While most of the cantatas written by Johann Sebastian Bach were written for liturgical use, he also wrote a number of cantatas that are typically designated as “secular.” These were written to accompany festive civic celebrations, for the private enjoyment of noble patrons and their guests, and for other public performances. Conductor Masaaki Suzuki — who with the Bach Collegium Japan has recorded all of Bach’s cantatas — has commented that “in Bach’s attitude toward composing there was no difference between sacred and secular cantatas, in spite of some technical differences derived from the different aim. And this is probably how he has felt about his life in — and outside of — the Church.” All of Bach’s compositions were done to the glory of God, so “secular” in the contemporary sense of “a-religious” was not part of his vocabulary.
In 1725, Bach wrote a celebratory cantata to celebrate the birthday of a Leipzig teacher (whose identity has been lost to historians). The opening chorus in this work began with the words “Soar joyfully aloft and reach for the stars.” Six years later, as Bach was preparing music for the Advent Sunday services in his Leipzig church, he decided to recycle some of the music from this earlier cantata, and even found some of its text appropriate for the jubilant commencement of Advent.
The work is in eight movements, as follows:
1 — Chorus
Since the Gospel reading for Advent Sunday was St. Matthew’s account (Mt. 21:1-9) of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem — when he was heralded with expressions of joy — Bach saw fit to open Cantata BWV 36 with the same injunction to soar toward the heavens that the earlier birthday cantata had employed. His earlier Advent Sunday cantatas (BWV 61 and BWV 62) opened in a minor key, with variations on Luther’s familiar and sturdy text and tune, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. The opening chorus of BWV 61 was stately, and the opening of BWV 62 was ominous and agitated. By contrast, BWV 36 opens with a spritely melody in a major key rendered by the rich sound of an oboe d’amore, punctuated by delicate ornamental phrases from the strings. Bach seems to be inviting us to have a good time.
In BWV 61, the coming down of the Messiah from Heaven to Earth was signaled by a series of descending entries by the vocal parts, from high to low, first, sopranos, then altos, tenors, and finally the down-to-earth basses. In BWV 36, the invitation to soar star-ward is reinforced by an ascending sequence of vocal entries — first the basses, then upward through the middle vocal parts toward the sopranos, who end up ascending to a note near the top of their range. (You can hear this ascending in the performance below in the passage from :25 to :45.)
Schwingt freudig euch empor zu den erhabnen Sternen,
Soar joyfully aloft to the sublime stars,
Ihr Zungen, die ihr itzt in Zion fröhlich seid!
Ye tongues, who now joyfully reside in Sion!
Doch haltet ein! Der Schall darf sich nicht weit entfernen,
But stop! Your sound shall not travel so far,
Es naht sich selbst zu euch der Herr der Herrlichkeit.
The Lord of magnificence himself is approaching you.
A complete performance of this cantata is embedded near the bottom of this post. If you prefer to walk through the work movement by movement, here is the opening chorus of BWV 36, performed by La Petite Bande, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken. (Note that in this recording, instead of a full choir, there is only one singer featured on each of the four vocal parts. This is a performance practice that began to be common in the 1980s as musicologists attempted to reproduce what may have often been the practice in Bach’s own day.)
2 — Chorale (Duet, soprano & alto)
Back in 1731, when the second movement of this eight-movement work was first heard, the Leipzig congregation might have felt comforted to be on familiar ground: once again, Luther’s tune Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland was back, and so was the familiar text. In this movement, the soprano and alto soloists toss fragments of the tune and the first stanza of Luther’s hymn back and forth. The instruments accompanying them display an unusual amount of ornamentation, a device that Bach may have employed (in the words of Julian Mincham) “to suggest a sense of joy at the approach of the Saviour, or a depiction of the marvelling at His presence”
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,
Come now, saviour of the Gentiles.
Der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt,
known as the child of a virgin,
Des sich wundert alle Welt,
all the world is amazed
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.
that God ordained such a birth for him.
In this 1974 recording of this duet, alto Paul Esswood is teamed up with an unnamed treble soloist from the Wiener Sängerknaben. The Vienna-based baroque ensemble, Concentus Musicus Wien, is conducted by Nicholas Harnoncourt. He and his players were significant pioneers in the recovery of 18th-century performance practices (including having male singers on vocal parts that, in modern choirs, were more commonly taken by female singers).
3 — Aria (tenor)
This duet is followed by a tenor aria developing the biblical image of Advent as the Bridegroom coming to his Bride. Bach could have used a text form the point of view of the bride, in which case a soprano would sing the solo. Instead a tenor serves as an observer-narrator, rather like the Evangelist in the Passions. But he is not entirely disengaged, as he enjoys the company of an oboe d’amore which, as its name suggests, was often regarded as a musical symbol of love, and whose musical line here is intertwined with his own. Bach uses a minuet-like rhythmic pattern in this movement, accentuating the sense of delight in the text.
Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten
Love draws with gentle steps
Sein Treugeliebtes allgemach.
his true beloved gradually.
Gleichwie es eine Braut entzücket,
Just as a bride feels delight
Wenn sie den Bräutigam erblick
when she sees her bridegroom,
So folgt ein Herz auch Jesu nach.
so too a heart follows Jesus.
Here tenor Johannes Kaleschke sings with the Orchestra of the J. S. Bach Foundation, conducted by Rudolf Lutz. (And you can follow the score for free!)
4 — Chorale (S.A.T.B.)
Bach concludes the first half of the cantata with a full-choir chorale. It is a familiar tune attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), and today sung in English (to a liberal paraphrase of Nicolai’s own text) as the hymn “How bright appears the Morning Star” (#329 in our Hymnal). The text that Bach uses here reinforces the Bridegroom imagery from the previous aria, and the sense of joy that has been present from the beginning of the cantata. The words may be unfamiliar to us, but were probably known by the Leipzig congregation, as they are the 6th verse from Nicolai’s original hymn (most modern hymnals only include the first 3 verses; he wrote 7).
Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara
Strike the strings in Cythera
Und lasst die süße Musica
and let the sweet music
Ganz freudenreich erschallen,
ring out all rich in joy,
Dass ich möge mit Jesulein,
so that with my dear Jesus,
Dem wunderschönen Bräutgam mein,
my wondrously beautiful bridegroom,
In steter Liebe wallen!
I may always overflow with love!
Jubilieret, triumphieret, dankt dem Herren!
rejoice, triumph, thank the Lord!
Groß ist der König der Ehren.
Great is the King of Heaven.
Ton Koopman conducts this performance of the chorale, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir.
5 — Aria (bass)
The first half of this cantata would have been heard before the sermon. The second half begins with a bass aria singing a cheery greeting repeated with generous insistence: Willkommen! Welcome! The coming Christ is extended a confident and loving hospitality. Klaus Hofmann has suggested that this text “diverts our attention from the historical entry of Jesus into Jerusalem [the subject of the day’s Gospel reading, and likely of the Advent Sunday sermon] towards his symbolic entry into the hearts of the faithful.” (Possibly, but some would say that that latter entry is much more than symbolic.)
Willkommen, werter Schatz!
Welcome, precious treasure!
Die Lieb und Glaube machet Platz
love and faith make room
Vor dich in meinem Herzen rein,
for you in my pure heart,
Zieh bei mir ein!
Come into me!
6 — Chorale (tenor)
The ebullient bass aria is followed by a chorale movement, but the chorale is not sung by all four vocal parts (as is usually the case with chorales), but just by tenors (or, in some performances, a tenor solo). Each note of this familiar melody is accentuated and lengthened, allowing time for the accompanying woodwinds and strings to dance around the sturdy proclamation of the 6th verse of Luther’s Advent hymn. This verse is a straightforward affirmation of the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, and an affirmation of his saving victory over sin and death.
Der du bist dem Vater gleich,
You who are equal to the Father,
Führ hinaus den Sieg im Fleisch,
lead forth victory in the flesh,
Dass dein ewig Gott’s Gewalt
so that your eternal divine strength
In uns das krank Fleisch enthalt.
may support in us our sick flesh.
7 — Aria (soprano)
In the soprano aria that follows, we’re back to a more intimate, even charming manner. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that this aria is distinctive in all of Bach’s output for “its tender lyricism” and “its confidential exchanges and playful interweaving of violin and voice.” While in the opening movement of this cantata, an exuberant choir sings us up to the stars, here a single, confidently gentle voice confirms that God hears us and loves us in our frailty.
The first line of the text refers to subdued, weak voices. So Bach instructs the violinist to play with muted strings (the technical term is con sordino). This is achieved by attaching a small piece of rubber or other vibration-dampening material below the bridge of the instrument, thereby effecting a darker and softer sound.
Later, when the text refers to the resounding of the Spirit, we hear the violin echoing the soprano repeatedly (there is an aria in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio that similarly plays with echoing effects).
Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen
Even with subdued, weak voices
Wird Gottes Majestät verehrt.
God’s majesty is honoured.
Denn schallet nur der Geist darbei,
for if only the Spirit resounds,
So ist ihm solches ein Geschrei,
there is such a cry to him
Das er im Himmel selber hört.
that he himself hears it in heaven.
Soprano Joanne Lunn sings this aria here in a recording with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
8 — Chorale (S.A.T.B.)
The final movement brings us back to Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. This final verse of Luther’s hymn is a straightforward doxology. Julian Mincham suggests that it seems inconceivable that the Leipzig congregations “would not have joined in the final chorale, lifting the rafters of the great churches in their outpourings of praise to the members of the Holy Trinity, although there is no clear evidence that they did so.”
Lob sei Gott, dem Vater, ton,
Praise be given to God, the Father,
Lob sei Gott, sein’m eingen Sohn,
praise be to God, his only Son,
Lob sei Gott, dem Heilgen Geist,
praise be to God, the Holy Spirit,
Immer und in Ewigkeit!
forever and in eternity!
The final chorale is played and sung here by Publick Musick, an ensemble based in Rochester, New York.
Cantata BWV 36 — A complete performance
Here are all eight movements of Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36), performed by Collegium Vocale. The soloists are Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Sarah Connolly, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Peter Kooy, bass, all directed by Philippe Herreweghe. This is one of my favorite performances of this work, and if you would like to own your own copy on CD or digital media, it is on an album that also includes the other two Advent cantatas of Bach, BWV 61 and BWV 62.
Another wonderful performance of is available here at the All of Bach website. The performance is by the Netherlands Bach Society, with soloists Zsuzsi Tóth, Barnabás Hegyi, Nicholas Mulroy, and Peter Harvey. Also available at that site is a brief interview with conductor Jos van Veldhoven, in which
Cantata BWV 36 — A workshop
In this engaging workshop, produced and distributed by the Swiss-based Bach Foundation, conductor Rudolf Lutz and theologian Karl Graf explain the musical and theological background to Cantata No. 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. (In German with English subtitles.)