“We all follow to the hall of joy”

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Advent music by
Franz Tunder (1614–1667)

At root, an apocalypse is an uncovering. We tend to think that apocalyptic events belong in horror movies, not in romantic comedies. But the culmination of the drama in the Apocalypse of John is a wedding feast, the happy ending of all good comedies. What is revealed in Revelation’s narrative is the end of history as the Bridegroom comes for his Bride.

No Advent text conveys that happily-ever-after ending better than Philipp Nicolai’s hymn “Wake, awake for night is flying.” The title Nicolai originally gave to this three-stanza poem was “Of the voice at midnight and the wise Virgins who meet their heavenly Bridegroom.” In Nicolai’s text, the urgent emotion of being prepared for the Bridegroom’s coming is exceeded in intensity by the joy of fulfillment in his arrival. No wonder that when J. S. Bach wrote a cantata based on this hymn tune and text he included two movements which feature soprano and bass soloists — the Bride and the Bridegroom — in love duets that some might think better situated in an Italian opera than in a work composed for liturgical use.

Bach was far from alone in recognizing in Nicolai’s hymn great possibilities for musical development. Buxtehude, Praetorius, Mendelssohn, and Max Reger are some of the bigger names who exploited Wachet auf. Among lesser-known composers with a notable take on this hymn is Franz Tunder (1614-1667).

Like a number of other musicians from northern German, Tunder spent times studying in Italy, acquiring some brighter and more elaborate compositional techniques than were native to Germany. For years he was the organist at the renowned Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck. He was succeeded in this post by Dieterich Buxtehude, who was required to marry Tunder’s daughter in order to get the prestigious appointment. Thirty-five years later, Buxtehude expected his successor to marry his daughter, an offer that was refused by J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel.

But back to happy endings with a wedding feast: like Buxtehude, Franz Tunder wrote a modest composition based on Wachet auf. His setting is for soprano, three violas, and organ. It uses only the first two stanzas of Nicolai’s hymn, which include the most nuptial imagery; stanza three involves pearly gates and angels, the city guard and harps and cymbals. It’s still the wedding feast, but in the final stanza, we lose sight of the blessed Couple. By concluding with the second stanza, the eucharistic overtones of Nicolai’s hymn are more noticeable: the final words sung are now “We follow all to the hall of joy and share in the Lord’s supper (Abendmahl).”

I first heard this piece on a recording I reviewed here last year, and since then I’ve discovered other charming renditions. Below is a performance of Tunder’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by Swedish soprano Susanne Rydén, accompanied by Bell’arte Salzburg. Notice (about 2:00 into the work) how the words “steht auf” (stand up!) are sung repeatedly, on notes that resemble the intervals in a bugle call. When the music is repeated for the second stanza, those repeated notes are sung on the words “nun komm” (now come!), the great Advent invocation.