Wake, awake, for night is flying

Hymn #3
Text: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)
Music: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)

Both text and tune are the work of Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran pastor whose parish in Westphalia witnessed the death of over 1,300 members during an epidemic which raged between July 1597 and January 1598. During those dreadful months, Nicolai found himself burying up to thirty of his parishioners every day. To maintain some sense of hope, Nicolai re-read Augustine’s City of God.

The following year he published the text and tune to this hymn as an appendix to a book of meditations called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebes (Joyful Reflection of Eternal Life). In that book’s preface, Nicolai wrote:

There seemed to me nothing more sweet, delightful and agreeable than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of eternal life. . . . Day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God, wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; I gave to my manuscript the name and title Mirror of Joys, to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom he should also visit with the pestilence. . . .

The other hymn that accompanied Nicolai’s meditations was Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern, which we know as “How bright appears the Morning Star.” Like that hymn, “Wake, awake” relies on the eschatological imagery of Christ as the heavenly bridegroom, found in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (St. Matthew 25:1-13). The hymn was originally entitled “Of the voice at midnight and the wise Virgins who meet their heavenly Bridegroom.” The reference in the hymn to the watchman is from Isaiah 52:8: “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.” The reference in stanza 3 to gates of pearl is taken from Revelation 21:21, where St. John describes the heavenly city: “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.”

There have been numerous translations of this hymn from German into English. The one in our Hymnal (with slight alterations) is by the prolific translator Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878).

1. “Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying; 
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling, 
his chariot wheels are nearer rolling, 
he comes; prepare ye virgins wise. 
Rise up, with willing feet 
go forth, the Bridegroom meet! 
Bear through the night your well-trimmed light, 
speed forth to join the marriage rite.”

2. Sion hears the watchmen singing,
her heart with deep delight springing. 
She wakes, she rises from her gloom. 
Forth her Bridegroom comes, all glorious 
in grace arrayed, by truth victorious; 
her star is ris’n, her light is come! 
All hail, Incarnate Lord, 
Our crown, and our reward! 
We haste along, in pomp of song, 
and gladsome join the marriage throng. 

3. Lamb of God, the heav’ns adore thee, 
and men and angels sing before thee, 
with harp and cymbals’ clearest tone. 
By the pearly gates in wonder 
we stand, and swell the voice of thunder 
that echoes round thy dazzling throne. 
No vision ever brought, 
no ear hath ever caught 
such rejoicing: 
We raise the song, we swell the throng, 
to praise thee ages all along.

Another stirring translation of Nicolai’s poem was produced by Francis Crawford Burkitt (1864-1935), a distinguished biblical and patristic scholar who was Norrisian Professor of Divinity at Cambridge from 1905 to 1935. This is the translation that is used in the New English Hymnal: 

1. Wake, O wake! with tidings thrilling
the watchmen all the air are filling,
arise, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
“The hour has come!” we hear them saying.
Where are ye all, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight,
raise high your torches bright!
The wedding song swells loud and strong:
go forth and join the festal throng.

2. Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
her heart leaps up with joy undoubting,
she stands and waits with eager eyes;
see her Friend from heaven descending,
adorned with truth and grace unending!
Her light burns clear, her star doth rise.
Now come, thou precious Crown,
Lord Jesu, God’s own Son!
Let us prepare to follow there,
where in thy supper we may share.

3. Every soul in thee rejoices;
from men and from angelic voices
be glory giv’n to thee alone!
Now the gates of pearl receive us,
thy presence never more shall leave us,
we stand with angels round thy throne.
Earth cannot give below
the bliss thou dost bestow.
Grant us to raise, to length of days,
the triumph-chorus of thy praise.

In 2020, our choir recorded this hymn as part of our “Choir in Quarantine” series.


Nicolai’s tune is almost universally known as WACHET AUF. In our Hymnal it has been rechristened with the English name, SLEEPERS, WAKE. This may be due to the tendency in the English-speaking world in the 1930s and 40s to avoid positive references to all things German, a reluctance engendered by the hostility occasioned by two world wars. In Great Britain following World War I, “German Shepherds” became “Alsatians,” a change that was only reversed in 1977. For several decades in the English-speaking world, tunes as well as dogs were sometimes given non-German names.

WACHET AUF has been set by many composers, despite (or perhaps because of?) its unique metrical structure (898.898.664.448). J. S. Bach’s working with this tune is the most famous; his cantata based on Wachet Auf (BWV 140) provides both the harmonization that is used in most hymnals for congregational singing and the more elaborated and extended treatment of the melody supported by playful instrumental passages.

In the final movement of Cantata #140, Bach sets the final stanza of Nicholai’s hymn to a straightforward four-part harmony, typical of his many chorale movements. It should be noted that this tune (like many sixteenth-century chorales) was originally sung with more rhythmic variation.

Here is the text sung in that chorale:

Gloria sei dir gesungen
May gloria be sung to you
Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen,
with the tongues of men and angels,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon.
with harps and with cymbals.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten,
The gates are made of twelve pearls,
An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten
in your city we are companions
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron.
of the angels on high around your throne.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt,
No eye has ever perceived,
Kein Ohr hat je gehört
no ear has ever heard
Solche Freude.
such joy.
Des sind wir froh,
Therefore we are joyful,
Io, io!
hurray, hurray!
Ewig in dulci jubilo.
for ever in sweet rejoicing.

Here is that chorale performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, conducted by Ton Koopman.

In the fourth and middle movement of the arch-like structure of Bach’s Wachet Auf, the chorale melody is sung by a tenor (or an entire tenor section), with violins and violas providing a wedding processional underlay. Next to the four-part chorale sung by congregations, this arrangement is probably the most famous setting for this tune. The text sung in that aria is the second stanza of Nicholai’s poem, which begins “Zion hears the watchmen sing.” Zion hört die Wächter singen is sung here by tenor Bernhard Berchtold, accompanied by the Orchestra of the J. S. Bach Foundation, conducted by Rudolf Lutz.

Of course, we’ve all heard that “song” played by all sorts of instruments. Here the aria is played by mandolin, cello (impersonating the tenor part), and bass by Chris Thile (who learned to read music so he could play Bach), Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.

Bach himself set the precedent for converting the aria from Wachet Auf into a work for instruments when he arranged it for organ as one (the most famous) of his many chorale preludes. Here organist Wolfgang Zerer explains what Bach did.

And here is the entire work played by Wolfgang Zerer as part of the All of Bach project.

In considering the many confident and joyous settings of this melody — either as a hymn or as the basis for an instrumental work — it is remarkable to remember its origins. Reading City of God (and the Bible) while surrounded by disease and death provided Philipp Nicolai with imagery for his poem, but somehow, the experience also gave birth to a tune — sometimes called the “king of chorales” — that is unrivaled in its sense of ultimate victory.