of your door! I’m knocking!” The librettist means the door of the believer’s heart, in which he’s planning to live. The pizzicato in the strings, as well as the staccato and the intervals in the voice part illustrate the knocking, and the dissonances at the beginning only resolve until the final “klopfe an.” The form of this recitative is highly unusual, and perhaps also something Bach wanted to show off in Leipzig.
However Bach’s greatest source of pride was probably the opening chorus of this cantata. To understand this, we need to do a mini music history class. First, in the 4th century, Ambrosius created the hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium, beautifully sung here on this video by Giovanni Vianini, director of the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in Milan, Italy. Then, in 1524, Luther turned that hymn into Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, which sounds like this and which all Lutherans in Bach’s time knew very well.
In Weimar Bach had come into contact with French and Italian court music, and had adopted the habit of writing almost every opening chorus or opening sinfonia of his cantatas as a royal “entrada,” to show off his skills in French ouverture writing as well as to please the Duke.
So now Bach needed/wanted to merge the timeless hymn with a fashionable French ouverture. And the result is stunning. Or, as Eduard van Hengel says: Bach wrote “brilliant fusion” at the age of 29. Listen to this in the recording by Philippe Herreweghe on YouTube (Sybilla Rubens, soprano; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass).
The first line of the hymn is sung one voice part at a time, an illustration of the Bible reading for this Sunday: the people greeting the messiah who is riding into Jerusalem. The second line is then sung as a simple four-part hymn, while the instrumental parts keep playing the first part of the ouverture. The third line becomes a mini motet in the fast and happy (“Gai”) middle part of the ouverture, in 3/4. See this illustration by Eduard van Hengel:
The fourth line of text is then again a simple four-part setting on the third part of the ouverture.
For the closing chorale, Bach chose the last two lines of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern as melody. And again he marries the chorale tune beautifully with the instrumental writing.
Wieneke Gorter, November 26, 2016.
*Read more about this in my post about the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, The Visitation on July 2, and last week’s post about cantata 70. Read how proud Bach was of his Weimar cantatas in this post about cantata 12.
** appropriately so, because stories about Jesus’ life or literal speech by Jesus are absent from the Bible readings during the Trinity season.