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Cantata BWV 140
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

Philipp Spitta | Albert Schweitzer | Woldemar Voigt | Contra Schweitzer | Friedrich Smend


Thomas Braatz wrote (December 27, 2002):
BWV 140 - Commentaries:


With only limited understanding of handwriting analysis and possibly watermarks as well, but based mainly upon a stylistic analysis, Spitta was able to ‚nail’ the date of composition of this cantata precisely. He did, admittedly, have considerable help from the church calendar which allowed for only 2 possible dates during Bach’s tenure in Leipzig.

Spitta considers this cantata to be of the ‘ideal’ form of cantata: a specific chorale melody is the centerpiece of the composition, but does not appear in all the mvts., even in a modified form, but rather allows for other mvts. to be developed more freely out of a personal affect that arises from contemplation of the chorale text. Despite this obvious digression from the chorale text, the chorale text and melody nevertheless provide the unifying power that ties all the mvts. together. Spitta maintains that Bach had decided to give this cantata a special treatment that would make this one a truly first-class cantata. He was stimulated to achieve these special heights of creativity by the highly poetic, mysteriously ceremonious Gospel reading for this specific Sunday. The libretto is based upon Nicolai’s chorale, “Wachet auf” consisting only of 3 verses which made the direct connection with the parable of the wise virgins (Matt 25, 1-13); and this chorale text was expanded to include thoughts derived from the Song of Songs and Revelations (21). Between the chorale mvts. (1, 4, 7) are inserted recitatives and duets (Christ and his bride.) These artistically conceived and constructed duets have a sense of pure inwardness without becoming lost in any sort of personal passion. The 3 chorale mvts. constitute the beginning, middle, and end in which the basic mystical tone of the entire cantata is established. These mvts. call forth the concepts of the ceremonious stillness of night in which the heavenly bridegroom is awaited, and the unspeakable joys expressed in the splendor of the new Jerusalem. The 1st vs. is a chorale fantasia; out of the initial, majestic rhythms in the orchestra arises a feeling of mysterious bliss which spills over again and again into a more overt expression of this bliss. The soprano has the c. f. which is interpreted in an extraordinarily graphic manner by the lower voices. In the 2nd vs. (mvt. 4) a trio for tenor, violins and bass, one can hear the fullest expression of the mystical tone that dominates this cantata. It is like a dance of the spirits of the deceased, which becomes most clear when the violins, in their low range, create a unique, unheard-of, swaying-back-and-forth motion which expresses the idea that Zion and the believers have now entered with Christ to participate in the festival which takes place in the hall of joys (“Freudensaal”.) In the last vs. with a Gloria, “mit Menschen und Engel-Zungen,” that appears in utter simplicity, the chorale melody once again has the opportunity to have a very direct effect without additional embellishments.


This cantata deals with the parable of the ten virgins – the Gospel for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. This Sunday comes into the church year only when Easter falls very early; as a rule there are only 26 Sundays after Trinity.

The 1st chorus depicts the awakening. All is animation; the bridegroom comes, the virgins start up in dismay from their slumber, one rousing the other (example given of the 1st few ms. of this mvt.)

In this chorus we can see very clearly the changes that have come over our conception of Bach’s music. Julius Stockhausen, of Frankfurt, used to bring in the orchestra pianissimo and work it up through a slow crescendo, as if distant noises were gradually coming nearer. Siegfried Ochs begins forte and with a very quick tempo, so as to suggest the sudden confusion caused by the “Wachet auf!” (“Awake!”) This is certainly the right way. To get the proper effect, the syncopated notes in the mounting semiquaver passages should be thrown into high relief. There need be hardly any fear of overdoing it, the more vehement the accents, [Harnoncourt must have read this book and taken these words to heart!] the more clearly will the hearer apprehend the meaning of the motive.

The 2nd vs. “Zion hört die Wächter singen” (“Zion hears the watchmen singing”), is dominated by a simple dance melody. [Both Spitta and Schweitzer sensed the dance-like mvt.!] With this the chorale melody is combined dissonantly, as if it had nothing to do with it; the cry of the watchman strikes into the music of the procession that is drawing nigh with the bridegroom. In order that this may have its proper rural quality, it is written for the strings unisono, with an accompaniment in the contrabasses. Of course the organ harmonies must be filled in. The chorale should be sung by several tenors, not a soloist: the text is “Zion hears the watchMEN singing.”

The procession arrives. In the festive hall the “Gloria sei dir gesungen” (“Glory now to thee be given”) is sung. The foolish virgins are left outside in the night, in despair.

Not until Berlioz shall we meet with any dramatic-pictorial music comparable to this.


This cantata is at the highest pinnacle of cantata composition. It is significant from the beginning to the very end.

The introductory chorale mvt. is replete with a mysterious celebration and exuberant liveliness. There is a powerful build-up from the point of the very mysterious Alleluja until the end of the mvt. A removal of the ritornello section from ms. 9 on p. 255 to ms. 5 on p. 256 is advantageous. [I do no know which edition he is referring to. I include these suggested cuts out of sheer amazement and so that others can understand the ‘cut-and-slash’ methods which prevailed around 1900. –They certainly were not attempting to record these cantatas where such cutting might have been mandatory.]

Both duets imbue the words of the Song of Songs with a truly wonderful sensuous feeling, yet they remain spiritually expressive. What an urgent feeling of longing in the 1st duet, and what bliss is expressed in the 2nd duet! It would be a great loss to exclude even a single ms. from the 1st, but in the 2nd it is possible to jump from ms. 8 to 16 on p. 279 and possibly replace the reprise with the postlude. [I am not certain what he is talking about here, but it is just another example of ‘cut-and-slash.’

The only problem with the tenor chorale is that the chorale segments are often too short compared to the ritornelli. The longest of these on p. 275 can be shortened by 5 to 6 ms.

The final chorale is unusually beautiful. In the 2nd part, Bach attempts to express a bliss which is almost beyond words.

The text of the cantata contains the 3 vs. of the well-known chorale by Nicolai. Between these vs., 2 X 2 madrigal verses are inserted. This chorale refers to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, but concentrates only upon the waiting for the bridegroom and the happiness that comes with a union with him. Both moods are expanded by a madrigal-like vs. from which each draws its ideas and even some very direct quotations from the Song of Songs. The bride is defined specifically as Zion or the daughter of Zion, or the soul – this means, as understood by the church that this bride is the congregation (consisting of individuals) and thus pointing to each individual specifically. These individuals should keep themselves prepared for the union with Christ in the other world.

One can trace the various moods/feelings/states of mind as moving through the following stages represented in the mvts. of this cantata:

Chorale – An awakening call to the congregation, that they should remain prepared
Recitative – The notification/announcement that the bridegroom is coming
Duet – Longing and comfort
Chorale – Fulfillment is drawing near, a premoof future bliss
Recitative – Encouragement given by the bridegroom
Duet – The bliss of unification
Chorale – The expression of gratitude

Contra Schweitzer:

I (Voigt is speaking here) believe that, whoever reads Bach’s cantata texts without prejudice will come to the conclusion that Mr. Schweitzer, caught up in his own ‘dramatic’ theory, begins to read very alien things into them. It is not a question concerning the 5 or 10 virgins who were invited to the wedding as mentioned in the parable (there is no mention in the cantata text of the foolish virgins that Mr. Schweitzer refers to,) but rather the emphasis is place upon the single bride who is also called the “liebliche Seele” [“dear soul”] and Zion. The meaning to be attached to the 1st vs. of the chorale (in which the wise/clever virgins are mentioned) is, when translated into mundane prose: “A voice from on high will at some point in the future awaken us. Whoever is prepared at that point, just as the wise virgins, will be able to go toward the Lord just as they do.”

In his analysis of mvt. 1, Mr. Schweitzer finds that the ‘rhythm of affectation’ is to be understood as the ‘awakening of the virgins.’ They are startled awake and one rouses the other to get up. From this he deduces that the performance should display vehemence and intense agitation. He says, “The stronger the accents, the better the listener will comprehend the significance of the words.”

As much as others may consider this type of thinking as progress in performance practice, a question, I hope, will still be permitted: Just how is this type of performance practice related to a clear understanding of the text, not to mention, how such a practice might be considered suitable as part of a church service?


Smend seems to be the first to mention the ‘tolling of midnight’ contained in the 1st 4 ms. Of the 1st mvt. For this to be heard correctly, count only the main beats (not the dotted notes) as the exchange between the strings and the oboes takes place, then you will hear the 12 strokes of “Mitternacht” (“midnight”.) It is also just a bit unusual to have a note repeated four times in succession in the chorale melody to which the words, “Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde” are sung. Of the 8 notes that are sung to this phrase, only three are different! Whoever composed this chorale melody certainly had a musical representation of these words, the striking of a bell that has only one pitch, in mind.


Cantata BWV 140: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources


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