Chapter 55 Bwv 140

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Chapter 55 BWV 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

Awake! The Watchman′s voice commands us.

Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–duet (sop/bass)–aria/chorale (tenor)–recit (bass)–duet (sop/bass)–chorale.

For the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity.

Known widely as Sleepers Awake, this is possibly the best known of all Bach’s cantatas. It was one of the first to be published and, apparently, one of the few to be performed with some regularity in the years after his death.

Consequently one approaches it with a degree of trepidation; can anything new be said about it?

Firstly, let us place it in its context. It was written for performance on the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity, an event which is dependent upon the dates of Easter; consequently it occurred only occasionally. It happened twice during Bach’s period of tenure at Leipzig, 1731 and 1742 (Boyd p 501) and this cantata was written for the first of these occasions and probably reprised on the second. It follows the format of the first forty chorale fantasias of the second cycle and it is thus possible that Bach intended it to reside within that set, although clearly for a different day of the church year. The six-year delay is obviously explained by the rarity of the occasion for which it was written; Bach simply waited until it was required.

The first and last movements are precisely what we should have expected from a second cycle cantata, as is the mixture of recitatives and arias that lie between them. Furthermore, Bach’s particular interest in the expressive potentialities of the accompanied duet is also clearly apparent; here we have not one but two of them! This is relatively rare event and we need to go back to C 4 (chapter 42) to find another such example. The particular significance of the inclusion of two duets within this cantata, which is so obviously built around the events of a wedding, will become apparent.


The opening fantasia is surely one of Bach’s happiest creations in this form. Set in the key of Eb major, one very seldom used for such movements, it takes a well-known chorale and transforms it into gold. The chorale melody (sopranos, doubled by horn) is long and complex, consisting of twelve phrases of differing lengths varying between two and five bars. The common time of the chorale (four beats to a bar) is changed to three for the fantasia. One can be sure that the very irregularity attracted Bach′s interest.

The text of the first movement calls for all Jerusalem to waken, prepare the feast and go to meet Him. The inhabitants are called to take up their lamps as the bridegroom approaches for the wedding. The ritornello opens virtually without melody, a persistent dotted rhythm echoed between the strings and the three oboes. This idea later becomes an important accompaniment figure and doubtless suggests the passing of time and possibly the midnight chimes.

But the main melodic idea grows organically out of it with rising scales; at first tentative, latterly more confident, the shape clearly derived from the chorale melody.

  First chorale phrase and violin passage derived from it.

The dotted rhythms and quavers in the continuo bass line possibly denote the movements or gathering of the guests to which the text refers.

Thus, even before the first note is sung, we have a masterly evocation of the text and a dignified introduction to the work proper. The suggestion that the dotted rhythms imply the grandeur of a French Overture is misguided since there are no other characteristics of this courtly form. However, the character of the individual chorale phrases are, in part, determined by the activities of the continuo line i.e. dotted rhythms, flowing quavers or staccato reinforcements of the three main beats in each bar.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Bach’s craft is his ability to adapt the textures and contours of his vocal lines to suit specific, and organic, demands of the text. Nowhere is it more apparent than in this fantasia. The first three phrases of the melody (repeated, thus making six in total) find the lower voices entering with different motives on almost every occasion, although the principle of imitation is maintained. Nevertheless, the predominant direction of these entries is always upwards, suggestive of the anticipation and optimism of the impeding happy event. The flowing semi-quavers used for the setting of the one word, ‘Hallelujah′ (9th phrase beginning bar 135) strongly suggest a fugato except that the voices do not enter at the expected traditional intervals. They come in on g (altos) b flat (tenors) and e flat (basses)—-the notes of the chord of E flat major which also form the opening motive of the chorale!

An interesting point of detail is the repeating of the words of phrase ten to underpin the following phrase—-macht euch bereit—-be prepared (for the wedding feast). This urgent plea from the multitude continues to resound as the sopranos move towards their penultimate phrase (from bar 110).

Tenor recitative.

Some respite is needed after this massive chorus. The secco recitative is simple, unassuming and direct. The tenor, taking his traditional role as narrator, simply describes the approaching bridegroom and the gathering of those who wish to greet him. Artistically, it provides a brief moment of emotional respite between the intense movements that surround it.

Bach ignores the proffered physical images of the young skipping hart and the approaching bridegroom, and so this slight movement simply forms a narrative link between those of a more substantial nature.

Soprano/bass aria1.

The highlight of the first duet is the sumptuous melody delivered by the violin-piccolo obbligato. The text may be conventional to the point of banality; the music is most certainly not.

One of the fascinating points about Bach’s creative gifts is his ability to conjure up seemingly endless, expressive melodies. Furthermore, it seems that this was something he was able to do from the very onset of his composing career. Try comparing this melody with the oboe obbligato from the soprano aria of C 21 (vol 1, chapter 4) written in 1714. Nearly two decades separate their composition but would you have detected which of the two might have been the less ′mature′ work? Are there any discernible differences in the expressive depth of these two tunes? Bach was the master of characterful, meaningful melody right from the beginning and this wonderful gift never left him.

But a deeper understanding of both Bach′s sensitivity to textual nuance and the structural planning of this cantata arises from a direct comparison of the two duets. Both are for bass and soprano, the two voices having a double function. On the earthly level they represent bride and bridegroom coming together for the wedding ceremony. On the metaphysical level they represent Christ and the Soul. The character and vocal writing of the two duets indicates an initially tentative encounter in the first, and a joyous binding together for eternity in the second. Did Bach remind himself of the four dialogue cantatas from the third cycle when composing this one? It was, indeed, most unusual to find a chorale/fantasia cantata including aspects of this dialogue tradition; Bach used the technique in the first, but not the second, Leipzig cycle.

The writing for the two voices in the first duet stresses their individuality. They sing together relatively seldom, the effect being more of a civilized conversation than a loving union. But it is tender and affectionate and the two souls are bound together by the flowing violin obbligato, possibly suggestive of the Lord′s all-encompassing benefice. The soprano enquires ′when, my Saviour, are you coming; I await with burning oil?′ The bass affirms that He is indeed approaching.

A text of little interest, imagery, imagination or merit; but we cannot do better than delight in the silk purse woven from the pedestrian pig′s ear!

Soprano/bass aria 2.

Temporarily setting aside the fourth and fifth movements, we turn our attention to the sixth, the second duet. It is written for the same two voices but now exploiting a joyously enticing oboe obbligato. It appears from the initial vocal phrases that the two characters still maintain a degree of separation. But this is an illusion. For the majority of this aria they are bound together in a paean of seemingly endless bliss. Bride and groom, Saviour and Soul are united and we are all permitted to participate in the ecstasy of the occasion.

This text is no less banal than that of the earlier duet—-my loved one is now mine, I am yours, our love shall not be separated and joy will abound. The interlaced vocal writing conveys the sense of unification and the oboe the extrovert joyousness of the event. Bach even returns to the strict, conventional da capo structure, one he often abandoned during the later years, in order to suggest the formality of this traditional ceremony of union.

Tenor chorale.

The keystone of the cantata, the fourth of the nine movements, is the chorale for tenor. This, along with Sheep may Safely Graze and Jesu Joy of Man′s Desiring must surely rank amongst the best known and most popular of Bach′s individual cantata movements. That he himself had high regard for it is attested by the arrangement he later made of it for organ (BWV 645).

The tenor retains his principal role of standing aside from the main character and narrating the story, background or circumstances. He describes Zion′s joy whilst observing the unfolding events. This is the musical bringing together of the earthly ceremony of conjoined bride and groom with its spiritual counterpart. The chorale melody is sung with a minimum of embellishment whilst all the upper strings unite to declaim the obbligato melody. The combination of violas and violins produces a timbre of considerable richness.

One of the wonders of this movement is the manner in which the chorale and obbligato melodies appear to have virtually no connection with each other, and yet fit together perfectly. It is possible that Bach saw this as a symbol of the earthly and the spiritual, seemingly apart, dissimilar and diverse and yet, by reason of the Ordained Natural Order, ultimately fitting together and perfectly complementing each other. Thus we might consider the chorale as representing matters spiritual, with the foursquare, almost stolid string melody as earthly life and environment. Each may be depicted perfectly well independently, but the fundamental message is that they have been conceived, by the Almighty, as the two parts of the same reality.

Musically, it is worth spending a few moments to become familiar with the unique structure of the ritornello. It begins with a direct straightforward two bar theme A which is repeated.

Then follows a new more flowing idea B (bars 5-6).

Thence C, built upon a climbing syncopated motive (bars 7-8).

Finally we come to four-bar codetta D bars (9-12).

Thus, before the voice enters, the musical structure may be represented as   A,   A,   B,   C,   D——-twelve bars in all.

Those who wish to can follow this pattern (in the string melody) from the point at which the tenor enters will find the following order: A,  A,  C,  B,  A,  A,  B,  C,  D. Against this the tenor declaims the first three of the chorale′s phrases. This takes us to the cadence in bar 34 and thence the beginning of the tenor′s fourth phrase.

One can see that the structuring is very like that of a jigsaw puzzle, the two and four-bar segments of the obbligato theme designed to come in almost any order as they interlock with the unfolding chorale. One of the two ways in which Bach creates the impression of ′unrelatedness′ of the two melodies is the unpredictability of just which section of the ritornello theme will be heard next. The other is the fact that theme and chorale are not designed to begin and end together. For example, the first tenor phrase begins in the middle of A and ends in the middle of A repeated. The second vocal phrase begins with C but extends two beats beyond it, and the third enters in the middle of B!

If this seems confusing to the less technically minded it doesn′t matter. Get to know the chorale and ritornello melodies well and the apparently effortless ways in which they inter-relate will become obvious. The important point is that they seem not to fit; but they do. And that is a moral underlining this cantata.

Bass recitative.

After our examination of the more substantial movements, we are left with the bass recitative and the closing chorale. The former is not narrative; the bass voice tells us that this is Christ himself speaking—-come to Me, Oh chosen bride, for all eternity—-now forget the fear, pain and troubles you have had to endure. The sustained string chords provide an encompassing warmth and security within which Bach takes the trouble to remind us of our tribulations, all now in the past. Melodic and harmonic twists musically underline some of these e.g. the troubled eye—-betrübtes Aug—-and fear and pain—-Angst den Schmerz.

But the vocal line is reassuring and the movement begins and ends in major mode. The fleeting reminders of past sorrows shall not detract from the main theme of fulfillment.


The closing chorale, with its slightly puzzling mixture of different phrase lengths, is a rousing affair, strengthened by the organ, strings, oboes, horn and bassoon, all doubling the singers. The text now states explicitly that which tended to be implicit in the earlier movements. We are told unequivocally that the Gloria shall be sung by mortal and heavenly voices, coming together with an ecstasy never yet seen or heard.

This is the culmination of the ′wedding′ of the corporeal with the divine. As Bach doubtless discovered in his own life, the successful union of man and women is not only a source of personal fulfillment. It can also be an excellent metaphor for the joining together of the Soul with the Spheres of the Divine.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.