Bach was only 19 in 1704, working at his first church gig (or second, depending on how you count what amounted to lackey toil at Weimar) when a rare opportunity arose.
I’m neither clergyman nor Lutheran, but my understanding of the Lutheran Church Year – the calendar by which Bach effectively lived his work life – is that it begins with Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas. The calendar’s other major anchor point is Easter, if I can call a floating date an anchor. Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox, and that date determines all the dates from Epiphany on.
To account for this movable feast, the Lutheran calendar has a variable number of Sundays after Trinity. Usually it’s between 23 and 26. Only rarely – when Easter falls between the 22nd and 26th of March – does the Lutheran calendar have a 27th Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s rare opportunity to compose a work for Trinity 27 came in 1704. And for that special day, Bach composed – nothing special.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wasn’t in his contract! Bach’s job was playing organ at Arnstadt’s New Church. Yes, he was one of a long line of Bachs who had done that job (and a well paid one it was, despite the church’s feeble budget). But nothing formally or legally compelled him to compose a special large-scale work for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in 1704.
Special large-scale works weren’t part of his job; yet not even a year hence, Bach would feel the sting of rebuke when the church’s elders berated him for not composing enough of them. (Of course, that might have been just piling-on, while they were about chastising him for getting into an altercation with one of the church’s musicians. Remember, Bach was then what we would consider college age.)
Did Bach carry a vivid memory of this verbal caning for over a quarter-century? Is it possible that he simply regretted not having written anything for Trinity 27 in 1704? Could one or both of these be the reason, or reasons, that the cantata he composed at Leipzig in 1731 is such a masterpiece?
Some historians and commentators think Bach put the extra time and effort into Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme simply because Trinity 27 was such a rare event. Maybe. But Bach was an eminently practical musician. Many of his Leipzig cantatas show clear evidence of his compositional short-cuts. Wachet Auf, though, is as finely wrought as anything he could have expected to use year after year, despite the fact that he had only one other chance to use it in his 16 years in Leipzig.
Bach did borrow his chorale melody and part of his text – an entirely normal practice. He got them from Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. In 1599, when he composed it, Nicolai had just survived a plague epidemic. If that left him feeling especially inspired, that would certainly be understandable!
Nicolai’s work accounts for 3 movements of this symmetrically-structured cantata, including the most famous, the central one. Who wrote the text for the other movements? We don’t know. Picander is one possibility; Bach mined his words for other works. Some scholars even suggest that Bach himself may have been the poet.
Nicolai’s text is the Biblical parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. There’s a visual trick behind this text that Bach, numerologist that he was, surely would have appreciated. Look at the shape of the lines when you center them (first verse only shown):
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde
Sie rufen und mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!
It’s unmistakably the chalice, the symbol of the Eucharist – and in fact in early editions Nicolai’s hymn was printed this very way.
But Nicolai and Bach are not so pious that they miss the chance to connect at a worldly, even earthy, level with their readers and listeners.
For one thing, Nicolai evokes the medieval song form called Aube (morning song) in France and Wächterlied (watchman’s song) in Germany. These are thoroughly secular love poems! The watchman’s role in these songs is to alert the (illicit) lovers to the impending dawn, when they must part to avoid discovery and preserve their reputations – or their lives. In Wachet auf, the watchman’s job is to alert the negligent bridesmaids (the Church) to the approach of the bridegroom (Christ).
But that’s not all. Picander’s (or Bach’s) verses include an ardent love duet (movement 6), and introduce vivid images from the Bible’s fevered, almost erotic Song of Songs.
Here we find "My beloved is like a roe or a young hart" (2:9); Bach says, "The bridegroom comes, like a buck and a young stag." "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." (2:6); Bach’s bridegroom tells his bride, "At my left hand you shall rest, and my right hand shall embrace you." The Song of Songs poet writes, "My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." (2:16) Bach says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his … you shall revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses." We even find watchmen in the Song of Songs: "The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" (3:3)
Even though Bach programmed this cantata no more than twice in his lifetime, today it’s one of his best known and most frequently performed. In fact its central chorale is one of his most oft-played works of any type, with arrangements available for nearly every imaginable instrument, from clarinet to ukulele. You may know that chorale better by its English name: Sleepers, Awake.
Bach: Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S140
Donna Brown, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Michael Volle, bass
|Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme||Wake up, the voice is calling us|
|Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,||Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;|
|Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!||Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!|
|Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde;||The hour is midnight;|
|Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:||They call to us with ringing voices:|
|Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?||Where are you wise virgins?|
|Wohl auf, der Bräutigam kömmt;||Come on, the bridegroom comes;|
|Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!||Rise up and take your lamps!|
|Macht euch bereit||Make yourselves ready|
|Zu der Hochzeit,||For the wedding,|
|Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!||You must go to meet him!|
|Movement 2 (recitative)|
|Er kommt, er kommt,||He comes, he comes,|
|Der Bräutgam kommt!||The bridegroom comes!|
|Ihr Töchter Zions, kommt heraus,||Come forth, you daughters of Zion,|
|Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe||He rushes forth from the heavens|
|In euer Mutter Haus.||To your mother’s house.|
|Der Bräutgam kommt, der einem Rehe||The bridegroom comes, like a buck|
|Und jungen Hirsche gleich||and a young stag,|
|Auf denen Hügeln springt||Leaping on the hills|
|Und euch das Mahl der Hochzeit bringt.||And takes you to the wedding feast.|
|Wacht auf, ermuntert euch!||Wake up, bestir yourselves!|
|Den Bräutgam zu empfangen!||To receive the bridegroom!|
|Dort, sehet, kommt er hergegangen.||There, look, he comes to meet you.|
|Movement 3 (aria: duet)|
|Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil?||When are you coming, my salvation?|
|(Ich komme, dein Teil.)||(I am coming, your share.)|
|Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.||I am waiting with burning oil.|
|(Zum himmlischen Mahl.)||(For the heavenly feast.)|
|Komm, Jesu!||Come, Jesus!|
|(Komm, liebliche Seele!)||(Come, lovely soul!)|
|Movement 4 (tenor solo or chorus)|
|Zion hört die Wächter singen,||Zion hears the watchmen singing,|
|Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen,||Her heart springs for joy,|
|Sie wachet und steht eilend auf.||She wakes and hurries to rise.|
|Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig,||Her beloved comes from heaven with glory,|
|Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig,||Strong with grace, mighty with truth,|
|Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf.||Her light grows bright, her star rises.|
|Nun komm, du werte Kron,||Now come, you precious crown,|
|Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn!||Lord Jesus, God’s Son!|
|Wir folgen all||We all follow|
|Zum Freudensaal||To the hall of joy|
|Und halten mit das Abendmahl.||And take part in the communion.|
|Movement 5 (recitative)|
|So geh herein zu mir,||So, come in to me,|
|Du mir erwählte Braut!||You, my chosen bride!|
|Ich habe mich mit dir||I have entrusted myself|
|Von Ewigkeit vertraut.||To you eternally.|
|Dich will ich auf mein Herz,||I want to set you on my heart|
|Auf meinen Arm gleich wie ein Siegel setzen||and on my arm, just like a seal,|
|Und dein betrübtes Aug ergötzen.||And bring pleasure to your troubled eye.|
|Vergiß, o Seele, nun||Forget now, oh spirit,|
|Die Angst, den Schmerz,||The fear, the pain,|
|Den du erdulden müssen;||Which you have had to endure;|
|Auf meiner Linken sollst du ruhn,||At my left hand you shall rest,|
|Und meine Rechte soll dich küssen.||And my right shall embrace [kiss] you.|
|Movement 6 (aria: duet)|
|Mein Freund ist mein,||My beloved is mine,|
|Und ich bin sein.||And I am his.|
|Die Liebe soll nichts scheiden.||Nothing shall separate our love.|
|in Himmels Rosen weiden,||Revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses,|
|Da Freude die Fülle, da Wonne wird sein.||There we shall find satiety and bliss. 1|
|Movement 7 (chorus)|
|Gloria sei dir gesungen||Gloria be sung to you|
|Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen,||With human and angel voices,|
|Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon.||With harps and cymbals to boot.|
|Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten,||The gates are made of twelve pearls;|
|An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten||In your city we are consorts|
|Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron.||Of heavenly angels round your throne.|
|Kein Aug hat je gespürt,||No eye has ever seen,|
|Kein Ohr hat je gehört||No ear has ever heard|
|Solche Freude.||Such joy.|
|Des sind wir froh,||Thus we are glad,|
|Io, io!||Io, Io!|
|Ewig in dulci jubilo.||Eternally in sweet rejoicing.2|
1Here the poet is indulging in poetic wordplay, with multiple shades of meaning. Weide (n): pasture; weiden (v): graze, pasture, turn out to pasture; revel in something. Füllen (n): foal, colt, or filly; füllen (v): stuff, fill to satiety. A Füllhorn is a horn of plenty.
2 Io is pronounced “ee-yo.” It’s an expression of religious rejoicing from classical Latin. You can also find it in the second verse of the Christmas song Ding Dong Merrily on High: "E’en so here below, below / let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / by priest and people sungen."
Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA