Cantata 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 1723
Happy new year! For the Christian church, the new year begins not on the calendar date of January 1, but with the First Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The new church year thus begins with anticipation of the coming of Jesus as a baby at Christmas, to the church and the individual Christian believer in the present, and again in the future to establish his eternal reign of peace.
The First Sunday of Advent, therefore, is a significant day in the church year, and J. S. Bach celebrated it as such with his cantatas for this occasion. For the First Sunday of Advent in 1723, Bach reperformed his Cantata 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, with a text by pastor, theologian, and poet Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756). Bach originally composed the cantata for performance in Weimar on December 2, 2014. The cantata begins by quoting the first stanza of Martin Luther’s Advent hymn, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” and continues with poetic explorations of the three comings of Jesus celebrated each Advent season.
Bach’s music for Cantata 61 fittingly marks the opening of the church year with a monumental opening chorus (mvt. 1), two exquisite arias (mvts. 3 & 5), and one of his most interesting solo settings of a Bible verse (mvt. 4). Such a setting is all the more interesting when noting that this is the last cantata the Leipzig congregation would hear until Christmas day. Like the Sundays in Lent, the Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent were a tempus clausum (restricted time) in which no concerted music, most notably the cantata, was heard in Leipzig’s churches.
The starting point for considering every Bach church cantata is the Gospel for the day, the passage from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that was designated as the focus for that liturgical occasion. The Gospel readings were assigned by Martin Luther and largely consistent with the medieval liturgy on which he based his church reforms. Unlike the modern Revised Common Lectionary that uses a three-year cycle, the readings in Bach’s time were on an annual cycle so that the same Gospel reading returned each year for a particular liturgical occasion.
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent tells of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem as recorded in Matthew 21:1-9:
1Da sie nun nahe an Jerusalem kamen, gen Bethphage an den Ölberg, sandte Jesus seiner Jünger zwei 2 und sprach zu ihnen: Gehet hin in den Flecken, der vor euch liegt, und alsbald werdet ihr eine Eselin finden angebunden und ihr Füllen bei ihr; löset sie auf und führet sie zu mir! 3 Und so euch jemand etwas wird sagen, so sprecht: Der HERR bedarf ihrer; sobald wird er sie euch lassen. 4 Das geschah aber alles, auf daß erfüllt würde, was gesagt ist durch den Propheten, der da spricht: 5 “Saget der Tochter Zion: Siehe, dein König kommt zu dir sanftmütig und reitet auf einem Esel und auf einem Füllen der lastbaren Eselin.” 6 Die Jünger gingen hin und taten, wie ihnen Jesus befohlen hatte, 7 und brachten die Eselin und das Füllen und legten ihre Kleider darauf und setzten ihn darauf. 8 Aber viel Volks breitete die Kleider auf den Weg; die andern hieben Zweige von den Bäumen und streuten sie auf den Weg. 9 Das Volk aber, das vorging und nachfolgte, schrie und sprach: Hosianna dem Sohn Davids! Gelobt sei, der da kommt in dem Namen des HERRN! Hosianna in der Höhe! (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
(New Revised Standard Version)
Cantata 61 provides a fascinating glimpse into Neumeister’s work as both poet and preacher for the same liturgical occasion. The cantata text was published in Neumeister’s Fünfffache Kirchen-Andachten (1716), and the sermon for the First Sunday of Advent from his first year in Hamburg, 1715-1716, was published in Neumeister, Erster Evangelischer Seegen in Hamburg (1718). Notably, Neumeister’s sermon focuses on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and his coming as king, while the cantata text traces a Lutheran understanding of Advent as Jesus’s coming in the past, present, and future.
Neumeister’s sermon begins with the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 146:1) and a preamble explaining that a faithful Christian rejoices to praise their Lord Jesus Christ and celebrate his grace (1-3). Neumeister particularly urges his Hamburg congregation to rejoice on the First Sunday of Advent because it marked the beginning of a new church year: “Through the profuse riches of his grace, we have such a blessing, that an old church year, in which his mercy was new every morning, has ended, and a new, in which his prior goodness shall also daily arise, has begun” (2).
The sermon focuses on Jesus as king in light of his entry into Jerusalem and the fulfillment of the prophecy declared in the Gospel, “Look, your king is coming to you” (v. 5). Neumeister encourages the Christian believer with the great comfort that Jesus’s coming as king offers, and urges the Christian to rejoice because of Jesus’s coming.
Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), focuses less on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and more on the theme of Jesus’s future coming as king. He states this theme in the couplet:
Your king comes, make yourself ready,
He brings comfort, joy, and salvation. (3)
From Neumeister and Olearius, we understand the Lutheran conception of the three comings of Jesus:
- Past. Jesus to earth as a human baby, soon to be celebrated at Christmas. Olearius, for example, explains that the coming king is the Son of God, the Savior who was born a human child, the son of Mary (6).
- Present. Jesus comes to the Christian church and to the individual believer in the present. Neumeister proclaims that Jesus is with the Christian believer now, “that Jesus is in us, and we in Jesus.” He further emphasizes that Jesus is present in the preaching of God’s Word and in the sacraments (19). In his reflection, Olearius focuses on this present coming, explaining what the coming of Jesus means for the Christian believer now.
- Future. Jesus will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead and to reign eternally as king. Olearius encourages the Christian believer to live in faith and hope of Jesus’s future coming and of their status as “a child and heir of the heavenly Jerusalem” (16).
Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV61. All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org.
Rather than focusing on the Gospel account and Jesus’s coming as king as he did in his sermon, Neumeister structures the text of Cantata 61 around this common Lutheran conception of Jesus’s three comings. Movements 1 and 2 reflect on Jesus’s coming in the past as a human baby. The text shifts in movement 2 to explore Jesus’s coming in the present, continuing this theme in movements 3-5. Movement 6 anticipates Jesus’s future coming.
The cantata begins with the text most commonly associated with the First Sunday of Advent in Lutheran hymnals of Bach’s time, the opening stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” a paraphrase of Ambrose of Milan’s “Veni redemptor gentium”:
Now come, savior of the gentiles,
Known as child of the virgin;
Of this, all the world marvels:
God ordained him such a birth.
The text clearly positions the Christian believer, and the Christian church, in relation to the church year, anticipating the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Note how the text both celebrates Jesus’s birth as something that already happened in the past (lines 2-4), while also praying for Jesus’s coming (line 1).
In his grand setting of this text to open Cantata 61 and the new church year, Bach musically invoked Jesus as the coming king through a musical signal his original hearers would easily have understood. This movement combines a large-scale hymn setting with musical characteristics of the French overture: the slow opening section permeated by stately dotted rhythms and suspensions lines 1-2) proceeding to a fast imitative section (line 3) before its return to the opening musical style (line 4). The French overture was associated both with beginnings and with royalty. It originated with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s ballet overtures, and quickly became the standard opening piece for French ballet and opera overtures. The royal associations of French overture were also initiated in French opera, with the French overture played upon the king’s entrance to his royal box. Here Bach masterfully weaves together the “Nun komm” hymn tune with these characteristics of the French overture.
The second movement recitative continues the theme of Jesus’s human birth, stating “The savior has come” (line 1) and explaining that Jesus took on human flesh in order to take “us on as blood relatives” (line 4). The text shifts in line 5 from the third person to the second person, now addressing Jesus directly, “Oh Most-High possession.” The text also shifts here to the second of Jesus’s Advent comings, his coming to the Christian church and the Christian believer in the present. Bach musically highlights the key theological idea of the movement, stated in its final two lines:
You come and let your light
Shine with full blessing [of the gospel]. (lines 8-9)
The third-movement aria offers a prayer for Jesus’s continued coming to his church in the present and particularly at the start of the new church year:
Come, Jesus, come to your church
And grant a blessed new year. (lines 1-2)
The aria concludes by asking for blessing of the pulpit, symbolizing the proclamation of God’s Word, and the altar, symbolizing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In his sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Neumeister names these two things as those through which Jesus comes to his church in the present: “He comes in the preaching of his Word. He comes in his sacraments” (19).
Movement 4 quotes the words of Jesus in Revelation 3:20. In light of the reference to the altar in the previous movement and the verse’s own language, Marissen and Melamed appropriately translate the text sacramentally:
Look, I stand before the door and knock.
If anyone ends up hearing my voice and opening the door,
I will go in, to him, and keep the Lord’s Supper with him, and he with me.
(See Marissen and Melamed, footnote 8.)
Bach sets this text in an accompanied recitative style that dramatically portrays the sound of persistent knocking in the strings and basso continuo. He also follows the common musical practice, best known in Passion settings, of setting the words of Jesus for the bass voice.
The movement 5 aria responds to this invitation of Jesus. In it, the Christian believer addresses their heart, urging the heart to welcome Jesus in:
Open yourself, my whole heart;
Jesus comes and enters [God’s “temple,” my heart]. (lines 1-2)
This thought completes the paired ideas noted in both Neumeister and Olearius, that Jesus’s coming in the present is both to the Christian church and to the individual Christian believer.
The cantata text ends with the last 4 lines of the final stanza of Philipp Nicolai’s hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”:
Come, you beautiful crown of joy,
Tarry not long!
[Exceedingly fair bridegroom, Jesus] I wait for you with longing.
With this text, Neumeister shifts the cantata to Jesus’s third Advent coming, his anticipated future coming at the end of time. Marissen and Melamed note that Jesus himself was called “the Amen” in Revelation 3:14. The hymn also evokes the penultimate verse in the Bible, in which Jesus states, “Surely I am coming soon,” and the text replies, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).