2015-11-29 Notes from the Bench

Wachet auf! — Sleepers Wake by Philipp Nicolai

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

 

Today’s Gospel hymn at the 11:00 am service, “Sleepers, wake!” speaks to a call of preparation and attentiveness. This hymn, also commonly known by its original German title, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, a voice calls to us), is considered by many to be one of the all-time great German chorales. The text and music were written by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), a Lutheran pastor in Unna, Westphalia, a region in western Germany. Nicolai contemplated the doctrines of Eternal Life through the Blood of Christ and wrote the original German text as part of a series of daily mediations which were published in 1599. As Nicolai composed the music, he may have been inspired by the work of Hans Sachs (1494-1576). The melody Wachet auf quotes or is a possible adaptation of the melody Silberweise composed by Sachs c. 1513.

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we begin the new liturgical year not by reflecting on past events, but looking forward toward the end times and the ultimate destiny of humanity. We are called to spiritually prepare for the second coming of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s plan. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus warns his disciples to “be on guard … be alert at all times.”

 

 

 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme has been the musical inspiration for a whole range of compositions for voice, organ, and various ensembles. Today’s prelude and postlude selections are just a sampling of the pieces based on this chorale melody. The Chorale Prelude is the first of a set of six chorale settings known as the “Schübler Chorales,” engraved by publisher Johann Georg Schübler and are among the few of Bach’s compositions published during his lifetime. Bach wrote this chorale setting as an arrangement of the fourth movement of his cantata based on the same chorale, Cantata # 140 (BWV 140). The Chorale Fantasia is a modern transcription of the opening movement of this same cantata transcribed for organ by Wayne Peterson. The twentieth-century German composer Paul Kickstat (1893-1959) composed another setting of Wachet auf for organ which will be played at our 5:00 pm and 7:30 am services this weekend. Today, we are summoned to “awake” in a variety of ways, through Word, song, and meditation.

 

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