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Advent hymns, III

December 19, 2012

Bach.

Bach.

WAKE, awake!

If ever there were a message for Advent, this is it. It is the prerequisite to Prepare ye the way of the Lord! We must wake up to hear the message, which, as one translator words it, “astounds us.”

Many of us will be familiar with the hymn, “Sleepers, wake!” and with the tune to which is it set, Wachet auf. Fewer will be as familiar with Bach’s Cantata 140. Written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, when the reading on which the hymn text is based–Matthew 25:1–13–was appointed in the lectionary,1 it is one of the composer’s best loved works, and it is not difficult to understand why. In the opening chorus, the text-painting is masterful: the soprano line sounds the cry of the watchmen on the heights: “Awake, Jerusalem, at last!” The music underlines the fundamental message of the Gospel text: Christ’s command to “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”2

Most Episcopalians will now be familiar with the 1982 translation of the Revd Carl P. Daw, Jr. (“Sleepers, wake!”), which is included in the 1982 Hymnal, but we like the classic, 1858 translation by Catherine Winkworth. Winkworth was called “the most gifted translator of any foreign sacred lyrics into our tongue, after Dr. Neale and John Wesley; and in practical services rendered, taking quality with quantity, the first of those who have laboured upon German hymns. Our knowledge of them is due to her more largely than to any or all other translators.”3

Published in most English-language hymnals (including the Hymnal 1940) until fairly recently, Winkworth’s text is a classic, and we reproduce it here, below Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme in the original German.

Awake!

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!

Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?

Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Alleluja!

Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!

Wake, awake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!

Midnight hears the welcome voices,
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past!

The Bridegroom comes, awake,
Your lamps with gladness take;
Hallelujah!

And for His marriage feast prepare,
For ye must go to meet Him there.

TEXT: Philipp Nicolai, 1599; trans. Catherine Winkworth, 1858.
TUNE: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Philipp Nicolai, 1599, arr. J.S. Bach 1731.

1. There can be between 22 and 27 Sundays between Trinity and Advent, so this Sunday falls within the period after All Saints and before Advent, when, as Fleming Rutledge has put it, the lectionary turns toward the Last Things, “and we begin that relentless Advent search into the heart of the human predicament which is announced by John the Baptist.”
2. Matthew 25:13
3. C.L. Hutchins, Annotations of the Hymnal: Consiting of Notes, Biographical Sketches of Authors, Originals and References (Hartford, Conn., 1872).

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