Sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is the start of the Christian liturgical year: the first Sunday of Advent. That this important date on the church calendar is barely noticed by the broader culture confirms the obvious: that consumption is the world’s chief religion.
Such apparent contradictions between piety and purchasing are easily overcome by Tesla drivers and those who shell out for kindred forms of sustainable Indulgences. Yet most moderns recognize the division between the sacred and the secular realms, even if the current machinations of the Supreme Court prove such separations are partial.
As the Bach scholar Michael Marissen has shown both in scholarly books admirably accessible to a wider music-loving public and in a Yuletide New York Times offering of a few years back, Bach did not observe, nor even recognize such distinctions. God was present in all he did. In cantatas for the church and in chamber works for princely courts and urban coffee houses, Bach would sometimes inscribe the prayer “Jesu juva” (Jesus, help) at the top of his score, and after completing the work sign off with the initials SDG—Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of god alone.)
Armed with an impressive arsenal of scholarly skills both musicological and theological, Marissen takes aim at the prevailing desire of many Bach devotees to fashion their hero in their own image—as a progressive, Enlightened man of the world, an Artist with a capital A whose engagement with religion was merely a necessary condition of his job. This aestheticist mode, dubbed by Marissen the “triumphal-supersessionist-secularist view of Bach’s music,” is elegantly, rigorously, and engagingly dismantled by him in his 2018 volume that has the best title among the thousands of books on the composer: Bach & God. (Supersessionism is not a reference to the great Muscle Shoals sidemen, but rather to the belief that the forgiving New Testament has supplanted the stern Old.)
Now embedded in the high season of retail theory, Advent is a penitential time that looks forward to the anniversary Jesus’s first coming and anticipates his second, otherwise known as the end of the world. It is not meant to be season dedicated to retail therapy. But Bach did climb up the economic ladder of eighteenth-century Lutheran Germany far enough to acquire some of the finer things (among them a bejewelled snuff-box, silver shoe buckles and coffee service. So here’s an enthusiastic recommendation of Marissen’s Bach & God (Oxford University Press, 2018) as a holiday gift. Its bracing medicine opens the ears to a necessary, more foreign Bach, his music richer if often more unsettling after reading this book.
However valuable Marissen’s project to understand Bach’s mission, his scholarship does not seek to erase—nor could it—accrued meanings and uses of this profound music. I unapologetically continue to turn to Bach’s works as a tool for seeing and hearing the world, and moving through it: from changing the clocks in Fall and Spring, to the essential matters of death and taxes. Art with that capital A should be useful.
Amid the perpetual and worsening crisis of unhoused-ness in the United States and
recent revelations that shelter operators in New York City enriched themselves by channeling contracts to cronies and used expense accounts to fund shopping sprees at Bergdorf Goodman and Neimann Marcus, I thought of Bach’s Cantata for the First Sunday of Advent, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles), BWV 61, first performed in Weimar, Germany on December 2nd, 1714 under the composer’s musical leadership.
Bach starts the cantata and the new church year with pompous ceremonial music of arrival: a French Overture, a genre associated with the Sun King, Louis XIV. Its haughty reluctance to move from one chord to the next—doing so with grandiose flourishes—resounds with theologically charged irony: this monarch of heaven will be born on earth in a stable as homeless human baby.
Bach conveys this descent by combining this regal texture with the main Advent hymn (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) derived by Martin Luther from a venerable Gregorian melody. With obvious metaphorical intent, Bach has the vocal parts enter with this chorale from highest (soprano) to lowest (bass).
After the opening chorus, the tenor is given two movements; the first, narrates the miracle of God given the form of human flesh and blood; the second, enjoins Jesus to come into his church and grant it a blessed new year.
This is followed by one of Bach’s most remarkable and affecting creations: the first appearance of the bass soloist heard here in the declamatory style called recitative. He sings in the first person, that is in the voice of Jesus; this was a familiar association for Bach’s listeners and one the composer later adopted in his Passions for Good Friday:
See, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone will hear my voice
And open the door
I shall go
And have super with him and he with me.
Normally in Bach’s music the voice of Jesus is heard below a halo of sustained strings, but here, in this still early work in the composer’s catalog, the strings play pizzicato—the chords interspersed with harrowing rests. Though the plucking somewhat muffles the projection of pitch, some of the harmonies are still harshly dissonant—a devastatingly evocative portrayal in musical sound of the knocking at the door. These sonorities are troubled by the uncertainty as to who might be on the other side and the threat that the please for admittance might not be answered.
For Bach the meal to be shared was communion, but I can’t help but hear it as a call to open to those in need of shelter and food.
The author of the cantata’s poetry was the Lutheran cleric, Erdmann Neumeister, a man known to Bach. One of the period’s most important religious librettists, Neumeister was intent on marrying church music and texts to musical genres (recitatives and arias) imported—paradoxically, many critics lamented—from the debauched Italian opera stage.
Neumeister was also a rabid anti-Semite, and even wrote some church cantata texts that expressed this hatred, words that were set to music by Bach’s friend Telemann. One of the main themes of Marissen’s book concerns the pervasive anti-Judaism of Bach’s day, a shadow that cast itself also across his music, too.
Even the taint poet cannot dampen the enduring echo of those knocks.