Sunday, January 17, 2021


Hymn Written in Time of Plague

Gerhard Herz, ed., Bach, Cantata No. 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972), pp. 55-56:
The opening, middle and last movements of Cantata 140 are based on the hymn text and melody, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608).
The hymn is a reversed acrostic, the initial letters of its three stanzas, W.Z.G., standing for "Graf zu Waldeck" (Count of Waldeck), Nicolai's former pupil, who died in 1598, aged fifteen.1 The Hymn probably was written in 1597, during the pestilence at Unna in Westphalia, where Nicolai then was a pastor.2
While 1,300 of Unna's inhabitants succumbed to the epidemic, Nicolai, expecting death himself, recorded his meditations. Having miraculously survived, he appended to the finished manuscript the two hymns, with their tunes, that were to assure for him some measure of immortality. He published the whole work under the name Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of joy of the eternal life) the following year (1599) in Frankfurt am Main.3

The two hymns became famous almost overnight. The many editions of the Freudenspiegel, and the early uses of the hymns by composers such as Praetorius and Scheidt, testify to this.

The poem Wachet auf ... recalls the Minnesinger time of Wolfram von Eschenbach, particularly the Morning Song (Tageweise), in which the watchman on the battlement of the knight's castle breaks the quiet of the night with his horn's call, warning the lovers that dawn approaches and they must part. These Morning Songs were still printed as broadsheets in the 16th century, the century that saw their transformation into sacred watchmens' songs. The last of them is Nicolai's magnificent hymn, which has been called the "King of Chorales." The warning call to the lovers became the watchmen's call to Zion. Nicolai subtitled his hymn "Of the Voice at Midnight, and (of) the Wise Virgins, who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom, Matthew 25,"4 thus describing precisely the portion of the Gospel (Matthew 25:1-7) that he selected for his hymn: the expectation of the Bridegroom, the ecstatic joy at his coming, and the union with him. The Foolish Virgins do not appear in his hymn.

1. The initial stanzas of Nicolai's other great hymn, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, spell—in correct order—Wihelm Ernst Graf Und Herr Zu Waldeck (Wilhelm Ernst Count and Lord of Waldeck).

2, C.S. Terry, Bach's Chorals [sic], 3 vols., London, 1915-21, II, p. 405.

3. See facsimile reprint, Soest, 1963, p. 409 ff. and 412 f. Cf. also W.S. Kelynack, The Fourth Century of Philipp Nicolai, in The Choir, XLVII (1956), 136.

4. Cf. Ludwig Kurtze, D. Philipp Nicolai's Leben und Lieder (Nach den Quellen), Halle, 1859, p. 126 ff.
Listen to Bach's cantata 140 on YouTube.

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