Chapter 28 BWV 70 Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!

Watch and pray-----pray and watch!

Chorus--recit (bass)--aria (alto)--recit (tenor)--aria (sop)--recit (tenor)--chorale.

Aria (tenor)--recit/chorale (bass)--aria (bass)--chorale.

The twenty-seventh cantata of the cycle for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the only cantata to survive for this day which, depending on the disposition of the calendar, ended the traditional church year. It is an interesting work with a number of characteristics which may be explained by its place in the schedule.

Bach has returned to his practice of reforming and representing Weimar cantatas, the original shorter version of this having been composed in 1716 (Dürr pp 84 and 645). Whilst it may initially seem odd for Bach not to have composed a new work for this important event, it must be remembered that his mind was probably very fully occupied with the important Christmas celebrations, his first in Leipzig. He did, however, return to the expanded two-part structure designed to straddle the sermon, thus giving it a greater significance within the service. He also expanded the cantata into eleven movements, something of an unexpected change after the shorter works that had become the norm over preceding weeks.

But he did not significantly increase his instrumental resources, again perhaps, with the Christmas/New Year events in mind; one trumpet and a single oboe join the usual complement of strings and continuo. Nevertheless, the impact of that solitary trumpet is compelling in five of the eleven movements, the opening chorus, two recitatives and two chorales.

This is, therefore, a work which gives mixed messages as to the significance that Bach may have attached to it.



One aspect of this cantata which could hardly escape the attention of the congregation is its festive energy. The opening chorus bursts upon us with an immediate rhythmic surge that never really abates. The instrumental introduction, which cannot be called a ‘ritornello’ since, despite providing much of the musical material, it neither forms episodes nor returns at the end, commences with a striking trumpet fanfare figure. It develops into a stream of violin semi-quavers (possibly played by a solo instrument) nudged along by an interlocking three-note trumpet and oboe motive.
Trumpet and oboe above violin.

The choir, once it enters, never hands the reigns back to the orchestra although blocks of the introduction can clearly be heard supporting it throughout. In fact, the balanced integration of instruments and voices is absolute.

As, indeed, is that of word and music. The architecture of the movement owes nothing to conventional structures of the period, following only the sense and direction of the text e.g. watch----pray----prepare----always----until the glorious Lord ends this world. The command watch----watchet----is introduced on rising scales on the choir’s entry, immediately balanced by the sustained notes and chords instructing us to pray (bars 20-22). This process is repeated, following which we are warned to prepare through a series of rhetorical injunctions accompanied only by the continuo (from bar 44). The mention of the Lord of Glory (from bar 49) heralds the return of the fanfare figuration from the introduction (from bar 50) leading to a brief sense of ‘falling away’ as allusion is made to the end of the world (bars 59-62.)

An immediate recapitulation of the injunction to watch and pray, allied to a short reprise of the initial choral musical material brings the movement to a close. The fact that Bach was clearly capable of writing music of this quality and energy with such scrupulous attention to details of text, imagery and meaning whilst barely into his thirties boded well for a composer whose ambition it was to develop a complete canon of ‘well regulated’ ecclesiastical music.

Bass recitative.

The recitatives were, Dürr tells us (p 645), added by Bach at Leipzig but clearly with an eye to the natural flamboyance of his earlier years. That for bass is supported by strings, trumpet and continuo and takes the form of a mini-sermon in two sections, making a clear distinction between sinner and penitent. The first delivers the warning----tremble you sinners, a day approaches from which you cannot hide. The second offers the olive branch of redemption----children chosen of God, you will be called and need not despair. The orchestration underlines each declamation appropriately, the first with ominous, repeated notes in all parts, the second (from bar 8) with less aggressive stroking quavers. The joy to be gained from His summons is imparted by the long melisma on Freude and the introduction of triplets on voice and strings.

The menacing repeated notes return briefly, presumably to accentuate the Lord’s power and exalted presence and the trembling of the terrified sinners. The final phrase, although it exhorts us not to despair, does not, however, sound entirely hopeful.

Alto aria.

The alto aria is essentially contemplative although the low obbligato line imparts a degree of unrest. According to Dürr (p 646) it was played originally on the organ and in a later performance by the cello to which it is obviously well suited in both timbre and tessitura. The ritornello melody is asymmetrically phrased and has a sense of striving upwards, both elements which, when taken with the concentration throughout on minor modes, confirm the sense of personal unease that pervades the movement.

It asks-----when might we leave and flee Sodom before the flames consume us?----. It concludes with a dire warning----believe! This is the final hour!

The first section puts strong emphasis on the key question, when may we leave, a virtuosic melisma depicting the action of fleeing from Sodom (bars 34-5).

A shortened version of the ritornello theme takes us to the call to awake from complacency and face the finality of our situation (bars 43-58). The warnings of the final hour are protracted as if depicting the drawing out of terminal breaths (bars 52-58). The entire text is then re-set leading to the reprise of the ritornello.

The architecture of the aria is, then, like that of the opening chorus, less dependent upon traditional music forms than upon the shape of the text. Imposed upon a ritornello pattern is a tripartite vocal structure which asks a question, delivers stern warnings, and then combines them. But the principal impression one retains is the underlying sense of unease and personal discomfiture.

Tenor recitative.

Of the four recitatives two are secco and both are for tenor. The theme of the first is the spirit captive within the earthly body and vulnerable to the snares of the world. It contains the oft quoted line ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ and the final phrase portrays the sense of ongoing despair that recognition of our human condition elicits.

Soprano aria.

The visceral energy of the opening chorus returns in the fifth movement, an aria for soprano, strings and continuo. The obbligato line is played at times by the complete contingent of upper strings, at others by a solo violin. Although the verse implies a traditional three-part musical structure Bach avoids anything so obvious. He begins and ends with a gesture of defiance----let those who wish to scorn us. In a sense, and although the mocking voices are strongly suggested by the sinewy rhythms of the ritornello theme, the central thesis lies elsewhere----It will happen that we see Jesus in the clouds----indeed, heaven and earth may perish but His word remains immutable. The sweeping violin scales, sometimes rising sometimes falling, may very well suggest the figure of Jesus amongst the clouds or, indeed the acts of defiance against those who deride us.

But the main message is that of the eternal assurance of His word; the three sustained notes in the high, middle and bottom of the soprano’s registers make this abundantly clear (bars 24, 30 and 32).

Tenor recitative and chorale.

Minor modes have dominated every movement with the exception of the opening chorus. The second secco recitative returns us to a major key, that of the chorale which will close part 1. The text is now less hostile and more optimistic, reminding us that even in our condition of sin we should recall that God thinks to shield His servants from evil and guides them towards the holy Eden. This is confirmed by the peaceful chorale----rejoice and leave behind privation and suffering, for Christ beckons you from this vale of tears----His glory you shall behold as you delight with angels in eternal exultation. The stolid four-square hymn tune is very simply harmonised but with one final point of inspired musical ingenuity. The first six phrases are symmetrical and predictable four-bar phrases. The final two are each extended to five bars. Since they express the everlasting bliss of celebrating with angels, the elongated phrases convey an entirely appropriate sense of ‘ongoing-ness’, an extremely apt way to end the first part of the cantata.


Two arias, an astonishingly inventive recitative and a second chorale complete this work. Whilst the crux of the theme centres around the positive notion of an everlasting life of bliss in the arms of Jesus, we are not permitted to lose complete sight of the terrors, dangers and consequences of our sinning. Thus the arias and the chorale, all in major modes, contrast with the awe-inspiring alarm induced by the bass recitative. Let us, as is our usual practice, approach them in sequence.

Tenor aria,

The tenor aria is scored for strings and continuo, oboe doubling first violins. The extended ritornello theme might easily mislead the listener  into thinking that Bach was returning to an earlier practice of beginning part 2 with a sinfonia. This is a joyously uplifting melody, the aspirational ‘head motive’ of which dissolves into a stream of melodic semiquavers.

As is often the case with Bach’s long ritornello themes this is a complete binary form movement in itself, moving to the dominant key and passing though Am on the way back to G. The sinfonia impression is somewhat reinforced when we look at the overall structure of the movement; the instrumental ritornello, when repeated at the end, takes up exactly half of the entire aria!

The text encourages the righteous to raise their heads (head motive) and be cheerful, for they shall blossom in Eden and forever serve God. A mere one and a half bars of ritornello separate the two vocal sections and the reiterated enjoinders to rejoice, set amidst the weavings of the string melody make this a memorably jolly little movement. It echoes the positivity of the opening chorus but it lacks its gravitas.

Bass recitative/chorale.

Just as things appear to be going our way, dark clouds gather once more. Constant reminders of the cataclysmic consequences of personal and global ruin are very much a part of the tradition and practice of eighteenth century Lutheranism, some advocates of which seemed to have little faith in the ability of their devotees to carry a thought for any length of time. Consequently what might have been an optimistic vision of a blissful afterlife is interrupted yet again with warning of dire consequences. The message may be predictable and repetitive; Bach’s music is neither.

In fact he presents us with a movement of exceptional originality. The bass is supported by the full string contingent and a solo trumpet, all combining to produce a raging tempest of monstrous images which, it appears, is what we need to bring us to our senses----the destruction of the world, the trumpet’s sound, the last moment of life, the judge’s verdict and the gaping jaws of Hell itself----all these images unite to awaken the children of sin so that they may accept Christ’s passion and mercy and end their lives with joyous confidence.

It becomes clear that this movement encapsulates the turning point of the cantata which explains the significance Bach attributed to it. Above the repeated, threatening continuo notes, the upper strings rage in rapid scale figurations suggestive of mayhem and horror but as the movement progresses they take on a more conciliatory, stroking character. The warnings have been noted and allegiance is now offered. The two final melismas on Freuden and Lauf reveal the newly acquired commitment to embrace death, not only with optimism but even with elation----I end my life joyously.

It is significant that the chorale melody is intoned above the mayhem by the trumpet; indeed trumpets are specically referred to in the text. It is a peaceful, reassuring melody that doubtless offers a degree of comfort and solace. Nevertheless, echoes of the last trumpet and the day of judgement must also have been evoked through that choice of instrument.

Bass aria.

It seems likely that Bach intended the recitative to merge smoothly into the final aria. Both are for the bass voice and the former ends on a chord of C, the key of the latter. The bass in initially supported only by the continuo in an unadorned and unpretentious hymn of commitment and devotion----blessed day of revival, lead me to Your mansions. All now seems at peace, the pathway ahead is clear. But there is one final moment of blatant drama----let the world and heaven crack and blast asunder! The bass’s declamatory phrases of refutation are matched only by the sawing strings and trumpet urgings and the hair-raising melisma on Trümmern----the wreckage of the very universe. Nevertheless we are assured that even if all this were to occur, I would be joyful with Jesus. Perhaps all those repeated warnings were necessary after all! This is the ultimate piece of nose-thumbing; I have seen the light and I shall be saved; but all and everyone else, apparently, can go to hell!

   Peaceful opening phrase followed by the tumult (from bar 25).

The violence abates on an unfinished dominant seventh chord and the bass returns to a reprise of the first section, again with the minimal continuo support. The musical material is not exactly the same but the message is----Jesus leads me in serenity to that place of eternal joy.


Unusually, Bach added extra parts for the three upper string lines above the closing chorale. The text is the final renunciation of the world for Jesus and it ends with the simple but telling phrase ’I will not leave my Jesus’. The strings create a miasmic halo of sound around the voices, oboe and trumpet, reinforcing the hymn tune.

Death may not yet have brought us to that wished for after-life, but we can perhaps, even now glimpse and enjoy something of the divine music of the spheres. Besides, we can now be confident, at least of our own personal salvation!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.
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