Music for the First Sunday of Advent — November 29, 2020

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) Ouverture – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)


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Bach’s cantata for the first Sunday of Advent is from his Weimar years, where he served as court musician. BWV 61 was first performed there on December 2, 1714. Bach was a young man, and this cantata likely reflects that, as it is filled with daring – for the time – special effects. This, the opening chorus, is an ingenious version of the four phrases that constitute the chorale. The first phrase is repeated four times by each of the four voices in the chorus of the stern dotted rhythms of the string orchestra playing a French Overture. The second phrase is sung together by the entire chorus. The third phrase is turned into the fleet middle section of the French Overture. The fourth phrase brings back the dotted rhythms of the opening. The text is librettist Erdmann Neumeister’s borrowing of an original hymn by Martin Luther.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,

Der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt,

Des sich wundert alle Welt,

Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

Now come, Saviour of the gentiles,

recognised as the child of the Virgin,

at whom all the world is amazed

that God decreed such a birth for him.


Lo, he comes with clouds descending – Text: John Cennick (1718-1755), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Martin Madan (1726-1790) / Music: Melody attrib. Thomas Olivers (1725-1799) and Martin Madan (1726-1790), arr. John Rutter (b. 1945)


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In 1750 John Cennick wrote a hymn beginning “Lo! he cometh”, which was published in his Collection in 1752. Then in Hymns of Intercession with all Mankind 1758 Charles Wesley published four stanzas of eight lines in the same metre, beginning “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”. From these two selections Martin Madan produced a hymn for his Collection in 1769. His cento ran to six stanzas, from which our Common Praise has taken 1, 3, 5, and 6. Stanza 3 and the last two lines of stanza 4 belong to Cennick; the remainder comes from Wesley.

In these lines the advent of the Messiah, both as a baby in Bethlehem and as King at the end of time, is treated symbolically. Here is the language of poetic ecstasy, of apocalypse and myth. The text abounds with references to the Revelation of St John, especially chapters 21 and 22. For this, the First Sunday of Advent, there are also clear connections to our first lesson (Isaiah 64) and the Gospel reading (Mark 13). The rendition we hear in this superb recording by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers omits the third of the usual four verses.

Lo! he comes with clouds descending,

Once for favoured sinners slain;

Thousand thousand saints attending

Swell the triumph of his train:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

God appears, on earth to reign

Every eye shall now behold him

Robed in dreadful majesty;

Those who set at nought and sold him,

Pierced and nailed him to the tree,

Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,

Shall the true Messiah see.

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,

High on thine eternal throne;

Saviour, take the power and glory:

Claim the kingdom for thine own:

O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!

Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659) – J. S. Bach


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The hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (see BWV 61, above) is a chorale composed in 1524 by Martin Luther, based on the Ambrose’s Latin chant hymn Veni redemptor gentium. It would have been well known by Lutheran congregations of Bach’s time, and they would not have been surprised to hear choral settings of it, as in Cantata 61, organ settings as heard here (BWV 659), or to sing it themselves as a congregational hymn.

John Scott, the organist on this recording, also played the organ on the recording of the hymn Lo, he comes with clouds descending with John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers (above). Mr. Scott was Organist & Choirmaster of St Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1990 to 2004, at which time he relocated to New York City to take up the same position at St Thomas Church (Episcopal). Sadly, he died suddenly in 2015 at the age of 59, just one year after this recording was made. His comments on the piece:

“The centerpiece of [Bach’s 18 ‘Leipzig’ Chorales] is a triptych of settings based on the Advent hymn Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. The first of these, BWV 659, is a quietly rhapsodic decoration of the chorale melody in the right hand, a phrase at a time, over a walking bass line. This is accompanied by two other voices that begin by foreshadowing the chorale melody.” Perhaps one of the YouTube commentors on this performance sums up the spirit of this piece most succinctly: “The soul quietly waiting…”

Gerald Harder