Perhaps over the years you have noticed that a frequent title in Advent preludes and postludes is Savior of the Nations, Come (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland). Johann Sebastian Bach arranged it for organ several times and composed two cantatas based on the hymn, for it was the hymn most closely associated with Advent in the 18th century German church. Martin Luther actually derived this hymn from a beloved Latin hymn, Veni redemptor gentium.
This Sunday, December 13, during the 10:00 a.m. service, the Bryn Mawr Chamber Singers, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and soloists Elizabeth Weigle, Monica Soto-Gil, Galeano Salas, and Jarrett Ott will present the second of Bach’s two cantatas based on this beloved chorale, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62.
During Bach’s long tenure at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (where the Sanctuary Choir performed in July 2014), the Sunday service lasted three-four hours. Hymns often had more than a dozen verses, sermons were an hour long, communion often lasted an hour, and, in all but a couple of Sundays each year, a full cantata with choir, soloists and orchestra was presented prior to the sermon. Bach wrote at least three hundred cantatas, one hundred of which have disappeared.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland begins with a vigorous movement for orchestra and choir. The sopranos of the choir present the hymn tune while the rest of the musicians swirl about in beautiful ornamentation. This is followed by a lively aria for tenor, depicting the grandeur of Christ’s coming and his human roots. What follows is one of the most unusual arias Bach wrote. Written for the baritone, the whole orchestra plays in unison throughout as the soloist prays for Christ to help strengthen us, the weak. Following a brief passage for soprano and alto soloists, the choir and orchestra present the hymn a final time, here with a doxological text.
This Sunday you will also have the opportunity to hear BMPC’s new harpsichord during the prelude and postlude in two movements of Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord in d-minor. Built by America’s finest harpsichord craftsman, William Dowd, this instrument was a gift from the Hauptfuhrer family in memory of Robert Hauptfuhrer, in recognition of his love and enjoyment of music and appreciation for the spiritual enrichment he received at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. The harpsichord is a copy of a 1780 French harpsichord built by Taskin.
Whenever Bach began a new piece, he bowed his head and prayed. “Jesus, help me show your glory through the music I write. May it bring you joy even as it brings joy to your people.” Before writing even one note, Johann carefully formed the letters J J at the top of the page. With that, the music began to pour from his soul and onto the page. When he was finally satisfied with the work, he wrote the letters SDG at the bottom of the page - Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone.
With those words, we will dedicate our music this Sunday.
P.S. To hear the St. Thomas Church choir present Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, you may click here.