Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Two cantatas for the first Sunday in Advent (BWV 61 and 62) are very much concerned with the Lutheran chorale tune ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’, one of the best known and most utilized in Bach’s time. Reworked by Martin Luther from the Gregorian hymn Veni Redemptor gentium, its severe character reminds us once again of the penitentiary nature of Advent (in stark contrast to the frenzied commercial buildup of our time). The evolution of this pre-diatonic - that is, modal - medieval tune is fascinating: in the old version of the tune the third tone would have been down a whole step and the fourth tone, up a perfect fourth. Within the constraints of modern harmony, the third tone is often down only a half step, and the fourth up a diminished fourth (bizarre!) as we heard in BWV 61. In today’s motet from the first book of Little Sacred Concertos, Schütz uses both versions! Written for the unusual combination of two sopranos, two basses and continuo this canonic setting seems fittingly austere. Each phrase of the chorale has its own character, the most florid and Italianate writing reserved for the third phrase: "Dass sich wundert alle Welt" [over whom the whole world marvels]. The tune overlaps in marvelous ways, cycling through keys and registers; the effect is hypnotic and cumulatively ecstatic.

©Michael Beattie

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