The twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity appears only every eleven years in the liturgical calendar, when Easter is celebrated very early in the season. During the 2nd Jahrgang the liturgical year only went through the 25th Sunday after Trinity. No cantata based upon a chorale melody has been found for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity. But in 1731, when the Sunday occurred, Bach wrote Cantata BWV 140, which is of the genre we have been considering here. This is the last parable considered in the liturgical year. It is a difficult one, again of a strong eschatological slant. Bach chooses to ignore that side of the parable and instead introduces passages from the Song of Songs. They are treated as love duets between Christ and the Soul. In addition the main chorale melody is set as the night watchman’s song in between the two duets, again a reference to Song of Songs.
The Philipp Nicolai hymn”Wachet auf!” is the basis for our cantata. Two great Nicolai hymns are used prominently in the second Jahrgang: “Wachet auf!”in BWV 140 and “Wie schön leuchtet den Morgensten”in BWV 1. Both are large-scale bar-form pieces, with three big phrases repeated in the Stollen (the A section of the chorale tune, repeated once, literally translated as “stanza”), the lower voices gradually ‘catch up.” By the beginning of the Abgesang (the B section of the chorale tune, literally translated as “aftersong”), and six phrases in the Abgesang. In both chorales the Abgesang begins with two small identical phrases, and ends with a phrase that refers strongly to material in the Stollen. With such a distinctive form, it is interesting to compare the structures of the two large chorale fantasias. “Wie schön” begins with at least four separately identifiable themes, some of them derived from the chorale, some of them colorations of the text. These themes are not only elaborately and imaginatively combined into a patchwork, but are often associated with the three particular concertante groups represented in the cantata’s colorful orchestration. Our cantata here,”Wachet auf!” is very differently constructed. One major thematic idea and a subsidiary dependent idea predominate. Rather than any kind of patchwork alternation of the ideas as we have seen in BWV 1, the 2nd subject almost always appears, propelled by the accumulated energy of the first idea. There is a strong antiphonal effect achieved by the alternation of the wind and string groups.
The contrasting way that the material is used in the two cantatas is the result of Bach’s decision to represent the chorale as a grand procession, no doubt reflecting the procession of the wise and foolish virgins. The processional idea is achieved in other, more subtle ways. If one looks at the relationship of the long-note cantus and the three voices underneath, one sees that at the beginning the cantus plays a full 2 1/3 bars before the first entrance of one of the lower three voices. Throughout the three phrases of the Abgesang, the lower voices gradually ‘catch up.” By the beginning of the Abgesang the bottom voices begin ahead of the cantus, and in the ninth phrase, the alleluia, the lower voices play for fifteen bars before the cantus entrance. In the last three phrases the cantus and the lower voices enter simultaneously, as if all the participants had been given a chance to catch up with the procession.
There are however, many other elements at play in this very complex and large movement. It is the common wisdom that the climax of the movement is the large and expressive “alleluia.” As marvelous as this alleluia is, it is the following phrase “Macht euch bereit” (make yourselves ready) that is one of the stunning moments in all of Bach. Here, not only, have all the voices come together, but Bach makes the startling and triumphant modulation to the sub-dominant. That sub-dominant functions in a way made popular by the great Classical era composers of making the final cadence inevitable. Just as Mozart or Haydn would begin his journey home in a sonata-allegro structure, this thrilling modulation to Ab sustains a sense of heightened anticipation all the way to the achievement of the dominant at the end of the 10th phrase, bar 177. From here the end is assured. The first movement of Wachet auf!” is one of the grandest of Bach’s chorale fantasias. The chorale moves unusually slowly and, as has been noted before is in twelve phrases. To keep the listener clear as to where he is in the movement Bach resorts to the most sophisticated of means. This is truly a revolutionary work.
After a brief secco tenor recitative, the solo soprano and bass sing their first love duet. Although deriving from the Song of Songs, the text is purely Christian, a love duet between Christ and the Soul. Christ is here wooing the soul using the characteristic instrument of nighttime serenading the piccolo violin, a small instrument tuned up a third from the normal violin. There is a great sense of yearning, of longing in this music. Bach chooses not only the exotic obbligato instrument, but puts the work into the pastorale Sicilliano rhythm 6/8 to make this an evocative outdoor serenade. The duet is, like the first movement, a musically very complex work, the juxtaposition of the mannered dotted figure of the opening with the elaborate figuration that follows produces great tension that is never really released throughout the movement.
The watchman’s song #4, the third verse of the chorale, is a brilliant dramatic gesture. This is an overused word in the music of Bach but here one truly senses a change of scene, of an event on stage. While the duet of intensity and importance is taking place, in another part of the city, the watchmen is going about his business, probably whistling that wonderful tune that is played in all the strings and has obsessed Bach scholars for literally hundreds of years. Every one knows that it is one of the most wonderful melodies he has ever heard, but nobody knows why. Its very casualness is an important theatrical gesture. The words themselves have an artless quality, something that the watchmen have known since childhood, and that they have no idea are so important here.
Although all signs point to the fact that this work was written in great haste, Bach puts an enormous amount of care into the progression of movements. At this juncture he writes one of his greatest accompanied recitatives, a work filled with such harmonic expressivity that it becomes the emotional climax of the cantata. The wonderful, light-hearted duet with oboe is so artless, rather like the watchmen’s song, that its incredible technical expertise can be easily missed. The sense of endless abundance and joy is expressed many ways but the wonderful and unnecessary modulation to g minor in the last five bars of the B section is a marvelous touch. One is reminded of the superscript over the last piece in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze” “Quite redundantly he added the following, but his eyes shone.”
Bach clearly hears the final chorale very slowly for he chooses a half-note unit of measure, something very rare in the chorales. It has become probably his most well-known chorale harmonization.
©Craig Smith, adapted by Ryan Turner