Sunday, 2 December 2012

Cantata for the First Sunday of Advent- Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (second setting, BWV 62)

Now as the world starts to freeze, we make up for it with bursts of excess. Here we see Bach pointing the way to Christmas with flashes of intense beauty and vigorous theatricality. On 3 December 1724, as the Leipzig sun rose behind the windows of St Thomas's, it must have given his congregation a kick in their Sunday morning sleepiness. The long sequence of Sundays after Trinity has ended; the liturgical year has turned. On we go!

We start off with a hard-driven chorus. Underneath the string figures that descend like birds of prey on a fieldmouse, the bass line booms out a stern elongated melody. Even without the words, the congregation would have recognised it as the opening line of one of Martin Luther's own chorales- “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”- “Now come, Saviour of the Nations”, itself a translation and musical adaptation of the ancient Advent plainchant hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium. This is music that had been at the heart of German worship for centuries, and always at this very time of year. Almost as a confirmation- “yes, it is really that one”- the oboes take up the unmistakable tune at a quicker speed; the anticipation heightens as the lower voices begin to sing the words, but not yet to the tune- and at last, the trebles soar above the whole array with words and music united in their most resonant, familiar form. It's a moment of brilliant release. At last, “not yet” gives way to “now”. And the pattern repeats itself; the melody is heard rising through all the parts four times, until the last moment of the chorus, just after the oboes have again sounded the fanfare- it stops. It's a masterpiece of misdirection: “not yet”.is here to stay, at least for the next few weeks of Advent. We must look forward still.

What do we have to look forward to? We all know that Christmas is coming, and the tenor aria that follows gives us a view of the astounding plenitude of that gift. On the words Der höchste Beherrscher erscheinet der Welt”- the highest Ruler appears to the world- there's a wonderful flowing arabesque line, and the second section gives us a beautiful swinging triple-time lilt when it talks about the treasures of heaven and divine Manna. It's a long aria, and it's always nice to think about what Christmas presents we're getting.

But we're not there yet. And the bass recitative and aria that follow show us that the presents have to be earned. We're in a heroic, operatic mode here: a quick declamatory recitative addresses Christ as “Held aus Juda”- the hero from Judah. The resonances are with Judas Maccabeus, the 2nd century B.C. Jewish rebel. He's described in the Apocrypha of the Bible as a general all-round freedom fighter against the forces of Greek imperialism. And the aria that follows is absolutely in the spirit of Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabeus- exciting, dynamic, dramatic, and ever so slightly clunking if you're not careful with the performance.

The orchestra plays in unison under the bass's voice- no filigree string figuration here. And the words are essentially a call to war. Christ isn't adored as passive weeping sufferer here, condemned to be emptied out in flesh for the pain of humanity. We address him as the super-hero, enfleshed to make man stronger than he's ever been. “Streite, siege, starker Held! Sei vor uns im Fleische kräftig!”- Fight and win, strong hero! Be strong in flesh for us!” It reminds me of the amazing Norman font at Eardisley in Herefordshire, carved by unknown masters six hundred years before Bach's time. There, Christ bodily rips the figure of the sinner out of the knots of Hell with a weight-lifter's thrust of the quadriceps. Here, the struggle is depicted in a hard, but triumphant pattern of fast semiquaver turns, gradually fighting higher and higher.

You're coming with me, mate! (Carving on the font at Eardisley Church, Herefordshire, c. 1160)
We're left with a two tantalisingly brief movements to end, rather like a “coming next week” trailer. First there's a soprano-alto duet that lasts barely a minute; then half a verse of chorale to finish with a threefold shout of praise. They're a moment of extraordinary beauty that sparks interest, but is a little unsatisfying in itself: like a tiny box of incense given to a royal baby before he comes into his Kingdom.

(A note: Bach had already written another cantata in around 1716 with this title for the first Sunday of Advent, which has the catalogue number BWV 61. The general consensus seems to be that it's more satisfying than BWV 62. But who wants to be completely full up by the first week of December?)

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