|Bach's manuscript of Nun komm|
In Bach's age, all Christians who regularly attended church would have known Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This is a simple hymn about the coming of Christ.
Just hearing the tune evokes the profound message of the hymn:
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,
Der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt!
Dass sich wundre alle Welt,
Gott solch' Geburt ihm bestellt.
Now come, Saviour of the gentiles,
recognised as the child of the Virgin,
so that all the world is amazed
God ordained such a birth for him.
The hymn itself is by Martin Luther (German text and English translation); it is largely based upon the hymn Veni, Redemptor Gentium ("Come, Redeemer of the Earth" - Latin text and English translation) - by St. Ambrose - the bishop of Milan who had a profound influence upon St. Augustine of Hippo.
Many Christian composers wrote settings of this hymn - as choral pieces, organ works, etc..
The piece is as alive today as ever for those willing to listen, and with a bit of imagination. In jubilating with the music - and the utter mystery of God coming down amongst us in the flesh as man - we also take ourselves up into worship together with the great body of saints who have celebrated the Incarnation through the words of Luther and St. Ambrose. We are singing along with Saint Augustine. Our souls and imaginations reach out and touch the amazing work of God through more than 1,500 years, over many continents, together with a choir of millions who have worshiped God in this manner through the ages. And we remember that Jesus is Lord not only of my small mind in this moment of time; but He who is sovereign, active, and has been transforming individuals and whole societies, calling His children to Himself, ever since He walked about amongst us 2,000 years ago.
In our century, we're familiar with "cover tunes" and the practice, especially amongst jazz musicians, of playing a well-known classic, yet blowing new life into it, and showing us new, unappreciated aspects of a tune we thought we already knew so well. Jazz can be a beautiful reminder of how music can render that which is well-known - perhaps even to the point of boredom or inattentiveness - as again strange, as something encountered anew - though the melody remains the same.
This is no different from the practice of rendering "standard" hymns anew musically. But it only "works" if we're already acquainted with the melody and the hymn to begin with. Otherwise, we don't even realize we're hearing a "cover" - or even a hymn for that matter - and we aren't able to discern the lovely way an old piece has been made new. We simply hear an attractive piece of music, but miss out on much of that piece's depth.
Here, for starters, is a Bach rendition of the hymn for organ, as transcribed for piano by Busoni. The performer is Vladimir Horowitz.
Notice how the piece begins darkly ... at 0.24 a variation of the melody begins in a much "brighter" tone.
Like this very piece ... I'm not introducing you first to the melody in its original form, but rather dumping you in medias res into the beautiful world of variations on this piece. The "uncut," "straight" version of the hymn will be for a future posting in this series. In the meantime, you can bathe in the mystery of Bach's rendition. After we've heard a more "straight" version, you will come back to this piece with a great deal more appreciation.
This bit in the video is hilarious:
Sound engineer: "That was beautiful."
Horowitz: "I didn't compose it."
Sound engineer: "No, that's right, but you play it very well."
A very clear reminder that we're not in the narcissistic world of rock-n-roll land.