(Photo credit: facsimile of “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645, from Sechs Chorales “Schubler Chorales”)
In the early years of his years at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach wrote an entire multi-movement cantata every week. Yes, every week. And I sometimes think my job is difficult. Not.
The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) represent some of the most significant choral literature of the repertoire of all time. They are elegantly crafted, stylistically refined and true to their texts. Though specifically composed for the Lutheran liturgy, they are quite usable and practical in either liturgical or concert settings.
The earliest surviving cantatas we have were written when he was 22, but he certainly could have written cantatas earlier in his life. Most of the extant Bach cantatas were written in the early years of his Leipzig appointment, 1723-1745.
The structure of his cantatas is basically the same: opening chorus, recitative, aria, recitative or arioso, aria and chorale. The opening chorus is usually polyphonic (voice parts singing different overlapping melodies), and the arias are usually in A-B-A form (A-theme, B-theme and a repeat of A) with a solo instrument or instruments accompanying the aria vocal soloist. The closing chorale is basically what we know as a four-part sung hymn.
Bach was also known to occasionally reuse thematic material in various compositions, and his Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, is no exception. The melody and accompaniment of the tenor chorale (Zion hört die Wächter singen, Zion hears the watchmen singing) is basically the same music for the first of his six Schubler Chorales written for the organ, which he gives the same title as his Cantata No. 140.
In church music, there are a few recognizable melodies or motifs that are immediately identifiable, and this Sunday’s (Nov. 27) opening voluntary at the 10:30 service is one. When we hear the Schubler Chorale Wachet auf, we will know that the season of Advent is here.
Listen to Cantata No. 140, performed by The Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (tenor chorale begins at 12:40)
Listen to Professor Ton Koopman play “Wachet auf” from the Sechs Chorales, BWV 645, played upon the Silbermann Organ (1710/1714) in the Dom St. Marien in Freiberg, Germany: