In Lutheran Germany in the early 18th century, the first Sunday in Advent was the last time until Christmas when any elaborate music would be heard in church services. The relative austerity of the second, third, and fourth Sundays in Advent served to focus attention on the prospect of Christ’s return in judgment. It also gave church musicians an opportunity to concentrate their energy on preparing for the grueling demands of the Christmas season.
Advent of 1724 was J. S. Bach’s second season as Kapellmeister at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. For the first Sunday in Advent that year he wrote a second cantata based on Luther’s Advent hymn, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. Ten years earlier, while serving as a court musician in Weimar, he had written an earlier cantata (BWV 61) inspired by this sturdy and confident text and tune. While the earlier work stresses the idea of the coming of Christ to the individual believer, BWV 62 (also called Nun komm der Heiden Heiland) stresses the Kingship of Christ more emphatically. That emphasis is derived from the Scripture readings that would have been heard during the service in which the cantata was sung.
The Epistle reading for the first Sunday in Advent was from Romans 13 (as it is in our 1928 Book of Common Prayer liturgy) . It included the Advent admonition: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” The earlier verses in Romans 13 seem unrelated to the themes of Advent. The chapter begins with St. Paul’s instructions about how to respect those in political authority. Civic rulers are owed taxes, revenue, respect, and honor, because — whether or not they acknowledge it — their authority exists only as an expression of God’s rule of all things.
In that chapter, St. Paul segues from reflections on what believers owe civil authorities to his paradoxical claim that we should owe no one anything except love. The commandments within the law against murder, theft, adultery, and covetousness (which are imperfectly administered by secular rulers) are summed up in love: “love is the fulfilling of the law.” And believers can recognize the centrality of love because they know what time it is, “that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11). St. Paul thus puts the recognition of civil authority in an eschatological context. The meaning of the Law can only be understood in the context of love, and the meaning of human kingship can only be understood in the context of the coming(s) of the Great King.
Advent is a time when we are all encouraged to put every aspect of life in the context of God’s redeeming work in time, in history — a work which centers on the coming of Christ into the world.
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent in Bach’s church (and in ours) was the account in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, an event that presents in microcosm Christ’s entry into the world. It was a kingly entrance, but not in the manner of earthly kings. Christ’s dramatic processional resituated the meaning of kingship; it displayed what true kingship looks like.
Bach clearly had these two biblical readings in mind when he composed his 1724 setting of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. The text from the opening chorus is taken straight from Luther’s hymn, and Bach also uses Luther’s melody, a tune which was in Bach’s time the most famous melody associated with Advent. And yet (as conductor Jos van Veldhoven has observed) in this animated opening chorus, “You hardly hear the melody. What you do hear is a kind of shimmering. You feel there’s something in the air, but you don’t know quite what. It’s something to look forward to. The notes tell you so.”
The melody is certainly present — in bits and pieces as well as in full statements — but the overarching effect is one of anticipation.
Now come, savior of the Gentiles,
recognized as the child of the Virgin,
at whom all the world is amazed,
that God decrees such a birth for him.
This opening chorus is followed by a tenor aria which alludes less to the Nativity than to that triumphant entry on Palm Sunday. Unlike the restless spirit present in the opening chorus, this solo employs a bouncing rhythm reminiscent of a minuet. The King’s coming is an occasion for joyful marveling.
Admire, mankind, this great mystery,
the highest ruler appears to the world.
Here the treasures of heaven are revealed,
here a divine manna is presented to us,
O marvel! Chastity can not be defiled.
This is followed by a bass recitative in which the themes of kingship and the wonder of salvation are interwoven.
Thus from God’s glory and throne
goes forth his only begotten son.
The hero from Judah descends among us
to run his course with joy
and to redeem us who are fallen.
O bright splendour, o wonderful light of bliss!
The bass aria that follows this (in the words of Julian Mincham) “finds Bach at his most extrovert. . . . The rising fanfare motives suggest force, strength and conflict.” And no wonder: it is the King as conquering Hero who is represented in this aria. Those fanfares Mincham mentions are embedded in an emphatic accompaniment of the soloist by all of the strings, assertively articulating a musical line in stark octaves. It’s an extremely demanding five minutes for the soloist; the very first word, Streite — “Strive!” — is a vigorous stream of 38 notes. And Bach is just warming to the text (which is, by the way, from an anonymous source, not Luther’s):
Strive, conquer, strong hero!
be mighty for us in the flesh!
Be zealous with us in our weakness
to make our ability strong.
As Mincham notes, “The main emphasis . . . is upon Christ’s potency rather than our vulnerability.”
This virile aria is followed by a soft, delicate duet with soprano and alto soloists, in parallel thirds and sixths, expressing the humble response of believers to the arrival of their Hero who (paradoxically) is first greeted as a baby. Mincham observes: “The shimmering string chords which accompany throughout suggest both the Saviour’s protective light and His warming and all-encompassing presence.” Note that we’ve moved from a restless and anticipatory shimmering in the opening chorus — something is about to happen — to a comforting and warm shimmering in this penultimate movement — something wonderful has happened.
We honour this glory
and now draw near to your crib
and praise with joyful lips
what you have prepared for us.
The darkness did not disturb us
and we saw your unending light.
The closing chorale brings back the entire choir in a conventional Trinitarian doxology, sung to the tune of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (the harmonization is the one we sing in our parish for “Savior of the nations come”):
Praise be given to God, the Father,
Praise be to God, his only Son,
Praise be to God, the Holy Spirit,
always and in eternity!
The Bach Cantatas Website has an interlinear translation of the text of the entire cantata here.
Julian Mincham’s “play-by-play” analysis of BWV 62 is here.
My introduction to the other setting of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) is here.
A video of a full performance of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland by the Netherlands Bach Society is here. Accompanying the performance of BWV 62 is a short description of the “shimmering” quality present in the cantata’s opening chorus by conductor Jos van Veldhoven. The soloists are Zsuzsi Tóth, Barnabás Hegyi, Nicholas Mulroy, and Peter Harvey.
Below is a performance of the entire cantata by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists are Nancy Argenta (soprano), Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), and Olaf Bär (baritone).