With the possible exception of the Gregorian chant-descended hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” no tune better captures the spirit of the Advent season than Martin Luther’s 1523 composition (both tune and words), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Now, come, Saviour of the Nations). Our service today offers no fewer than six unique settings of this tune.
Three of those settings are the triad of organ preludes from Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, BWV 659-661. The haunting BWV 659, perhaps Bach’s most sublime setting of any melody for the organ, is written in a style known as alio modo, in which imitative voices in the left hand and an ornamented solo line in the right are united, phrase by phrase, over a simple independent ‘walking bass’ in the pedal. BWV 660 is a more academically- oriented trio in which left hand and pedal trade references to the first musical phrase of the tune, while the right hand presents the entire tune, again well-ornamented. BWV 661 is a grand and vigorous full organ setting in which the pedal presents the entire tune while the right hand offers a three-voice fugue based more loosely on the tune material.
The other three settings of the tune appear in the latter part of today’s service, first a duet and chorale taken from one of Bach’s four Advent Cantatas, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The duet Brooke, Nancy and I offer today, originally scored for two oboes d’amore and continuo, presents the tune richly ornamented by both voices, the two solo instruments, and the continuo line in roughly equal partnership. The chorale that closes Cantata 36 turns out to be the exact words of our usual Doxology, but, you guessed it, set to our “Melodie von heute.”
Briefly, what is it about this tune, which continues to appear regularly in hymn books 500 years later (although, alas, not our Book of Praise)? It has a few unusual properties, most obviously that the first and fourth phrases are identical. And though to our ears it lies solidly in the key of G minor, it skips the all-important raised leading note (F#) we usually like in minor keys (if your ears are trained and tuned in to this sort of thing you might notice that today’s many Bach settings, despite the difficulty voices have in singing it before the B-flat that must follow, often add it).
The unusual structure of Nun komm’ (the last phrase being the same as the first) might be as simple as helping illiterate 16th century congregations in learning, let’s remember, mostly for the FIRST time EVER, to sing hymns at all, especially in their own spoken languages. The F-natural on the third note of the first and last phrases suggest the musical time Luther lived in, not yet by any means moved on to the more recent major/minor hegemony that seemed to abolish the older church modes except as a theoretical abstraction. Also, it’s not hard to see why simple intervals (like the perfect fourth from F-natural to B-flat) would be easier and more intuitive to help get the Church’s first real foray into full-congregational singing.
Finally, I have added an ‘Amen’ setting to my series composed for the RPC Choir. In it our wonderful altos, who so often suffer with simple and repetitive parts while others enjoy singing the real tune, are given the tune throughout, while the other parts add an ornamental tapestry befitting the entreaty of a coming Saviour.