Johann Sebastian Bach, Nun komm der heiden Heiland (BWV 599) | Secrets of Organ Playing Contest, Week 90

This is my entry for the Secrets of Organ Playong Contest, week 90. I play Bach's prelude to the choral "Nun komm der heiden Heiland", BWV 599.

This choral prelude is part of Bach's Orgelbüchlein (little organ book). That book contains 44 small choral preludes for use throughout the liturgical year. In those 46 pieces Bach employs about every technique there was to create a choral prelude. According to the title page Bach meant it as a teaching manual. Sadly, he never completed the work. Of the 164 titles already written in, he only completed 46, and left a fragment of a 47th.

The prelude to "Nun komm der heiden Heiland" is the first in the collection. As the collection follows the lityurgical year, it starts of course with chorals for the time of Advent. And as with most of these 46 chorals it is packed full with symbolism. Bach did not just write music, because he liked the sound of what he wrote. He wrote music to express meaning or feeling. And with chorals there is of course the text, the meaning of which can be expressed in music. Most choral serve a function in the liturgical year (advent hymns are not sung in Passion time) which adds an extra layer of meaning. And then there is the possible emotional respons of a human being to these two layers of meaning, which adds a third possible layer of meaning to the music.

I was inspired by @jeremyowens9501 to play this chorale prelude for this week's contest. He plays this same choral prelude as his entry, and writes in the accompanying post

As the British organist Richard Townend asks, “What was in his mind when he was doing this? … Did the Saviour come as mystery or did he come in triumph?” It’s up to the the performer to make a decision, and that decision carries all the meaning for the listener." I chose a more triumphant approach to the prelude, using a Principal Chorus in the manuals with a couple of added flutes.

I thought it would be interesting to take the 'mystery' approach, for comparison's sake. And because I wanted to write a little about how complex the music of Bach can be. How he literally takes elements to convey possible meanings and put them together to create a musical whole. And I use the 'literally' because 'to put together' is literally what 'to compose' means.

The first phrase of the melody goes like this:


The choral melody in this piece is played in the upper hand, in the soprano voice. Mostly unadorned, but not always. In the first bar it look like this:


Only the second a in the melody is adorned. Bach writes it as a rest with the length of a sixteenth note followed by three sixteenth notes. A figure like that is called a figura suspirans, because it is reminiscent of the sensation of a quick breath (especially when played at a fast pace). It is used to convey yearning and expectation. Bach uses this figura suspirans at the exect melody note of the word "komm" ("come"). Coincidence? I think not.

The symbolism doesn't end here. The first full bar of this composition look like this:


As you can see, the music starts with the first melody note, and the others voices successively fill in the rest of the texture, gradually going down. This patterns occurs throughout the remainder of the piece. These descending lines can be seen as suggesting the arrival of Jesus on earth. Again: coincidence? I think not.

Another element that can already be seen in this first bar is the dotted rythm of a large part of the bass line. This rythm was in the Baroque era often symbolic for the concept 'life'. And again, I think it's not a coincidence. Bach, a deeply religious man, choose this rythm for an advent choral, to convey his believe that the birth of Jesus meant true 'live' for anyone who believed.

The anticipation or expectation of Jesus coming to earth, the yearning for this moment of perhaps triumphal arrival or of the mystery of a new life, all packed into no more than 10 bars of music!

There truely is no 'right' way to play this piece, because of the depth of meaning in it. And each aspect gives rise to a different way of playing it. Loud or soft, slow or fast, legato or non-legato, emphasis on the dotted rythm or not, etcetera. In my performance I wanted to emphasize my wonder about the mystery of any new life. The wonder and joy about a new life of any parent is reminiscent of the joy of Christians for the birth of Jesus. Expectation and wonder about this new life.

As registration I used nothing more than one Principal and a Holfluyt to dull out the upper harmonies a bit. And I play it far more legato than I normally do in Baroque music.

In his performance @jeremyowens9501 chose a more triumphant approach, with a louder registration and a far more detached articulation. And his interpretation is equally valid. There is no right and wrong, the comparison between both takes is interesting and even enlightening. Listen to his performance here. A second time I would probably play it differently again, to emphasize another possible meaning or interpretation of this composition.

The recording was done with the Hauptwerk software and the sampleset, made by Sonus Paradisi, of the Schittger organ in the St. Martini-kerk, Groningen (


Very mysterious indeed. I do favour the simple principal registration but the last time I played this I took Jeremy's approach.

Full pleunum works very good too. I should try it as well.

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