Listening Log – [Pt. III Proj, 3]- Johann Sebastian Bach- Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Cantata No. 140, BWV 140


Listening Log – [Pt. III]- Johann Sebastian Bach- Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Cantata No. 140, BWV 140 In November 2019 Listened (streaming) to digital audio CD: ‘Bach: Cantatas BWV 140 and 147 /Harnoncourt'(199) on Teldec. Tölzer Knabenchor (chorus), Tölz Boys’ Choir (chorus), Alan Bergius (soprano), Kurt Equiluz (tenor), Thomas Hampson (bass), Stefan Rampf (soprano) Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt Conductor: Harnoncourt, Nikolaus

300 words on Cantata ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ BWV 140 (‘Sleepers Wake’).

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ BWV 140 (‘Sleepers Wake’) is a 31 minutes chorale cantata from 1731 by J. S.Bach, written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and first performed in Leipzig on 25th November 1731. The church chorale is a harmonisation and elaboration of the 1599 hymn ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’(‘Awake, calls the voice to us’) by Philipp Nicolai. Nicolai’s text is based on the prescribed sermon readings for that particular and rarely occurring Sunday (occurs only when Easter is early) which is from I Thessalonians 5:1-11 ‘be prepared for the Lord’ and Matthew 25: 1-13, the biblical parable of the Ten Virgins. Bach used the three verses of Nicolai’s hymn as cornerstones for his chorale forming the outer and central movements whilst the inner movements are structured like a Baroque opera in the form of ‘love duets’ with text from the Song of Songs.

His first movement is the harmonisation of the first verse, structured as a chorale fantasia. For the second he inserts a recitative and the third is a duet SB (Dialogue – Soul, Jesus) in the form of an aria. The fourth and central movement is the second verse of the original hymn in the form of a chorale prelude. The fifth movement is yet another recitative and the 6th another aria, again a duet (SB) between the soul and Jesus. The final seventh movement is comprised of the third and last verse of Nicolai’s hymn in the form of four-part chorale.  Save for the inclusion of a delicate sounding mini violin, the violino piccolo, the orchestration is typical of Baroque times consisting of horn, 2 oboes, taille (Baroque tenor oboe pitched in F), strings, basso continuo. He had three soloists STB and a four part choir.

In most movements the Soprano sings the main melody line (cantus firmus) polyphonically harmonised by the other voices whilst the instruments play independent scalic motifs in a syncopated and dotted rhythms. Sequencing is used frequently, and word painting devices are used with rising figures and high notes marking angelic and heavenly words, whilst a diminished seventh chord is frequently used outlining words such as ‘pain’. In movement three the violino piccolo mimics the flickering of oil lamps and suspensions and parallel thirds are used to represent the longing of lovers in movement six.

The cantata is a masterpiece and textbook example of how to harmonise a relatively simple melody and develop a piece of music using sequencing and occasional key modulation to provide melodic and harmonic variation sufficient to keep the listener gripped for a long time. The word painting is also very effective and the inclusion of diminished chords at pertinent moments in the text gives a weight to the piece which a lesser composer would have failed to imbue. It teases out the serious and spiritual element of the Lutheran interpretation of the Song of Songs. Although I find the Church’s interpretation of this book in the bible laboured and unnecessarily puritanical, I do think that any loves song- even a romantic one, benefits from some bittersweet sentiments in order to avoid it being sickly sweet. Bach does this to perfection.

1. Chorus

Awake, calls the voice
of the watchmen high up in the tower;
awake, you city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named;
they call to us with bright voices;

where are you, wise virgins?

2. Recitative T

He comes, He comes,
the Bridegroom comes,
O Zion’s daughters, come out,
his course runs from the heights
into your mother’s house.
The Bridegroom comes, who likes a roe
and young stag
leaps upon the hills;
to you He brings the wedding feast.
Rise up, take heart,
to embrace the bridegroom;
there, look, he comes this way

3. Aria – Duet SB (Dialogue – Soul, Jesus)

When Will You Come, My Savior?
– I come, as your helping.-
I wait with burning oil.
Now open the hall
– I open the hall –
for the heavenly meal.
Come, Jesus!
– I come, come, lovely soul!

4. Chorale T

Zion hears the watchmen sing,
her heart leaps for joy in her,
she wakes and hastily arises.
Her glorious Friend comes from heaven,
strong in mercy, powerful in truth,
her light becomes bright, her star rises.
Now come, precious crown,
Lord Jesus, the Son of God!
We all follow
the hall of joy
and hold the evening meal together

5. Recitative B

So come in to Me,
you My chosen bride!
I have to you
eternally betrothed Myself.
I want to set you upon my heart,
upon My arm as a seal,
and delight your troubled eye.
Forget, O soul, now
the fear, the pain
which you have had to suffer;
upon My left hand you will rest,
and My right hand will kiss you.

6. Aria – Duet SB (Dialogue – Soul, Jesus)

My Friend is mine,
– and I am yours, –
love will never part us.
I want with
you –
graze among heaven’s roses,
where complete pleasure and delight will be.

7. Chorale

Let Gloria sung to You
with mortal and angelic tongues,
harps and even with cymbals.
Of twelve pearls the portals are made,
in your city we are companions
of the angels high around your throne.
No eye has ever perceived,
no ear has ever heard
such joy
as our happiness
, io, io,
eternally in dulci jubilo

(“Wake up, call us the voice,” Philipp Nicolai (mov’ts. 1, 4, & 7) © Pamela Dellal)