Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645) – J. S. Bach
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The son of a Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai was born in Mengeringhausen in Waldeck, Germany in 1556. He graduated from the University of Wittenberg in 1579 and was called to be a Lutheran pastor in 1583. A powerful preacher and a strong pillar of Lutheranism in his country, Nicolai was held in great esteem. He is best known for his hymns and his music, especially the former. Three of these were published in his devotional work, Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens in 1599. “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” rank among the best hymns ever written in German.
The first of these, translated in our Common Praise hymnal as “’Sleepers, wake!’ A voice astounds us”, is our offertory hymn in church this Sunday. Nicolai wrote this hymn during the terrible plague of 1596-97. His residence overlooked the churchyard where there were as many as 30 funerals a day, and he wrote in gratitude to God for his own health, and as a comfort to those who suffered from the pestilence. Nicolai employs the figure of the watchman in stanza 1, an image very familiar to the residents of a walled mediaeval town. In the other stanzas the figures and images are drawn from the parable of the wise and foolish maidens and from St. John the Divine’s vision of the throne in heaven.
The tune for this hymn is also ascribed to Nicolai, although it is likely he adapted it from older material. Many composers have set the tune since then, including Felix Mendelssohn, who selected it for his oratorio St. Paul. Johann Sebastian Bach was also very fond of this tune, employing it in his Cantata 140, and making it the subject of one of his Schübler chorale preludes for organ. This latter setting is this morning’s postlude in church, with the chorale tune singing forth clearly on the trumpet stop.