J. S. Bach, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake) BWV 140

This may be the best-known of all of Bach’s cantatas. Written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity (which is rarely observed, since it requires that the date of Easter be as early as possible), the text to Wachet auf develops the eschatological themes inspired by both the Gospel and Epistle reading for that Sunday.

The Epistle for Trinity 27 is 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11, in which St. Paul urges his readers to be watchful and sober-minded, anticipating Christ’s return with the knowledge that “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.”

The Gospel reading — St. Matthew 25: 1-13 is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, with its imagery of a coming Bridegroom and the command: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”

The opening chorus to Wachet auf uses a text by Philipp Nicolai, which — in paraphrased form — is the first verse of our Advent hymn, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”

Wake up, the voice calls us
of the watchmen high up on the battlements,
wake up, you city of Jerusalem!
This hour is called midnight;
they call us with a clear voice:
where are you, wise virgins?
Get up, the bridegroom comes;
Stand up, take your lamps!
Make yourselves ready
for the wedding,
you must go to meet him!

Two of the movements in this cantata are duets between bass and soprano, representing the Bridegroom and the Bride, or Jesus and the Soul, in a musical exchange reminiscent of the Song of Songs. In the second of these duets, the two lovers sing, “Nothing shall divide our love.” Then the Bride sings, “I want to graze on heaven’s roses with you,” and the Bridegroom responds, “You will graze on heaven’s roses with me.” They conclude their song affirming: “There will be fullness of joy, there will be delight.”

The text for the entire cantata can be found here.

The Netherlands Bach Society has recorded this cantata in a performance conducted by Jos van Veldhoven, who explains Bach’s take on the theology in these texts in the video below.

Here is the complete performance of Wachet auf by the Netherlands Bach Society, with soloists Maria Keohane (soprano), Tim Mead (alto), Daniel Johannsen (tenor), and Matthew Brook (bass). This and other performances are waiting for you at allofbach.com.