No.9 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

Johann Sebastian Bach

No.9 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland


About this work

The venerable Lutheran chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland was crafted into five different organ chorale preludes by J .S. Bach: BWV 699 is a very early attempt; BWV 599 is part of the famous Orgelbüchlein; and the other three are part of the seventeen (formerly eighteen) "Leipzig" chorales originally composed during Bach's Weimar years (1708 - 1717) and revised in Leipzig during the mid/late 1740s. The three "Leipzig" settings of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland are a veritable textbook of chorale prelude possibilities: BWV 661 is a classic bass cantus firmus chorale, BWV 660 a full-figured trio chorale, and BWV 659, perhaps the most famous of the three, a magnificent example of an ornamented chorale prelude.

Nun komm der Heiden Heiland first appeared in 1524. It is one of the shorter chorales, having four brief phrases of nearly identical length (each is two bars long, and each has eight notes, except the third, which has nine). In BWV 659, Bach sets this framework in G minor and expands it considerably -- the prelude lasts thirty-four bars, and the phrases are five, six, six, and seven bars long, respectively. More significantly, he fills all the rhythmic spaces of the cantus firmus melody with an astounding amount of motion: the nine notes of the third phrase have by Bach's hand given birth to no fewer than 103 separately articulated notes, more still if we count the trill indication in the final bar of the phrase! This lovely filigree of the soprano voice cantus firmus is supported by two lower manual voices (counterpoint, which might, under other circumstances, itself seem highly decorated but which, compared to the soprano melody, is as plain as bread) and a steady pedal bass that moves mostly in eighth notes.

As mentioned, the "Leipzig" chorale preludes represent revisions of works composed many years earlier in Weimar. These alternate versions all survive, that of BWV 659 being known as BWV 659a.