Bach’s Advent cantatas, part 1: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland I (BWV 61)

In 1714, while he was a court musician in Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a cantata for the first Sunday in Advent. It was first sung on December 2 of that year. The text for the opening chorus was from a very early Lutheran hymn, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, “Now come, savior of the Gentiles.” This cantata — as do all of Bach’s cantatas — takes its name from that opening line. There is sometimes a Roman numeral I at the end of the title, to distinguish it from a later cantata with the same opening text and hence the same name.

(N.B.: This cantata is also known as Cantata #61, or Cantata BWV 61, or just plain BWV 61; not to be confused with BMW or BVM, BWV is shorthand for the impossibly long German name for the authoritative catalog of Bach’s works. The numbering system is not chronological, by the way, so Cantata BWV 36, which we’ll look at in two weeks, was written much later than Cantata BWV 61. Now, back to our music.)

Luther’s German poem/hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland was based on a 4th-century hymn written by St. Ambrose. In English, the four lines of the opening stanza read:

Now come, savior of the Gentiles,
recognized as the child of the Virgin,
at whom all the world is amazed
that God decreed such a birth for him.

The opening chorus is followed by a tenor recitative that affirms Christ’s presence with his people: “O highest goodness of all, what have you not done for us? . . . You come and let your light shine with full blessing.

The third movement of this cantata is an aria for tenor, which links Christ’s rule of his Church with the Word and Sacraments entrusted to her: “Come, Jesus, come to your church and grant us a blessed new year! Increase the honor of your name, Preserve sound teaching and bless pulpit and altar!”

This is followed by a short but dramatic recitative by the bass soloist, singing the words of Jesus as presented in the book of Revelation: “See, I stand before the door and knock. If anyone will hear my voice and open the door, I shall go in and have supper with him and he with me.” The coming of the Lord involves our reception of him. And Bach’s musical depiction of Jesus knocking on the door is unmistakable, as this minute-long performance by bass Peter Harvey demonstrates:

The strings being plucked in this way suggest the ticking of a clock as well as knocking: Bach seems to be suggesting “Answer the door before it’s too late!” Musicologist and Bach biographer Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) commented: “Anxious waiting breathes out of the pizzicato chords which mark the passing of time with steady regularity, like the swings of a pendulum, and measure the hours till the expected One shall come.” And he will come in judgment, for which we must be prepared. That is a focal concern during Advent.

This moment of high drama is followed by a warmly welcoming soprano aria: “Open, my whole heart. Jesus comes and enters within. Though I am only like dust and earth, he does not want to scorn me but to see his pleasure in me so that I become his dwelling. Oh how blessed I shall be!”

A final chorale reiterates the desire of the responsive believer: “Amen! Amen! Come, you beautiful crown of joy, do not delay for a long time! I wait for you with longing.” Bach surprisingly (and somewhat abruptly) concludes this cantata with the last four lines from a familiar chorale which we know as “Wake, awake for night is flying.”

Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed have produced an interlinear translation of the text of the entire cantata which you may download here.

Here is a video of a full performance of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland by the Netherlands Bach Society. It’s part of the All of Bach project the Society is heroically tending.

The wonderfully filmed and performed concerts presented by the Netherlands Bach Society at their All of Bach website are supplemented with informative interviews with the musicians. Accompanying their performance of BWV 61 is a three-minute analysis of the structure of the cantata’s opening chorus by conductor Jos van Veldhoven. It’s non-technical and well-worth taking time to watch.

Below is another recording of the entire cantata in one of my favorite performances, sung by Collegium Vocale, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists are Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Sarah Connolly, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Peter Kooy, bass

Calvin R. Stapert has a very thoughtful discussion of this cantata (and many other works by Bach) in My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2000).