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December 25, 2015

Bach Cantatas (59): Advent I - IV

The First Sunday in Advent was a "red letter day" which formed the beginning of the liturgical year, although Bach started his Leipzig cycle with the Trinity season, as he arrived in his new job in the summer (1723).

In Leipzig this was the only Sunday in Advent when a cantata was performed, because "tempus clausum" (a quiet period without music) was observed on the other three Sundays. In Bach's time, Advent was a season of reflection and penitence.

Bach did write cantatas for the three other Advent Sundays when he worked in Weimar, but unfortunately the music of most of these cantatas has been lost. The situation is as follows:

Advent I: Three cantatas, BWV 61, 62 and 36.
Advent II: BWV 70a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 170 for Trinity XXVI. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
Advent III: BWV 186a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 186 for Trinity VII. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
BWV 141 is sometimes mentioned here, but this is in fact not a work by Bach but by Telemann. The attribution to Bach is wrong.
Advent IV: BWV 147a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 147 for Visitation. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
BWV 132. This is the only other Advent cantata from Weimar that has been preserved and it will be discussed below.

Readings for Advent I:
Romans 13:11–14, Night is advanced, day will come
Matthew 21:1–9, The entry into Jerusalem

[Readings for Advent II:
Romans 15:4–13, Call of the Gentiles
Luke 21:25–36, Coming of the Son of man]

[Readings for Advent III:
1 Corinthians 4:1–5, The ministry of faithful apostles
Matthew 11:2–10, John the Baptist in prison]

Readings for Advent IV:
Philippians 4:4–7, Be joyful in the Lord
John 1:19–28, Testimony of John the Baptist


Cantatas for Advent I:
  • Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, 2 December 1714
    Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Chorale fantasia)
    Der Heiland ist gekommen (Recitative Tenor)
    Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche (Aria Tenor)
    Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür (Recitative Bass)

    Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze (Aria Soprano)
    Amen, Amen, komm du schöne Freudenkrone (Chorale)

    ("Now come, Savior of the heathens") Chamber cantata composed in Weimar at a time Bach was influenced by French and Italian musical styles. It is one of the best known of all Bach's cantatas. The libretto is by Erdmann Neimeister, pastor in Hamburg, who pioneered a new form of cantata incorporating simple recitative and da capo arias in Italian operatic style, a new cantata form which Bach made his own. The first movement, a chorale fantasia, is structurally based on a splendid French overture (after all, this was also the opening of the church year). The grand theme is that of Luther's hymn Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland (itself an arrangement of the Latin hymn “Veni redemptor gentium”) with a typical dotted rhythm accompaniment. This is followed by a fugue (the fast part of the overture). The tenor recitative outlining the significance of the incarnation, begins secco, but continues with an arioso, as in Italian opera. The ensuing aria, also in Italian style, is quite lovely, with a lush string accompaniment. It is in the rhythm of a gigue. The request is made to Jesus to come to his Church and this is answered in the next recitative for bass as vox Christi, which also has some nice word-painting: the text "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" is accompanied by "knocking" pizzicato strings. The final aria is for soprano, in Bach's time a boy soprano, whose childlike voice fits well to the delicate melody. As in other Bach cantatas, the soprano voice represents the individual soul and it responds to the invitation by the bass with the words "Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze" (Open, my whole heart). The cantata closes with a grand harmonization of the last half of the chorale, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern."

  • Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, 3 December 1724
    Chorale: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
    Aria (tenor): Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis
    Recitative (bass): So geht aus Gottes Herrlichkeit und Thron
    Aria: Streite, siege, starker Held!
    Recitative (soprano, alto): Wir ehren diese Herrlichkeit
    Chorale: Lob sei Gott dem Vater ton

    ("Now come, Savior of the heathens") Bach's second cantata based on Luther's Advent hymn. An orchestral introduction leads into the opening chorale, which is in a lively and festive mood. The long and joyful tenor aria celebrating the coming of Christ, is in siciliano rhythm with string accompaniment. After a recitative the bass sings a pompous battle aria accompanied by all the string instruments in octaves, a virtuosic show piece about the "conquering hero." This militaristic effusion is followed by a strongly contrasting duet for soprano and alto expressing thanks and the cantata closes with a simple chorale harmonization.

  • Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36, 2 December 1731
    Part I
    Chorus: Schwingt freudig euch empor
    Choral (soprano, alto): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
    Aria (tenor): Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten
    Chorale: Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara
    Part II
    Aria (bass): Willkommen, werter Schatz!
    Chorale (tenor): Der du bist dem Vater gleich
    Aria (soprano): Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen
    Chorale: Lob sei Gott dem Vater ton

    ("Soar Joyfully Upwards") This cantata draws on material from previous congratulatory secular cantatas, beginning with BWV 36c (1725). The jubilant mood of the secular work clearly matched the atmosphere of the entry into Jerusalem, one of the readings for this Sunday. Instead of writing recitatives, Bach has interpolated four chorale movements from two important hymns for Advent, Luther's "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" and Nicolai's "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern." The joyous opening chorus has a wonderful "leaping" quality. This is followed by the first setting of stanzas from Luther's chorale, an intimate duet for soprano and alto. The ensuing tenor aria is accompanied by an oboe d'amore and is a tender evocation of the entry into Jerusalem where Christ is personified as the bridegroom of the soul. The first half of the cantata then closes with a simple four-part version of "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern." The bass aria which opens the second part, recaptures the joyousness of the opening chorus by singing a welcome to Christ. This is followed by another hymn stanza where the tenor sings the chorale melody in long notes as a cantus firmus against a busy oboe d'amore. The final soprano aria, a berceuse, has a delicate, even haunting beauty. This simple expression of faith is accompanied by a muted violin obbligato. Another four-part setting of "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" ends the cantata.

Cantata for Advent IV:
  • Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, BWV 132, 22 December 1715
    Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn (Aria Soprano)
    Willst du dich Gottes Kind und Christi Bruder nennen (Recitative Tenor)
    Wer bist du? Frage dein Gewissen (Aria Bass)
    Ich will, mein Gott, dir frei heraus bekennen (Recitative Alto)
    Christi Glieder, ach bedenket (Aria Alto)
    Ertöt uns durch deine Güte (Chorale)

    ("Prepare the paths, prepare the road") Chamber cantata from Weimar. The libretto by court poet Salomo Franck is related to the day's prescribed reading, the testimony of John the Baptist. The first movement is an extended aria for soprano, with a nicely flowing melody, and accompanied by oboe d'amore. The aria contains long melismas on the word "Bahn" which are perhaps not only meant to represent the "long way," but also the flowing of baptismal water. After a rather didactic recitative, follows a severe bass aria with only continuo accompaniment, a reminder that Advent was a time of penitence in the Lutheran church (the text takes as point of departure the question "Who are you" addressed to John the Baptist). The alto recitative continues the penitential mood. This is however followed by a more optimistic alto aria in which the obbligato violin is thought to represent the cleansing effect of baptismal water. The cantata closes with a lovely setting of the chorale "Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn."
(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas