|Martin Luther (left) and Johann Sebastian Bach (right)|
As my friends on Facebook know, I post a Bach liturgical cantata on my timeline every Sunday morning, following the Lutheran liturgical calendar (the calendar with its associated cantatas can be found here). Well, today is the first Sunday in Advent, and Papa Johann composed three cantatas for that Sunday in the course of his career: BWV 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (1714); BWV 62, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (1724); and BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor (1731). And all three share a common element - Martin Luther's Advent hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (gee, how did you guess?). BWV 36 uses the hymn in the second movement, as a soprano/alto duet. But BWV 61 and 62 are chorale cantatas and the hymn is the major element in both.
So what is it about this hymn of Luther's that made it so important? Luther wrote the words, based on St. Ambrose's Veni redemptor gentium, in 1524 and set it to an old Gregorian tune. Because the first Sunday in Advent is the "New Year's Day" of the liturgical calendar, and because Luther created this hymn specifically for that event, it became the preeminent musical piece marking the beginning of the church year in Protestant churches for centuries. Here, take a listen to the hymn in its pre-Bach form.
This kind of hymn is called a chorale. A chorale is a melody to which a hymn is sung by a congregation in a German Protestant Church service. The typical four-part setting of a chorale, in which the sopranos (and the congregation) sing the melody along with three lower voices, is known as a chorale harmonization. The performance above by the Jena Boy's Choir follows that structure, although there's no congregation to sing the melody with the sopranos.
Bach used the chorale harmonization structure of this hymn as the basis from which he built his chorale cantata setting. Interestingly enough, in BWV 61 he plays with this, setting what would normally be the opening chorus as a chorale fantasia in the style of a French overture, which follows the sequence slow – fast (fugue) – slow. If the congregation was starting to nod off, that opening chorus was going to wake them right up! Here's the complete BWV 61, starting with that chorale fantasia. This is the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (on authentic period instruments) directed by the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner; I'm a sucker for Gardiner's work, so naturally this is my favorite performance of this piece.
Text © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger