The King of Chorales The HYMN OF THE DAY, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying (516) is known as the “King of Chorales,” the most significant hymn (Chorale is the German word for “hymn”).
Both text and tune by Pastor Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), it was written in 1599 for the Gospel for the Last Sunday in the Church Year, St. Matthew 25.1-13, originally described “Of the Voice at Midnight and the Wise Virgins who Meet Their Heavenly Bridegroom.” The tune has been described: “the greatest and most solemn melody of Evangelical Christendom.”
The hymn is based after Wächterlieder (watchmen’s songs) of the middle ages. “In these songs, the voice of the watchman from his turret summons the workers of darkness to flee from discovery; with Nicolai it is a summons to the children of light to awaken to their promised reward and full felicity.”
Bach’s Setting of “Wake, Awake” The Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote a series of cantatas for each Sunday and festival in the liturgical year. A cantata is a multi-movement musical composition for instruments, choirs, and soloists.
A Special Occasion In the town of Leipzig, Germany, where Bach served as kantor, the Twenty-Seventh Sunday After Trinity (Lessons for the Last Sunday in the Church Year) rarely occurred, unless the date for Easter was very early. This cantata was written for November 25, 1731.
All of Bach’s cantatas show remarkable skill and require many gifted musicians to perform, but the cantata (BWV 140) for “Wake, Awake,” is especially well-known because Bach put extra effort into this rarely-celebrated festival. (In many Church calendars, such as the one we follow, earlier Sundays are skipped so that the last three Sundays in the year are celebrated every year.)
The PRELUDE is based on a movement from Bach’s Cantata 140. In the cantata movement four, the strings play the accompaniment while the tenor soloist sings the words of stanza two of the hymn. In the organ version (BWV 645), the melody is played on a separate keyboard with the left hand with the trumpet pipes, while the right hand plays the accompaniment. Today we hear the melody played on the baritone.