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Wachet Auf (Sleepers Wake)

posted Dec 3, 2017, 11:18 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Dec 3, 2017, 11:18 AM ]
Today’s Gospel from Matthew 25 is the story of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom. This Scripture reading is the basis of John Sebastian Bach’s popular Cantata No. 140, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Wake).

A cantata is a vocal composition usually with soloists, choir and orchestra, typically in several movements. While Bach was working at St. Thomas in Leipzig, he started a project of composing one cantata for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year. This one completed his second annual cycle. And although it was only performed once at St. Thomas, in 1731, it was one of the first to be published and was one of the few to be performed regularly in the years after his death.

In essence, Bach’s cantatas are miniature theology lessons: the scripture of the day is presented, and he then offers his own commentary through arias and duets, all summarized in a final chorale. In this one, the opening chorus tells the story of ten women who retire for the evening—five with oil in their lamps, and five without. In the duet with violin obbligato, the soprano represents the soul, while the baritone is the voice of Christ. The fourth movement features segments of the earlier chorale cast against a melody heard in the strings. Then a recitative for baritone picture the unity of Christ, the bridegroom, with his “chosen bride” leads to another love duet for the soul (soprano) and Christ (baritone), but this time with oboe accompaniment. It closes with the entire choir singing the third verse of the chorale, but this time the high pitch of the melody is doubled by a violino piccolo an octave higher, representing the bliss of the “heavenly Jerusalem.”