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.
Written By: David Roden
Year Of Release: 2003
CD Emerson String Quartet