Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme – Sunday 21st November 2010

Posted on November 21, 2010


It has been wonderful for us to have the opportunity to revisit what is arguably Bach’s most famous cantata. This year we are fortunate to be joined by visiting soloists and an orchestra, which will enable us to perform the entire work, rather than just the chorales. Based on a hymn composed to help people come to terms with the terrible loss of life after the plague swept acrossCentral Europe, the libretto is taken from one of the most popular parables of the Middle Ages. Musicologists admire the ‘140’ cantata for its masterly treatment of different musical forms – its cosmopolitan instrumental opening in the French Overture style, woven into a chorale complete with Bach’s characteristic counterpoint – but you don’t have to be a music buff to appreciate the vivid dramatisation of this timeless story.

Engraving after Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), The Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins

The cantata is based on a hymn written by Fr. Philip Nicolai in 1599. Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor who lived in Germanyat the height of the protestant reformation. He gained fame as a preacher, often having to minister to his congregations in hiding. A year after he became pastor of Unnain Westphalia, the plague killed half of the town’s population, taking the lives of 170 people in a single week. After the tragedy, Nicolai wrote a series of meditations to comfort his parishioners. These included two hymns; ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (Wake, awake, for the night is flying) and ‘Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (How bright appears the morning star). Bach developed arrangements for both – and we still sing them today (you can find them at numbers 16 and 27 of the New English Hymnal).

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ sets the Parable of the Ten Virgins to music. Given the instability of the period, it is perhaps not surprising that this was one of the most popular parables in the Middle Ages; people drawing comfort from its call for readiness in the face of uncertainty and its promise of joy at the day of judgement for those who are prepared for the coming of Christ. As a testament to its popularity, the parable is one of the most widely depicted in art, music and sculpture of the time. Taken from Matthew (25:1-13) the story tells of a group of ten women (some interpretations prefer virgins, bridesmaids or torchbearers) who are waiting for the coming of a bridegroom who has been delayed on his long journey and is expected to arrive at some time during the night. Five of the women are wise – they have brought sufficient oil for their lamps and are able to go out and meet the bridegroom. The other five are foolish and ill prepared – they scrabble around trying to find enough oil but are too late to meet him. The interpretation of the parable is both obvious and timeless.

In the Lutheran Lectionary, the parable of the Ten Virgins is set as the gospel reading for the Twenty Seventh Sunday after Trinity – which occurs infrequently and only when Easter is particularly early. (In our liturgical calendar, we no longer have a 27th Sunday after Trinity even when Easter is early, because the Sundays leading up to Advent are now ‘Third before, Second before’ and so on – hence the date of our performance of the cantata this year).

Hieronymus Francken the Younger, The Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins (c1616)

As Cantor and Director of Music at St Thomas’s Lutheran Church in Leipzig for the last two decades of his life, Bach composed music to accompany every gospel reading and feast day in the Lutheran year. He turned to Fr. Nicolai’s popular hymn as a basis for his cantata for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which was first performed on 25th November 1731. The work is divided into seven movements; the first, fourth and seventh take the three verses of Nicolai’s hymn. These are connected by ‘madrigal’ movements – independent compositions in the form of love-songs between bride and groom (Christ and the Soul) – using imagery from the parable and drawing references from other biblical texts, chiefly the Song of Solomon to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

Reflecting the drama of the parable, Bach divides the first and longest movement into twelve choral ‘scenes’. The orchestra opens with a ceremonial procession, using a dotted rhythm in the French Overture style. Throughout, the lower voices wrap around the melody of Fr. Nicolai’s hymn, which is retained by the sopranos. The first ‘scene’ sees a staggered entry, from soprano down to bass as we see the ten bridesmaids sleeping. From the outset we know that they will not be asleep for long – there is a sense of urgency as the voices run to catch up with each other in the fugato (a contrapuntal passage in the style of a fugue) that follows. The imagery of time is emphasised each time the lower voices pass on the musical baton – one handing over to another with a clock-chime progression of four notes, most recognisable in the tenor ‘Wach-et-auf-ruft’ (Wake ye maids! Hark). After the orchestral passage, we cut to the watchman in the tower on the town wall, who first glimpses the bridegroom coming – the long notes in the lower voices are his calls out into the night. Things step up a pace in the third ‘scene’; back indoors, the choir enters together with two crotchet ‘jabs’ as they try to shake the maidens awake; ‘Wach auf’ (awake) they cry. They try for a second time, before launching into another fugato. After a longer orchestral passage, we are back outside – the town clock strikes midnight and the watchman cries out again as the bridegroom draws closer. Oh where? (‘Wo, wo?’) are those maidens? The basses take over the reigns at the start of the next scene as the bridegroom draws near. Good Cheer (‘Wohl auf’) they declare! A beautiful contrapuntal ‘alleluia’ sees the maidens finally rise from their sleep and in the final scenes they busy themselves preparing a feast for the bridegroom, before the wise maidens leave to meet him.

The second movement is a tenor recitative, briefly recapping the story so far, giving the wise maidens time to leave the town and meet the bridegroom. This leads on to the first of the duets between Bass and Soprano (Christ and the Soul), which continue through to the sixth movement and are only separated by the tenor chorale in the fourth, which takes us back to the watchmen who sing the middle verse of the hymn as they go about their work on the city walls, unaware of what is happening outside. This is followed by the emotional climax of the cantata – the bass recitative in the fifth movement, where Christ speaks to us in the form of an eternal marriage vow; “Forget, beloved, every care – away with pain and grief and sadness, for better or for worse, to share our lives in love and joy and gladness.”  The piece concludes with a final Gloria – a slower harmonisation of the third and final verse of the original hymn, bringing this emotional roller-coaster to a dignified close.