In 1714, Advent Sunday fell on 2 December, and at the ducal court of Weimar a new cantata by a new Konzertmeister – the 29 year old Johann Sebastian Bach – was played to mark the occasion. Just a few days short of 300 years later, I was playing the same piece, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland on 29 November 2014 in the Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair.
The jagged austerity of the Overture to this cantata is a powerful statement in musical terms, with myriad extra-musical implications. I am not a ‘practicing’ Christian, having no capacity for belief whatsoever. However, after a number of years playing a lot of Baroque music, the seasons of Advent and Lent have developed a great significance. Their musical patterns become times of the year where one is guaranteed opportunities to play a lot of extraordinary music, and (let’s be practical here) accrue a certain amount of income. Lucre aside, I think that there are few musicians amongst my acquaintances who would deny that in addition to the musical quality of annual cycles of Advent cantata, Messiah (whether for Advent/Christmas or /Lent/Easter), Weihnachts-Oratorium, Johannes-Passion and Matthäus-Passion, the combination of narrative drama and verbal/musical rhetoric inspires some sort of identification with the religious significance of the seasons, even without ‘belief’.
Therefore, when we attack the opening notes of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland with whatever degree of severity, love, or sheer aggression that the director requires, it is impossible not to be moved by the tension in this music which expresses perfectly the darkness and tense anxiety with which Advent begins. In Nun komm, we don’t have to face up, finally, to Bach’s ‘dark vision’ in the ways Richard Taruskin enumerates in his 1991 review of the Teldec Bach cantata recordings by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt: pus-filled bones and screaming against reason are not features of Nun komm. What we do face, though, is a far more visceral version of Advent than we are used to today. Despite my lack of religious conviction I have had patches of remarkably regular church-going in my life. For an extended phase, all Sunday mornings were spent in the organ loft, where I made drudgery divine through the medium of page-turning for a series of organists. To make a crashing generalisation, it strikes me, comparing various altitudes of Anglican Advent with the 1st Sunday statements of Nun komm that nowadays we seem confident – complacent, even – that Christmas will come. The preceding month of penitence is a time of anticipation, but anticipation of a happy event. There is complacency. Nun komm has no placidity, no contentment, and although we know that the Saviour will, must, eventually arrive, it’s different. Perhaps this is certain uncertainty, or uncertain certainty, but in either case, there is no complacency. Again, returning to practicalities, this is a reminder that even at the ducal court of Weimar, life in 1714 could be nasty, brutish and short. You could be in the full flush of health on the first Sunday of Advent, but any number of afflictions could finish you off before Christmas. This tension and uncertainty is written into every note of Bach’s Nun komm overture. These jagged melodic contours are evocations of a worried soul in danger, and a personal exhortation to the still far-off Saviour of the Gentiles.
Throughout the subsequent recitatives and arias, these passionate petitions continue. The easy musical flow of the tenor aria ‘Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche’ and the sprightly dialogue between soprano and continuo in ‘Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze’ belie their seriousness. These arias beguile and tempt the ear; Bach and the singer use the rhetorical persuasiveness of beauty as a means of becoming at one with the Saviour. These two arias, framing the famous pizzicato word-painting of ‘Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür und klopfe an’ also provide a narrative sequence: the tenor asks Jesus to enter the church – in this case the Schlosskirche – and after the superb onomatopoeia of ‘Siehe; iche stehe’, the soprano follows the command ‘So jemand meine Stimme hören wird und die Tür auftun’ by opening her heart, in the traditional symbolism of the church as bride of Jesus:
Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze,
Open, my whole heart
Jesus kömmt und ziehet ein.
Jesus comes and enters within
Bin ich gleich nur Staub und Erde,
Though I am only like dust and earth,
Will er mich doch nicht verschmähn,
he does not want to scorn me
Seine Lust an mir zu sehn,
but to see his pleasure in me
Daß ich seine Wohnung werde.
so that I become his dwelling.
O wie selig werd ich sein!
Oh how blessed I shall be!
Then, lest we mistakenly think it is all a done deal, and the Saviour is already here, the concluding chorale reminds us that the cantata has been operating in the subjunctive mood (‘the mood of might-have-been’), and choir and orchestra combine in congregation for a final urgent exhortation:
Komm, du schöne Freudenkrone, bleib nicht lange!
Come, you beautiful crown of joy, do not delay for a long time!
Deiner wart ich mit Verlangen.
I wait for you with longing.
So, Nun komm is a blend of personal intercession and corporate exhortation in which everyone – singers, individual members of the orchestra, and congregation/audience – is implicated. All unite in their personal desire to be united with their Saviour, and only by their own piety can they hope to ensure this reconciliation will occur. We’re not looking forward merely to Christmas, but in the shorter or longer term, also to salvation.
Salvation, for the atheist or agnostic, is a difficult concept. Far more difficult (maybe) than for the devout Lutheran of 1714. Reason tells us that when you’re dead, you’re dead. That is it. But the eloquence of cantatas like Nun komm can cause doubts, and this is testament to the inexplicable power of Bach’s music. Today we cannot understand these cantatas as statements of and about faith in the same way that the 1714 Lutheran in Weimar, or the 1723 Lutheran in Leipzig, would have done (and for more ideas about how the ‘godless’ may interpret religious art, read Palagia Horgan’s piece on Fra Angelico’s frescoes). What we perhaps can understand is the sense of longing and the sense of fear inherent in Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, and the ways in which this music can provoke us to confront our own uncertainties. To play this cantata almost exactly 300 years after Bach was preparing it for performance is an opportunity to reflect on our vast distance from 1714 Weimar, a past which is also literally a foreign country. At the same time, it is chance to consider the involuntary emotional response to this music and text, and whether we truly have something in common with the musicians and congregation of the Schlosskirche.
On 29 November, after Zelenka’s Miserere, an interval, and a Magnificant formerly attributed to Buxtehude, we concluded the concert with another setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV62, which Bach prepared for Advent in 1724 in Leipzig. Moving up a tone from A minor to B minor for this more extensively orchestrated cantata. This cantata begins without the instant authority of BWV61: instead of the French overture, we have violins beginning a journey of trepidation, which the bassi interrupt with a powerful blast of the chorale melody in bar 3. Aside from Luther’s text in the opening movement, BWV62 sets entirely different texts, which take us on another quest. But, Bach sets each text with such perfection that his versatility seems incomprehensible, and reminds me – heathen that I am – that Bach is my alpha and omega.