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Splendor and Solemnity
Bach at Advent
Andrew White

The Lutheran Church and the Cantata

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most influential composers in the Western music tradition, and, arguably, the greatest composer of Protestant church music. If the latter is true, it is ironic that Bach’s church cantatas, which represent the heart of his sacred compositional output, are among the least familiar of his works. Alfred Dürr, in the preface to the first edition of The Cantatas of J. S. Bach (1971), laments the “Cinderella status” of the cantatas (v). In recent years, Bach’s cantatas have become better known due to numerous recordings of complete cycles1 and exciting projects like John Eliot Gardiner’s “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage,” during which he conducted the church cantatas in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

Yet despite their growing popularity, the cantatas can seem inaccessible to modern listeners. As Dürr notes: “…the Bach cantata is... more tied to its period than the ‘timeless’ instrumental works” (v). They are liturgically-centered, and many ­listeners are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Lutheran worship service in eighteenth-century Germany. Many of the cantata texts consist of archaic German verse (which can be awkward, even when translated into modern English), and their language is typical of seventeenth- and ­eighteenth-century Lutheran theology. However, the cantatas demonstrate the same level of genius, invention, and attention to detail that we find in Bach’s more familiar sacred works, such as the Mass in B Minor and the St. Matthew Passion, if on a smaller-scale. Indeed, the St. Matthew Passion was the fruition of the ­experience Bach gained from three years of cantata composition in Leipzig, and a number of movements from the Mass in B minor are taken directly from the cantatas.

bachThe Lutheran church cantata developed over several centuries; Bach’s Weimar and Leipzig cantatas were based on the cantata model designed by Erdmann Neumeister (1671–1756), a theologian and chief pastor at the Jacobikirche, in Hamburg, from 1715–1756 (Dürr 6). Though he included well-known Lutheran hymns in his cantata text, Neumeister was particularly enthusiastic about the potential of the Italian operatic genres of recitative and aria for concerted church music: cantatas could be set to interpretative verse paraphrases of the “Word” for a given Sunday or feast day. The recitative, “originally a quite formless speech-song with continuo accompaniment,” was used in opera to explain and advance the plot (Dürr 17). This form lent itself to textual declamation, an important component of Martin Luther’s theology of the “Word”—“[t]he conviction that God’s Word, as laid down in the Bible, is dead and ineffectual unless it is proclaimed” (Dürr 3). Neumeister also saw the utility of the aria for church music, with its “lyrical and... melodic tendency” (Dürr 17). Its function in opera was to provide an emotional response to an event in the plot, whether it be anger, love, surprise, sadness, etc. (Dürr 17). In its church function, the aria could provide an affective expression of the biblically inspired text, and, in so doing, help churchgoers better connect to the message. Arias typically began with a ritornello, a musical theme that would be reiterated throughout the aria. The theme alternated between vocalists and obbligato instruments, “leading to a lively reciprocal exchange between singers and instrumentalists” (Dürr 18).

By the time Bach began his twenty-seven-year tenure in Leipzig (1723–1750), the Neumeister church cantata “had its fixed place in the principal Sunday and feast-day service (the ‘Office’), after the Gospel had been read but before the singing of the Lutheran creed, Wir glauben all in einen Gott” (Dürr 23). Sometimes longer cantatas were split into two parts, with the second half performed after the sermon. Other times, two shorter cantatas were performed—one before and one after the sermon. Given the length of the Sunday morning service (with a sermon often as long as one hour), Bach did not have much time for a cantata (“barely half an hour,” Dürr 23). On feast days the cantatas were often performed in both of Leipzig’s principal churches—Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche—once in the morning and once in the afternoon (Wolff 254).

Bach’s cantatas are then best appreciated in the context of Lutheran worship, since they are direct responses to Sundays and feast days in the liturgical year. As Eric Chafe has noted, for ­eighteenth-century Lutherans the liturgical year “…itself was a form of theological expression on the largest scale” (11). The astronomical and meteorological conditions of Europe correlated with the events of Jesus’ life and the beginnings of the church:

Beginning at the darkest time of the year, the liturgical year aligns the coming of God’s light into the world (the incarnation) with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice (Christmas), the ­coming of that light to the Gentiles with the New Year (Epiphany), and the Passion and resurrection of Christ with the spring equinox and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the revelation of the Trinity with the summer solstice. (Chafe 11)

In the liturgical year, then, the seasons correspond with key moments of Christian salvation history. With the First Sunday in Advent, the liturgical calendar organized around key events in the life of Christ, the temporale, begins. But, for Leipzig and many other Lutheran centers, this “New Year” was not to be a time of excess. In Christian Instruction on the God-pleasing Observance of Advent, Christmas, and New Year’s (1737), Neumeister argued that the new church year should be a period of gratitude, introspection, reflection, and repentance for inevitable shortcomings. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes, Neumeister, appealing to the church councils of the early medieval period, “explained that Advent, like Lent, was a penitential season, during which, for example, there were to be no weddings” (4). For Neumeister, the Christmas season was not to be a time of secular celebration, but rather should be characterized by “attending worship; reflecting at home on the meaning of the word of God; pondering the grace of God; ‘rejoicing over thy birth and grace’; thanking and praising God; and doing good to one’s neighbor” (Pelikan 5).

The Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent were part of the penitential period of Advent in Leipzig. The absence of “high” music on these Sundays accentuated the emphasis on reflection, self-denial, and general solemnity in the churches (Dürr 25). This liturgical tradition, then, put a particularly heavy emphasis on the First Sunday in Advent (Gardiner 8). Not only was this Sunday the beginning of the liturgical year, it also marked the beginning of the Christmas season, a month-long period of expectation and waiting for the birth of Christ. As Tadashi Isoyama notes, it is this “double significance [that] caused Bach to devote particular care to creating a deep emotional content in his cantatas for this Sunday” (4). The First Sunday in Advent was the last opportunity for churchgoers in Leipzig to hear concerted music before Christmas; the emotionally profound music for this Sunday was highly valued because it could help to dispel the midwinter gloom in the weeks ahead (Gardiner 8).

Bach’s cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent (like his other cantatas) are essentially sermons in music; they are theologically and emotionally-rich articulations of the themes of the Advent season. In these works, Bach achieves a remarkable synthesis between the old and new forms at his disposal (textual and musical) and a harmonious balance of the theological complexities of Christ’s “Advent”—his incarnation, his ongoing presence in the church, and his second coming. Bach’s music vividly underscores the paradoxes of Advent and the incarnation: joy, yet solemnity and expectation; light in the midst of darkness; divine power manifested in human weakness (as the “Ruler of Heaven” comes to earth as a baby); royal magnificence and intimacy (seen in the image of Christ knocking on the door); and peace and clamor (the response of wonder at the mystery of the incarnation).2

The Scripture Lessons for the
First Sunday in Advent

The designated scripture lessons for Advent 1, the first Sunday of the liturgical year, are Romans 13:11–14 (the epistle) and Matthew 21:1–9 (the Gospel). These texts illustrate the theological complexity of the incarnation and the ways in which Christ “comes” to his people. The epistle focuses on watchfulness and righteous ­living:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in ­reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11–14, NRSV)

Along with the exhortation for wakefulness and watchfulness, we see the trope of light and darkness (living in the day versus living in the darkness), commonly used during the Advent season. The notion of living “honorably,” of avoiding drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, and of making “no provision for the flesh,” speak to the restraint and general solemnity that was expected during the Advent season as observed in Lutheran Germany in the early eighteenth century. At first glance, the Gospel reading, from Matthew 21, might seem inappropriate for this particular Sunday. Instead of focusing on the events leading up to the birth of Christ (the Annunciation and the story of John the Baptist, for instance), we have an account of Jesus entering Jerusalem before his crucifixion. This passage is the same Gospel reading assigned for Palm Sunday, and, on the surface, a seemingly unseasonable choice. The key phrase from the passage for Advent 1, however, is: “Look, your king is coming to you, humble...” The entrance of Christ into Jerusalem represents the culmination of his first coming, the beginning of the week of his passion, the very reason for his coming. However, in keeping with the tone of the epistle passage, Matthew 21 also foreshadows the second coming of Christ. Though events in the life of Christ follow a chronological pattern throughout the temporale, on the first Sunday of the church year the various theological aspects of Christ’s “Advent”—his incarnation, his ongoing presence in the church, and his second coming—are deliberately conflated.

Luther’s Advent Hymn:
“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”

The cantatas that Bach performed for Advent 1 in Leipzig in 1723 and 1724—BWV 61 (“Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles,” i) and BWV 62 (“Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles,” ii)—touch on these multivalent elements of Christ’s ­incarnation. Both cantatas are centered on the Advent chorale, “Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles,” Martin Luther’s 1524 translation of the medieval church hymn, Veni Redemptor Gentium. By the time Bach’s tenure as Thomascantor began in Leipzig, Luther’s eight-stanza translation had a long tradition of being sung in the Lutheran church during the Advent season (Dürr 76).3 The hymn’s invitation for the Messiah to come as Savior of the Gentiles is appropriate for the inauguration of the church year and the Christmas season, which, in the Lutheran tradition, focused on Christ’s coming to the Gentiles, as illustrated by the story of the Wise Men (the Gospel text for Epiphany, January 6, which marked the end of the Christmas season). The melody of the hymn “has a dark, imposing character,” in the words of John Eliot Gardiner, but “one that Bach reinforces—or softens—though his inventive variety of treatments” (8).

“Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles”
Variation 1: The Indwelling King (BWV 61)

The libretto for BWV 61, “Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles,” i, was published by Neumeister in his collection Geistliches Singen und Spielen (Gotha 1711). Bach originally composed the cantata for Advent 1 in Weimar in 1714, but he revived it for his first Advent season in Leipzig on November 28, 1723. The opening movement of the cantata is entitled Ouverture, a French-style setting of the first verse of Luther’s Advent hymn: “Now come, Savior of the Gentiles, / Known as the Virgin’s Child; / All the world marvels that / God has ordained for Him such a birth.”4 Bach’s musical setting of this text is, in the words of Alfred Dürr: ingenious combination of chorale arrangement and French Overture: the overture inaugurates the church year. In French opera an overture was customarily played while the king entered his royal box. In this cantata too it serves to greet the entry of a King. (77)

The mixture of a medieval chant and the avant-garde music of the court of Versailles is striking (Gardiner 8), and, for much of the congregation (who would have been familiar with French musical fashion), this music would have ­conveyed “celebration and magnificence” (Kuijken 4). However, in keeping with the tonality of the hymn tune, the overture is in a minor key, giving it a severe and even melancholy quality (Schulze 8–9).

French baroque overtures (that follow the model developed by Jean-Baptiste Lully) are characterized by ceremonial dotted rhythms and are typically composed in three parts: grave-gai-grave (slow-fast-slow). Bach accommodates this structure to the four lines of the hymn. In the opening grave section, in 2/2 time, the violin parts provide a musical introduction, but they play at a high pitch which makes them sound dramatic, almost astringent in tone. In this section Bach sets the first two lines of Luther’s hymn in long notes, providing a fascinating contrast with the dotted notes of the string accompaniment. For the third line of the hymn verse, Bach moves to the middle section of the French overture, marked gai (fast, in 3/4 time), with the voices singing a stretto fugue, doubled by the instruments. The music is perfectly matched to the text, which expresses wonder, joy, and even confusion over the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. As in the first section of the hymn, the voices enter separately, creating dense polyphony with brilliant echo effects on the word “all” (the world), including a six-measure soprano trill on “alle” (all). John Eliot Gardiner, noting the origins of the musical genre of overture, observes that with this treatment of the hymn-line “Louis XIV’s tittering courtiers [are] transformed into ‘all the world’ marveling at the imminent birth of the Savior” (9). Unlike the other chorale lines, the text here, in keeping with the gai tempo, is “repeated very frequently, and thereby illustrates the crowd of people, who remain astonished” (Kuijken 5). With the last line of the hymn, Bach returns to the grave tempo, again in 2/2 time, and, as with line 2, all voices enter in unison. The brief, chordal setting of the text symbolizes, perhaps, the focus and singularity of God’s purpose in sending Christ to earth. This opening overture/chorus is an exceptional achievement—in the words of David Melamed, “among Bach’s most striking creations.... perhaps the best example of Bach’s imaginative treatment of chorales and his fusing of musical types” (167).

church The second movement of BWV 61 is a tenor recitative, a setting of Neumeister’s verse ­paraphrase of stanza 2 from Luther’s hymn that focuses on the paradox of the incarnation—though “[n]ot from man’s flesh and blood,” Christ has taken on flesh and blood, “and accepts us as blood relations.” As with Stanza 1 of the hymn, the response in the text is amazement: “O supreme Good! / What have You not done for us? / What do You not do / Still daily for Your people?” The wonder expressed here is not merely in reference to Christ’s birth, but also to his incarnation among his people—his ongoing presence in and sustenance of the church. The movement starts as a secco recitative, but evolves into an arioso (a recitative with aria-like qualities) by the tenth measure, with the text: “You come and let Your Light / Shine with full blessing.”5

The recitative sets up the following aria for tenor, a dance movement in 9/8 time. As an emotional response to the text of the previous movement, it contains a warm invitation to Christ: “Come, Jesus, come to Your Church / And grant us a blessed New Year!” The new year in question here is not January 1, but the beginning of the church year. With the musical setting, the high-pitched strings (violins and violas playing together in unison) have a “strict and unified character” according to Alfred Dürr (77), but Tadashi Isoyama describes the unison strings as conveying “richness and warmth” and “the unity of the church” (5). After the severe opening movement in A minor, this aria, in C major, has a softer, gentler sonority, with a wonderfully active basso continuo. In Section A of the aria, the tenor repeats the word “come” often, with musical figurations on the word “blessed.” The minister in Neumeister comes out in the text of Section B of the aria: “Maintain sound doctrine, / And bless pulpit and altar!” Bach places vocal emphasis on the words “pulpit” and “altar” here, before a da capo return to Section A.

For many listeners the most extraordinary moment of this cantata is the briefest and most fleeting one: a ten-measure recitative for bass soloist and pizzicato strings. The text is taken directly from Revelation 3:20: “See, I stand before the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in to him and have supper with him and he with me.” Here, the librettist goes from a ­community-wide invitation for Christ to come to the church to the more intimate invitation of Jesus to the “­lukewarm” believers of the ancient church of Laodicea. Bach’s musical setting calls for the strings to play senza l’arco (without the bow), i.e., plucked strings playing staccato notes. Alfred Dürr notes that this movement is the “true high point of the work, with the strings “creat[ing] the impression of knocking, and the voice likewise turn[ing] to pictorial representation at the words ‘klopfe an’ (‘knock’)” (77). Assigning the recitative to the bass seems deliberate, since that voice part is often the vox Christi in Bach’s sacred works. For John Eliot Gardiner, the bowless strings “create a mysterious and hugely evocative backdrop” for Christ’s entreaty (9). There is a deep intimacy in this setting, a profound tranquility and warmth conveyed musically with minimal forces. Thematically, this portrait of Christ is strikingly different from the opening movement, with its associations of the splendor of the French royal court at Versailles.

Equally arresting is Bach’s setting of the response of the individual believer to Christ’s knocking on the door of the soul—a soprano aria with sparse basso continuo accompaniment. The key lines are set in Section A: “Open, my whole heart: / Jesus comes and moves in.” With the warm but minimal cello obbligato in 3/4 time, the human voice is foregrounded in “[h]eartfelt naïveté” (Schulze 9). In Section B the soloist does not marvel at the birth of Christ, as one would expect in an Advent cantata, but rather at Christ’s indwelling of the believer: “Though I am but dust and earth,” Christ chooses “that I become His dwelling” (Isoyama 5). Bach underscores the ecstasy of the believer by having the soprano sing “how blessed (I shall be!)” six times in this middle section of the aria. According to Kuijken, the fact that the aria is assigned to a high voice “allows us to suspect that Bach connected these words with the ‘annunciation’” (Kuijken 5).6

Bach concludes this cantata with three lines from the last verse of Wie schön leuchet der Morgenstern [How beautifully shines the morning star] by Philipp Nicolai (1599): “Amen! Amen! / Come, you fair crown of joy, do not long delay, / I await you with longing.” This text seems to conflate the first and second coming of Christ, which was common in the scripture readings for this season of the liturgical year. Eric Chafe traces the various advents of Christ in the developmental structure of this cantata:

‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’... interprets the coming of Jesus in a fourfold scheme...: first as His coming in the flesh to Israel (the incarnation, represented in the opening chorus...), then as His coming in the spirit to the church (the tenor aria...), then as His coming to the individual believer through faith (soprano aria...), and, finally, as His coming to the believer at the end of time (final ­chorale...). (6)

The musical setting of these lines, like the text itself, is brief but intense. In the last line, “I await you with longing,” the sopranos sing in long, descending notes, perhaps symbolizing Christ’s return to earth from heaven above. But after the voices trail off, the “obbligato violins soar up to top g3 [three octaves in all] at the close in Advent jubilation” (Dürr 77). The trajectory of the cantata is intriguing: from the royal welcome of Christ by the wondering world, to the response to Christ’s entreaty to enter in, to the expression of longing for Christ’s imminent return.

“Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles”
Variation 2: The Hero of Heaven (BWV 62)

BWV 62, “Now come, Savior of the Gentiles,” ii, was composed by Bach for his second Advent season in Leipzig (and first performed on December 3, 1724). The entire text of the libretto for BWV 62 is derived from Martin Luther’s eight-stanza hymn for Advent, “Now come, Savior of the Gentiles (Dürr 78–79). This holistic treatment of the hymn is typical of Bach’s chorale cantata cycle (1724–25), with the text and music of the chorales foregrounded.

As with BWV 61, Bach begins this cantata with the first verse of Luther’s Advent hymn, again emphasizing the notion of the entire world marveling and wondering at the mystery of the incarnation, which Bach underscores with a wonderfully polyphonic and melismatic treatment of the phrase “all the world (marvels).” Musically, there is much to treasure in this exceptional movement—“[r]epeated rising figures evoke the sense of welcome and ­anticipation in the chorale’s text, which heralds the coming of the Savior” (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 453). The first movement of Bach’s earlier Advent 1 cantata (BWV 61) was shaped by the musical structure of the French Overture; here, Bach follows the late-baroque Italian concerto model. With the admixture of voices, the movement is musically complex; it is full of intense energy, with the chorale melody lying with the sopranos (in long notes) and the horn (which doubles the sopranos). The chorale tune is cited in the opening instrumental ritornello twice: first by the basso continuo, then, before the first vocal entry, by two oboes, who double the speed of the chorale tune, perhaps signifying the imminence of Christ’s coming (Kuijken 9). All of this builds up a wonderful frisson of excitement before the actual vocal entries. In all, this is a brilliant movement of Italianate brio, but in a minor key (like the chorale tune, in this case B minor) some of the solemnity, even severity, of the medieval hymn is retained. This creates an intriguing tension, “set[ting] up an opposition between the concertato brilliance of the instrumental writing and the reflective gravity with which the wonder of Christ’s becoming man is celebrated in the ­chorale” (Dürr 79).

After this vivacious opening movement, Bach moves to an aria for tenor whose text is a paraphrase (by an unknown author) of Stanzas 2 and 3 of Luther’s hymn, focusing on the divine origin of Christ and the purity of Mary. In Section A of the aria, the text highlights the sense of wonder: “Marvel, O people, at this great mystery: / The higher ruler appears to the world.” Section B includes several key metaphors: (1) treasure (“Here the treasures of heaven are disclosed,” and at Christmastide one thinks of the three treasures presented by the Magi); and, (2) manna (“Here a divine manna is for us ordained”), referencing the Exodus story of God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness and Christ’s proclamation that he is “the bread of life,” God incarnate, and immanent in the Eucharist. The musical setting of the aria is full of joy and uplift, with a tempo that “evok[es] the physical body though dance” (Schulze 9; Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 454). Two teams of paired violin and oboe, along with the violas, enter into dialogue with the soloist who marvels at the mystery of “the Great Ruler of Heaven” coming to earth as a child. This particular phrase is given special emphasis throughout, with some extraordinary virtuosic passages of ­word-painting. First, the initial syllable of the German word for “highest” (höchste) is extended in melismatic embellishment over six and a half measures. This is followed by a ten-measure melisma on the second syllable of the German word for “Ruler” (Beherrscher—“herr,” by itself, can mean “Lord” in German). As if this were not enough vocal ornamentation, Bach then assigns another extended melisma on “Ruler” to the tenor, but this time doubles its length to twenty measures!

The tenor aria is followed by a short recitative for bass soloist, which features the trope of the Son of God as hero, the man of divine descent (in both senses of the term): “The Hero from Judah breaks forth / To run His course with joyfulness / And to redeem us fallen ones. / O bright luster, O wondrous light of Blessing!” In the last line of the recitative we see, once again, the familiar Advent theme of light. This sets up an exceptional bass aria calling for Christ, the Hero, to support weak human flesh. This is a testosterone-filled piece focusing on the first two lines of the text: “Fight, conquer, strong Hero! / Be mighty for us in the flesh!” The aria has been described as “robust,” containing “fanfare motifs and rolling passages” (Schulze 9); “pompous [and] combative” (Gardiner 10); and “militant” (Dürr 80). These impressions are derived from the rhythm of the aria and its scoring, in which the upper strings play in unison with the basso continuo (though an octave higher), described by Hofmann as “an expression of power” (7). Vocally, the bass has to negotiate long bravado-filled melismas as he sings the words “fight” and “mighty.” Bach’s approach here is clearly operatic; Handel’s Julius Caesar could have entered the stage with such an aria. However, this aria is an expression not of human power, but of divine strength. God renders to humans, “us weaklings,” the divine ability to overcome evil within and without.

The recitative duet for soprano and alto that follows is yet another moment of contrast in this cantata. Here the believing community’s collective (hence two singers—unusual for recitatives), awe-filled approach to Christ’s manger is portrayed through a beatific recitativo accompagnato (with the strings creating a halo of music over the voices of the soprano and alto). It is an intimate scena—“enraptured,” in the words of Schulze, “[w]ith turns to distant, yet celestially luminous tonalities” (9). Indeed, the Advent trope of light figures once again, in the line: “Darkness did not disturb us / When we saw Your unending light” (Dürr 78). Bach concludes this cantata with a plain chorale setting of the final verse of Luther’s hymn, a collective response of praise to Trinity: “Praise be given to God the Father, / Praise be to God His only son, / Praise be to God the Holy Spirit / Always and in eternity!” This closure is remarkable, perhaps, for its simplicity after the broad range of emotional expression and musical invention in the previous five movements.


In BWV 61 and BWV 62, Bach demonstrates his compositional prowess—his ability to set the same text and familiar (perhaps, even tired) Advent themes through a rich variety of musical means, simultaneously evoking splendor, solemnity, amazement, hope, joy, and expectation. BWV 61 emphasizes the intimacy of the incarnation, with Christ knocking on the door of human hearts, and invites Christ to be incarnate in the life of the church as it begins a new year. In the two arias of BWV 62, we see the joy of amazement at the incarnation and Christ, a heroic figure fighting on the believer’s behalf. This combative energy is foreshadowed in the instrumental framing of the opening chorus, with lively violin figures animating Luther’s hymn tune. Though we have no record of the congregation’s response to this music, surely the theological and emotional profundity must have gone far in tiding over Leipzig churchgoers until the exuberant celebrations of Christmas Day. These immensely rich musical sermons provide us with a lens that transmits and refracts the converging light of the Advent season, with its theological complexities and contrasting emotions.


Andrew White is Associate Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.


Recommended Recordings

Gardiner, John Eliot, cond. Bach: Cantatas—Advent. Rec. 1992. Arkiv Producktion, 2000.

Herreweghe, Philippe, cond. J.S. Bach: Adventskantaten. Rec. 1996. Harmonia Mundi, 1997.


Works Cited

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Seventh Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

Chafe, Eric. Analyzing Bach Cantatas. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Dürr, Alfred. The Cantatas of J. S. Bach. Revised and Translated by Richard D. P. Jones. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gardiner, John Eliot. Booklet. Bach Cantatas: Vol. 13: Köln/Lüneburg. Soli Deo Gloria, 2009.

Hoffman, Klaus. Booklet. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas 28. BIS, 2005.

Isoyama, Tadashi. Booklet. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas 7. BIS, 1998.

Kuijken, Sigiswald. Booklet. Cantatas (BWV 61, 36, 62, 132)—‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’. Accent, 2010.

Melamed, Daniel R. “Cantata Choruses and Chorales.” The World of the Bach Cantatas: Early Sacred Cantatas. Christoph Wolff, ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 155–169.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Bach Among the Theologians. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1986.

Schulze, Hans-Joachim. Booklet. Adventskantaten. Harmonia Mundi, 1997.

Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.



1. This includes cycles by Helmut Rilling, Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, Pieter-Jan Belder, and Masaaki Suzuki.

2. Though there are three surviving cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent (BWV 61, 62, and 36), this essay will focus on the first two, performed for Bach’s first two Advent seasons in Leipzig (1723 and 1724), both of which bear the name: “Now come, Savior of the Gentiles.”

3. This medieval chant has similar roots to an Advent hymn that is better known in English-speaking countries, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

4. All English translations of the cantata texts are taken from the English translation (by Richard D. P. Jones) of Alfred Dürr’s authoritative study, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach: With Their Librettos in German-English Parallel Text (Oxford UP, 2000). Cantata librettos, along with multiple translations, scores, commentaries, articles, and many other resources are available at bach-­, the most comprehensive website devoted to Bach’s cantatas.

5. According to Sigiswald Kuijken, the “arioso-dialogue between the tenor and basso continuo” illustrates “the intimacy of contact with God” (5).

6. Kuijken continues: “Mary is invisibly present here... as the greatest example of the ‘opening’ of the hearts of mankind to the coming of God” (5).

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