Monday, November 28, 2005

Wachet Auf

Today's Advent hymn of the day is most likely familiar to many. The melody Wachet Auf ("Sleepers Awake") was written by Philip Nicolai and later harmonized by J. S. Bach for his chorale cantata 140 (a cantata based on material from an existing chorale). The words and music were written by Nicolai in 1597.

During Bach's lifetime, Wachet was the main hymn for the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity. This service fell on November 25, 1731, and it was for this Sunday that Bach wrote his Cantata 140. The gospel reading for this Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is from Matthew 25. Nicolai's text tells the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and anticipates the coming of the Bridegroom. In his cantata, Bach used the first, second, and third verses of Nicolai's hymn in the first movement, fourth movement, and closing chorale of his cantata, respectively.

Bach later reworked the material from cantata 140 (primarily from the fourth movement) to write Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645, an organ chorale. Many of you are most likely familiar with the work either from his organ chorale or from one of the many orchestral transcriptions, which are performed frequently.

German text:

"Wachet auf," ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
"Wach auf du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde!"
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
"Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohlauf, der Bräutigam kommt,
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit zur Hochzeitsfreud;
Ihr müsset ihm entgegengehen!"

Zion hört die Wächter singen,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig;
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf.
Nun komm, du werte Kron,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn!
Wir folgen all zum Freudensaal
Und halten mit das Abendmahl.

Gloria sei dir gesungen
Mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schön.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Tore
An deiner Stadt, wir stehn im Chore
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt,
Kein Ohr hat mehr gehört
Solche Freude.
Des jauchzen wir und singen dir
Das Halleluja für und für.

English Text:

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.

Sion hears the watchmen singing,
Her heart with deep delight is spring,
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.

Lamb of God, the heav'ns adore thee,
And men and angels sing before thee,
With harp and cymbal's 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 earth hath ever caught
Such rejoicing:
We raise the song, We swell the throng,
To praise thee ages all along.


Melody and text: Philip Nicolai (1556-1608)

Harmonization: J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

Recording Sarah recommends: Cantata 140 can be found on the CD Bach: Magnificat recorded by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. You can buy the entire CD, or you can get the cantata alone from iTunes. Just 99 cents per movement!


  1. I'm down with the Deutsch...keep it up! ;)

  2. Ah, you do a great service to the musically illiterate like me :-) I'll be looking forward to further posts and I know I'll be making some purchases!

  3. I was just singing this with Jonathan today! :)