Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sunday Bach - Advent 1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new liturgical year. Bach wrote three cantatas for this occasion, and last year we listened to the first one, his Weimar setting of Martin Luther's hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, savior of the gentiles). This year we'll be listening to his second one, BWV 62, also a chorale cantata based on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Leipzig, 1724). It's a fitting start to the Church's most festive season of the year! Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this most festive of cantatas:
The chorale most closely associated with Advent is the Luther arrangement of the Latin hymn “Veni redemptor gentium” called by Luther ”Nun komm,der Heiden Heiland.” As with most Latin arrangements, the form of the chorale is irregular, four brief phrases with the 1st identical to the 4th. The most notable feature of the melody is the rather exotic-sounding diminished 4th in the 1st and 4th phrases. It appears in all three of the great Leipzig chorale settings for organ. All of the earlier versions, including the one in our cantata here, soften the interval to a perfect fourth.

The opening chorus of BWV 62 is in an extremely lively 6/4 time. Running scales and arpeggios in the first violin are punctuated by two different figures: a fleeting motive passed around to both the oboes and strings and a more sturdy, almost militaristic, repeated note figure usually found in the strings. All three of these ideas are played on top of the first phrase of the chorale appearing in long notes, first in the bass and then at the cadence in the oboes. We will remember how abstract Bach’s setting of the chorale was in his Weimar cantata of the same name. Here, as with all of the 2nd Jahrgang, the emphasis is on clear statement of the tune over extremely lively orchestral figuration.

As wonderful as this chorus is, we cannot help but feel that Bach was later to find the true grandeur of this tune in the three organ preludes. They are of such different character from each other that it is hard to remember that they are all based on the same melody. The first setting, a low three- part texture placed underneath the melody, which appears in a very richly ornamented version. One of the most surprising things about this setting is that it is one of the saddest pieces ever written by Bach. This is a side of the melody that he never found before. The other two Leipzig settings are no less fine. One is an agitated trio with very jagged lines. Here the diminished fourth in the first phrase plays an important part in the character. The bumpy broken arpeggios and abrupt melodic shifts suggest an extreme form of Orientalism, all of it clearly generated from the diminished phrase on the word ”Heiden.” The third setting, the grandest of them all, is for full organ, a bravura marching texture in the manuals in which the melody thunders unadorned from the pedals.

The tenor aria #2 of the cantata is an extremely long, though very lively affair. Its effect is of abundance. It has the uncanny effect of indicating both the grandeur of Christ’s coming and the humility of his human roots. After the brief secco recitative, the bass aria has a very different character. It is militaristic. It could even be accused of being jingoistic if the vocal phrases were not constantly overlapping and occasionally even contradicting the orchestra. The whole orchestra is in unison with no harmony whatsoever. Bach never wrote another aria quite like this one, but it is a character often found in Handel. The main effect is that of a virtuosic showpiece for the bass. After such brazen and aggressive music, the little duet recitative for the soprano and alto with strings is shocking. In its brief time it brings us the only inward view of this moment in the liturgical year. The final chorale setting is sturdy and powerful.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger

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