From Darkness into Light – The Advent Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 61, 62, 36, and 132

Sunset on Burrard Inlet, Vancouver, Canada. 17 July 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Sunset on Burrard Inlet, Vancouver, Canada. 17 July 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Sunset consummates the radiance of day, and revives the desire for happiness.

Salvation is a secular act of preservation or deliverance from destruction, difficulty, or evil; and brings about the consequent state of being saved.

In theological interpretations, this takes the form of redemption through deliverance from sin; this deliverance incorporates the intervention of an agent or means to effect such deliverance; and this salvation enables the state of glory, the resplendence of praise.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) represents the finest ecclesiastical composer in the Western musical tradition, and remains one of the most illuminating interpreters of sacred text and theology. Although the ritual and context within which Bach composed have changed or disappeared, the substance upon which they were based has not.

The season of Advent — literally, “the coming,” from the Latin adventus — begins the Christian ecclesiastical calendar and is observed in preparation for the festival of Christmas. Penance takes the forms of repentance, prayer, and patience; those ready for the Lord’s coming, in power and glory, will achieve salvation, those unready will receive judgment.

Advent wreath (Courtesy: pastorblog.cumcdebary.org)

Advent wreath (Courtesy: pastorblog.cumcdebary.org)

In devotional terms Advent deals with longing for this perpetuity of salvation. Manifestations of this devotion, which prepares for the nativity of the Messiah, are daily devotionals, Advent calendars, Advent wreathes, and the setting up of Christmas decorations. Although historically the season of Advent concentrated on penitence, fasting, and sin, later this shifted to anticipation and hope, based on reaffirmations of Messianic return, underpinned by realization and acceptance of that Messiah, thus creating a sense of commitment to the destination, namely, the perpetuity of existing within glory.

Bach’s Advent cantatas were composed for the German Lutheran liturgy of the early 18th century. The Roman Catholic Church calendar was retained by the Lutheran church after the Reformation. Four of the Advent cantatas survive, three for the first Sunday of the season, and one for the fourth.

They now are seldom listened to and rarely performed. The main reasons are the style and difficulty of both performance and understanding of the music, the foreign nature of the text, and the cost of presenting such works, particularly by the churches. We are in an age when understanding and involvement have been replaced by entertainment, and spiritual introspection is not the latter.

Veni redemptor gentium (Courtesy: cantusdatabase.org)

Veni redemptor gentium (Courtesy: cantusdatabase.org)

Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, that is, ‘Now comes the Saviour of the heathen,’ is in fact the sacred song of the Middle Ages, Veni redemptor gentium, the original words ascribed to St. Ambrose (340-397), patron saint of Milan – but German by birth at Trier. It is he who received St. Augustine into the Catholic church, and after him that Milan’s famous Ambrosian Library is named.

According to Schweitzer, “the first German hymn-book, the so-called Erfurt Enchiridion, appeared in 1524, and was probably compiled by Luther’s friend Justus Jonas.” This hymn, like the Te Deum laudamus and Veni creator spiritus, was translated from the Latin for inclusion in this Reformation hymn-book. It was at the University of Erfurt, in Thuringia in central Germany, that Luther received part of his education, at the Augustinian monastery, still in existence, at Erfurt where he was ordained a priest in 1507. The hymn, thus, has an ancient provenance and lineage.

Erfurt (Courtesy: reformation500.csl.edu)

Erfurt (Courtesy: reformation500.csl.edu)

The chorale was an important constituent of the Lutheran cantata. Music was integral to Lutheran worship and ritual, and the cantata a typical vehicle during the service. Usually the Epistle was presented before the sermon, and thus linked to it by the Scripture of the day, it was approximately half an hour long, and utilized the resources of both singers and instrumentalists. Its general scheme began with an extended chorus often fugal in style, continuing with recitatives and arias for one or several soloists, and concluding with a chorale, usually simple in presentation and in four-part harmony in which the congregation would participate either actually or by recognition, such chorales being part of the everyday knowledge and experience of the populace.

Bach wrote three cantatas that have come down to us for the first Sunday of Advent and on the chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. Cantata number 61 in 1714 for Weimar, which is very near to Erfurt; number 62 for Leipzig in 1724; and, number 36, in the form that we have it, for Leipzig in 1731.

Structurally, in all three cantatas, there is an entirely satisfactory balance between the relevant epistle and gospel, the former identifying the spiritual need and the latter presenting its potential fulfilment. There is a certain universality in the metaphorical progression from darkness to light and from entrance at the gates to recognition of redemption of that light as it comes within. It seems to me immaterial whether one subscribes or not to the creed that is proposed as the manifestation of that redemption; it is the magnificence of the spiritual illumination that matters.

Miniature of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Early 14th century processional. From a female Dominican house in Strasbourg. (Courtesy: Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe, Germany.)

Miniature of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Early 14th century processional. From a female Dominican house in Strasbourg. (Courtesy: Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe, Germany.)

The Latin original and the German text of the hymn used by Bach are:

Veni, redemptor gentium,

ostende partum virginis;

miretur omne saeculum,

talis decet partus Deum.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,

der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt,

des sich wundert alle Welt,

Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

Now come, Saviour of the heathen,

child of a virgin,

about whom all the world marvels

and whom God destined for such a birth.  

The structure of the opening chorale of cantata 62, in which the chorale seems everywhere to be embedded, is simply masterful, and the succeeding tenor aria elaborates the material even further. And in cantata 61, the plangent boy soprano aria, Öffne dich, before the concluding chorale, is about as pure a representation of yearning for salvation that music can get to.

The epistle for all three cantatas is Romans xiii. 11-14, which declares that our salvation is nearer than we believe: 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 armour of light.

The Gospel is Matthew xxi. 1-9, which describes Christ’s entry in Jerusalem: And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.

Erdmann Neumeister (Courtesy: www.let.rug.nl)

Erdmann Neumeister (Courtesy: http://www.let.rug.nl)

The text of Cantata 61 is by Erdmann Neumeister, Lutheran pastor and hymnologist, who wrote cantata texts for the entire church year. For Advent I he included in this text the first stanza of Luther’s German treatment, both textual and musical, of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland.

The cantata is in six sections. The opening chorus is a stately and impressive French overture within which the chorale (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) is intoned by the four voices of the choir, beginning with the sopranos, until for the fifth intonation (but on the second line of the hymn, der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt: Thou Child of a Virgin born), which leads immediately to a quicker ¾ gai (on dess sich wundert alle Welt: mortals all over the world marvel), that returns ultimately to Tempo I, for a final, sixth intoning of the chorale melody (on Gott solch’ Geburt im bestellt: at Thy Holy Birth) against the dotted rhythms of the overture.

Bach Cantata 61/1 Autograph (Courtesy: www.omnifacsimiles.com)

Bach Cantata 61/1 Autograph (Courtesy: http://www.omnifacsimiles.com)

A tenor recitative, becoming arioso, comes to a tenor aria, tranquillo but somewhat quick, in 9/8, and short in length. The fourth movement, a bass recitative, presents the voice of Christ — Siehe, siehe! Ich stehe vor der Thür und klopfen an (Look ye! I stand before the door and knock thereon) — which is wonderfully impressive over pizzicato strings. The fifth movement, also an aria and also brief, is for soprano, Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herz (Open thou, my entire heart, to Jesus), and is almost blissfully effective by the use of the boy’s voice. The concluding chorale, with orchestra, is intoned on the melody Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (how beautifully shines the morning star), in swirling fashion, coming to a melismatic close with the strings climbing to high G.

The text of Cantata 62, also in six sections, is anonymous, but again uses Luther’s hymn at the outset. This opening chorus is spell-binding and masterful: strong, expansive in measure (6/4), and impressive, with magnificently and affectively telling writing in the orchestra, especially the oboes, and the cantus firmus (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) emphasized by the cornet. The chorale writing is transfixing. This is by far the best movement in the cantata, and one of Bach’s best. A masterpiece.

A tenor aria follows. It is a fine aria with a striding melodic line, often breaking into melismata, over a walking bass. A bass recitative, with the orchestra, leads to a bass aria; declamatory (and difficult for the singer), the strings tramp along steadily and war-like: Streite, siege, starker Held! Fight and be victorious mighty hero! This is a very populist Advent. And a very telling soprano and alto duet in recitative introduces the concluding chorale, which is a simple re-statement of the cantus firmus melody.

Cantata 36, on words of Martin Luther and Philipp Nicolai, is constructed as two parts of four sections each. The opening chorus employs interesting work in the oboes d’amore, which also feature prominently in the succeeding duet for soprano and alto on Luther’s hymn, and the tenor aria that follows. Part One concludes once more on the chorale based on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.

Part Two is introduced by an appealing bass aria that exhibits rhythmic similarities to the first part’s opening chorus. By far the most powerful, indeed riveting, movement in the cantata is the following chorale, for the solo tenor, again on the melody Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, the oboes d’amore running against the intoning of the voice. The seventh movement, however, is a soprano aria in that desperate 12/8 time that seems to inspire arias that go on for much too long. The work concludes with a chorale for choir, again, on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.

Bach’s cantata 132, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, (Prepare the way, prepare the road) was written in Weimar in 1715 for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The text is by Salomo Franck (1715, from his cantata libretti of Evangelisches Andachts-Opfer), except the concluding sixth verse by Elisabeth Kreuziger (1524).

The fourth Sunday of Advent deals with the divine faithfulness in sending a Messiah to ensure human salvation, and for the translation of this salvation in a perpetual state upon the second coming of that Messiah. The epistle is Philippians iv. 4-7, which deals with rejoicement in the Lord, and the His peace that transcends all understanding. The Gospel is John i. 19-28, where John, after confirming he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, says it is he who is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. And asked why he not one of the three, though he baptizes with water, says that among them who question is one whom they do not know, and of whom he is unworthy.

Musically, the opening soprano aria works well in preparing the way to the Saviour in the desert. The tenor recitative, alternating twice with arioso, then exhorts preparation in the path to faith. The bass aria, with obbligato ‘cello, similarly exhorts, but in accepting the truth of the Scriptures. The subsequent alto recitative reminds of the cleansing necessity of confession, and the following alto aria, with a difficult part for solo violin, of the cleansing legacy of Christ’s baptism, and so the cantata comes to the concluding chorale of the transformative power of grace.

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