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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

The text of Cantata no. 61 has the more varied structure prescribed by Neumeister, with “madrigals” (recitative-plus-aria texts) and biblical verses intermixed with the chorale stanzas. Such a text is more literally homiletic, or sermonlike, than the chorale concerto. In the present case, for example, only the first verse of the actual chorale is used; the rest is commentary. That single verse (Ex. 7-9a) is given a remarkable setting: not just in “French overture style” but as an actual French overture—a stately march framing a jiglike fugue—scored, as Lully himself would have scored it, for a five-part string ensemble (two violins, two violas, cello plus bassoon continuo) supporting the usual four-part chorus (perhaps even, in Bach’s own church performances, only one singer to a part). This unusual hybrid, the kind of thing we have learned to expect from Bach, resonates in multiple ways with the chorale’s text and the cantata’s occasion.

With respect to the text, the overture format gives Bach a way of emphasizing its most madrigalian aspect—the antithesis between the stately advent of Christ and the joyous amazement of mankind (marked gai, à la française) that greets him. By depicting Christ’s coming with the rhythms that accompanied the French king’s entrée, Bach effectively evokes Christ as King. Most notable of all is the absolute avoidance, in this first section, of choral counterpoint: a single line of the chorale is given a unison enunciation by each choral section in succession, and then they all get together for the second line in a “hymnbook” texture.

The New StyleThe New Style

ex. 7-9a J. S. Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, Overture, mm. 1–7

In this way the traditional, generic use of imitation in the fast middle section of the overture gains by way of contrast a symbolic dimension, evoking in its multiple entries a crowd of marveling witnesses. With respect to the cantata’s function, it has been suggested that by actually—and, from the liturgical point of view, gratuitously—labeling his chorus “Ouverture,” Bach meant to call attention to its placement at the very opening of the liturgical year. (Or else, conversely, the chorus’s placement at the beginning of the first Advent cantata may have prompted Bach’s choice of the Ouverture format.) Again, we are struck by the singlemindedness of Bach’s expressive purpose. For the sake of the affective contrast between the stern beginning and the “gay” continuation, he is willing to “harden” and distort the chorale melody on its every appearance with a dissonant, indeed downright ugly, diminished fourth. Such a choice reveals an altogether different scale of values from those of the ostensible model, the brilliant French court ballet. In fact, Bach appears deliberately to contradict, even thwart that brilliance with his dissonant melodic intervals and clotted texture.

The New Style

ex. 7-9b J. S. Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, no. 2, recitativo

From the French court we now move to the Italian opera theater—or at least to the aristocratic Italian salon (where the original “cantatas” were sung)—for a tenor recitative and aria on a reflective text by Neumeister. But both the recitative and the aria differ enormously from any that we have encountered before. The recitative itself (Ex. 7-9b) ends with a little aria, where the bass begins to move (m. 10), and engages in imitations with the singer to point up the metaphorical “lightening” of the mood. This sort of lyricalized recitative, called mezz’aria (“half-aria”) in the Italian opera house, was a throwback to the fluid interplay of forms in the earliest operas and cantatas. By the eighteenth century it was a German specialty (and one of the ways, incidentally, in which Handel often betrayed his German origins in his Italian operas for English audiences).

The aria (Ex. 7-9c), a sort of gloss on the word “Come” from the chorale, is a gracious invitation to Christ set as a lilting gigue. The ritornello, unlike the Vivaldian type with its three distinct ideas, is all “spun out” of a single five-note phrase. It is played by the whole orchestra, massed modestly in a single unison line, creating with the voice and the bass a typical (that is, typically Bachian) trio-sonata texture. The singer’s entry would come as a surprise to connoisseurs of Italian opera, but not to connoisseurs of trio sonatas, for the voice enters with the same melody as the “ritornello” and spins out the same fund of motives. For this reason Bach can dispense with the lengthy instrumental ritornello on the da capo. Instead, he writes dal segno (“from the sign”), placing the sign at the singer’s entry, which fulfills the “return” function perfectly well. This hybridization of operatic and instrumental styles is rarely if ever encountered in the opera house but standard operating procedure in Bach’s cantatas.

The New Style

ex. 7-9c J. S. Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, no. 3, aria, mm. 1–5, 17–21

The next recitative/aria pair is of a kind equally rare in Italian cantatas or operatic scenes: the recitative is sung by one singer and the aria by another. That is because Neumeister has cast the recitative (Ex. 7-9d) as Christ’s answer to the invitation tendered in the previous aria. It is a biblical verse, sung by the bass, the only voice of sufficient gravity to impersonate the Lord. The singer emphasizes the word klopfe (“I knock”) in two ways, first by a short melisma, and then by a quick repetition. And that is our signal as to the reason for the curious accompaniment senza l’arco (“without the bow,” or pizzicato in more modern, standard parlance). The periodic plucked chords (with a top voice that is as stationary as Bach could make it) are Bach’s way of rendering Christ’s knocking at the church door.

The New Style

ex. 7-9d J. S. Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, no. 4, recitativo, mm. 1–4

The soprano aria (Ex. 7-9e), sung by a disembodied soul-voice to its heart, is the Christian’s answer to Christ’s knock. Scored for voice and continuo only, it is an even more modest aria than the one before. Again the two parts share melodic material. Although only the motto phrase (“Open ye!”) is obviously repeated when the voice enters, the whole vocal melody turns out on analysis to be a simplified version of the cello’s ritornello, shorn of the gentle string-crossings. The fact that the singer’s part is simpler than its accompaniment—especially when the high range of the part is taken into account—is already proof that although an operatic form has been appropriated, we are worlds away from the theater.

Indeed, soprano arias are likely to be the least adorned of all (and therefore especially suitable for “heartfelt” emotions, as here) because they were sung not by a gaudy castrato or a haughty prima donna but by a choirboy. (As in the Catholic church, so in the Lutheran, only male voices could be heard within its walls.) A Bach soprano aria, even one as simple as this one, was likely to strain the vocal and musicianly resources of the boy called upon to sing it. And yet when the text required it, Bach did not hesitate to write very difficult parts for the boys he trained.

The New Style

ex. 7-9e J. S. Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, no. 5, aria, mm. 1–16

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07007.xml