I have learned a lot in my recent series of posts about the Bach Cantatas. Before doing the posts, I was unfamiliar with the way that Gospel readings are chosen for any given Sunday, and the fact that the manner in which this decision is made has been revised over time. From what I understand, the Catholic Church and most Protestant Churches have now mostly settled on a Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which spans three church years, labeled Year A, Year B, and Year C respectively. Each year focuses on one of the synoptic gospels. Year A (which is coming to a close) emphasizes readings from the Book of Matthew. Year B focuses on Mark, and Year C on Luke, with readings from the Gospel according to John interspersed throughout.
I found a resource online that allows one to match the cantatas presented in Bach’s time with the Sunday of the year — but because Bach’s lectionary was different from the modern RCL, there is no necessary thematic relationship between the cantata composed for a specific Sunday and the Gospel readings you hear in church in modern times. Recently, I said it would be great if I could match the cantatas to the Gospel passages that are actually being read across the country on any given Sunday. But, I concluded, that would be too much work.
Commenter Golden Eagle came to my rescue and pointed me to a book called “Bach Throughout the Year” by John S. Setterlund. Mr. Setterlund has done exactly what I was looking for: he has matched the cantatas and their subject matter to the Revised Common Lectionary in use these days, so that the cantata I present will be appropriate to that Sunday. I will be able to set forth the Gospel passage you’re actually going to hear in church. What fun!
The book has arrived, and appropriate cantatas begin on Sunday! Thank you, Golden Eagle!
Reading the book tonight, through, I saw that the correct cantata for this past Sunday was the very famous cantata BWV 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us). Of course! Sleepers Awake! Was this not the very Gospel passage I sat in church this past Sunday and heard? I cursed fate for bringing me the book three days too late. Do I really have to wait three more years for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity in Year A to play this cantata for you?!
No! That would be too much to bear. And so I present this cantata to you now, in a version conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:
The text is here. I don’t usually quote the text in these posts, but there is a reason to quote at least the beginning:
Awake, calls the voice to us
of the watchmen high up in the tower;
awake, you city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named
And indeed, note how there are 12 beats in the first ten seconds of the piece — a clear reference to the midnight hour referenced in the text. This is not an accident. There is word painting like this throughout the cantatas and passions.
At 12:41 you will hear a lyric melody in the violins that I am almost certain you will recognize, as it is among the most famous and recognizable melodies Bach ever wrote.
Bach originally composed this for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, but the Gospel passage to which it closely relates is the one you may have heard last Sunday: Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins, in which Christ said:
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
Therefore keep watch. Sleepers awake. Wachet auf.
There’s nary a dull moment in this piece. Just beauty from start to finish.
In these posts, I like to find (if possible) the original hymn on which the cantata is based. For BWV 140 the hymn is the hymn of the same name (“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”), dating from 1599, by Philipp Nicolai. Rather than a plain vanilla rendering of the hymn, here is a beautiful version by Felix Mendelssohn from the St. Paul oratorio:
Was this not the very same hymn that I sang in church this past Sunday, all the while thinking to myself that the tune seemed very familiar? Indeed it was!
Acquiring this book is very exciting for me, and will allow my posts to be “in communion” with the experience of the Christians who read this blog and attend church on Sundays.
And now, just because, for the rockers, and because it’s not really Sunday, here is “Sleepers Awake” by Guadalcanal Diary: