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Exercise 3.5: Bach’s Cantata No. 140

The task for this exercise is to listen to the whole Cantata No. 140 by Johann Sebasian Bach, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (‘Awake, calls the voice to us’), known as Sleepers Wake, first without and then with the score. The aim is to research the cantata to discover how it is structured and the way the chorale melody and words inform the composition, as well as to look at the full text. Although the brief mentions writing 300 words about the newly acquired knowledge on the piece and its impact, my research, as usual, ended being quite detailed. As such, this post is almost 1.500 words long, altogether with a short reflective conclusion.

Firstly, cantata originated in Italy as a lyrical counterpart to the dramatic and epic sister-genres of opera and oratorio. (Durr, 2005: 3) Originally, the term denoted a vocal composition with accompaniment, contrasting the purely instrumental genre of sonata. (Britannica, 2017) The typical Italian form was usually written for solo voice with continuo and later, orchestral accompaniment, consisted of succession of contrasting sections or movements, normally two arias, each of which is preceded by a recitative. (Grove, 2001) Spreading to the neighboring countries, it reached a high point in the Protestant Germany, where it was transformed from being a predominantly secular genre into a major feature of scared Lutheran music. While influenced by the Italian models, the development of the German cantata was largely independent, drawing from the local tradition and its use of chorus, and the important role of chorale – the German Protestant congregational hymns that often served as cantus firmus for new compositions. (Apel, 1969: ) Contrasting the more homogenic Italian solo cantata, the heterogeneous German choral form combined the biblical prose, chorale lines, aria stanzas, madrigalian poetry, recitative and dialogue elements, as well as concertato and contrapuntal styles, resulting in a varied multi-sectional structure. (Krummaher, 2001)

Bach’s (Fig. 1) cantatas, centered around the chorale texts and music, represent the culmination of the German choral cantata genre with several different types. Wachet auf, as a part of Leipzig chorale cantatas, belongs to the group which retains the first and last strophes of the chorale, with others replaced by aria and recitatives.

Fig. 1. A portrait of J. S. Bach (Haussmann, 1746)

It is based on the chorale of the same name, written by a Lutheran pastor Phillip Nikolai (Fig. 2) during a plague:

“Once upon a time, in the late 16th century, a terrible plague spread through parts of Europe, including a town in Germany called Unna. Approximately 1300 residents of Unna died during this outbreak. Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) was the pastor of a church in this town. He, too, became ill, and figured he was also going to die. While he was lying around anticipating his death, he recorded his mediations in a journal. When to his surprise he recovered from his illness, he wrote two hymns (“Wachet auf” and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”) and attached them to the journal he kept during the plague.” (The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, n.d.)

Fig. 2. Commemorative engraving of Phillip Nikolai (Anon, 17th Century)

Within the seven-movement structure of the cantata, Nicolai’s chorale is employed in three movements – the first, fourth and the final, seventh. The hymn is based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), who, having been chosen to participate in a wedding procession, await the bridegroom’s arrival with burning lamps during the night. While the five of them that were ‘wise’ in having brought the extra oil were rewarded, the other five who were ‘foolish’ in having their torches gone out and leaving to get some more oil were excluded from the ceremony. The story carries an eschatological theme of preparedness for the Day of Judgement, which is explained in Bach’s annotated bible as an allegory, with wise virgins symbolising burning faith and vigilance, and the arrival of the bridegroom standing for the return of Christ. (Netherlands Bach Society, 2019)

The first movement uses the text of the first strophe without any alteration:

Awake, calls the voice to us
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?
Indeed, the Bridegroom comes;
rise up and take your lamps,
Make yourselves ready
for the wedding,
you must go to meet Him.
(Dellal, n.d.)

Musically, the movement is a chorale fantasia, which is the usual opening of Bach’s chorale cantatas. Chorale fantasia is an elaborate choral movement based on a chorale melody, which Bach typically situates as cantus firmus in the soprano voice. The usual form is either a chorale motet or a ritornello concerto (Marshall, 2001), the latter being the case of Wachet auf. As McClary () points out, framed as an Italian concerto, Nikolai’s chorale provides tonal motion and cadential points for the orchestral ritornello, which opens, punctuates and concludes the movement. Interestingly, the chorale fantasia in Wachet Auf also showcases stylistic references to the genre of French overture, especially in its use of dotted rhythms, developed for the ceremonial entrance of the Sun King (Louis XIV) to his entertainments. () Interestingly, the triple meter and Eb major that contains three flats seems to reference the holy Trinity, announcing the entrance of Christ as the Trinitarian King. () In terms of the chorus, the chorale in the soprano, doubled by horn, invites the people of Jerusalem to awake and prepare to receive the bridegroom (Christ) in steady whole notes of cantus firmus, while the lower voices contrapuntally interact, as if representing the people excited by the call and spreading the news.

The second movement is a secco recitative. Accompanied by continuo, the tenor takes the role of Evangelist calling the daughters of Zion to prepare for the wedding feast, singing with a free rhythm dictated by the accents of the words (Britannica, 2015) supplied by an unknown author, like in the other non-chorale based movements:

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 like 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.
(Dellal, n.d.)

The third movement draws from the love poetry of Song of Songs, being a duet aria between the soprano, portraying the soul as the bride, and bass, portraying Jesus as the bridegroom. The flowing violin-piccolo obbligato and continuo escort their seemingly endless expressive melodies:

When will You come, my Savior?
  – I come, as Your portion. –
I wait with burning oil.
Now open the hall
  – I open the hall –
for the heavenly meal.
Come, Jesus!
  – I come, come, lovely soul!
(Dellal, n.d.)

The chorale returns in the fourth movement, with its second strophe sang by the tenor. Like in the secco recitative, it represents the Evangelist that describes Zion’s awakening, while the obbligato violins and violas play a differing ritornello in unison that produces a rich timbra. The disparity between the chorale melody and the obbligato ritornello provides a musical contrast that depicts the seemingly unrelated earthly and spiritual realms, and yet by still complementing one another, they symbolize the unifying love of the Lord:

Zion hears the watchmen sing,
her heart leaps for joy within her,
she wakens 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
to the hall of joy
and hold the evening meal together.
(Dellal, n.d.)

Having arranged it for organ (BWV 645), the movement was probably one of Bach’s own favorites, especially since it is the only cantata movement he published, with all the rest of the Leipzig cantas being left in hadwritten score. ()

The fifth movement is a stromentato recitative for bass with orchestral accompaniment (Brittanica, 2015), in which Chirst calls for his bride, the soul. There is some text painting in the section that calls for the forgetting of sufferings, which contains harmonic twists, but the vocal line and the sustained string chords provide a reassuring sentiment:

So come in to Me,
you My chosen bride!
I have to you
eternally betrothed Myself.
I will 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 shall rest,
and My right hand shall kiss you.
(Dellal, n.d.)

The dialogue format is revisited in the panultimate movement, where once again soprano, denoting soul as the bride, and bass, depicting Christ as the as groom, converse in a duet. Joined by the joyous obligatto oboe, their highly anticipated union is structured as a ternary da capo aria:

My Friend is mine,
  – and I am yours, –
love will never part us.
I will with You
  – you will with Me –
graze among heaven’s roses,
where complete pleasure and delight will be.
(Dellal, n.d.)

The final movement closes the cantata with a simple homophonic setting of the chorale, as is usual for Bach, so that the congregation can join in the singing. While the soprano and high instruments of the orchestra play the melody, other voices and instruments fill in the harmonies, with the cantata ending on a victorious note:

Let Gloria be sung to You
with mortal and angelic tongues,
with 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!
(Dellal, n.d.)

Before I conclude this post, it is worth mentioning that Wachet auf was composed for the 27th Sunday after trinity. As explains, “there can be only 27 Sundays after Trinity in years when Easter falls early. As a result, this now famous cantata was, in fact, rarely heard in the years after it was written.” Despite this, the work reached the modern times as Bach’s most mature and popular sacred cantatas, being lauded for its musical treatment of the subject-matter. This shows how the value of a musical work can transcend its functional origins. All in all, I learned a lot about the genre of cantata and how it developed through history, from its Italian genesis to the stages of German fine-tuning. Furthermore, I also gained knowledge about other musical forms, including the secco and stromentato recitatives, da capo aria, French overture and Italian conceto, which made me admire Bach as an eclectic composer who had inquired into a range of musical influences. Similarly, reading and writing about the background information surrounding the piece, such as Nikolai’s composition of the chorale after his miraculous recovery from the illness, made me even more appreciative of the musical content. Generally, following this in-depth research, Bach’s Cantata No. 140 will hold a unique place among the compositions I regard with esteem, with important lessons on how to musically depict and honor a chosen theme with invention, while drawing on a rich, pre-existing tradition. 

List of illustrations:


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