Advent Calendar Day 11 – Wachet Auf! (J.S. Bach)

My friend Anna tells me that Wachet Auf is to German Advent music what Handel’s Messiah is to Advent music in the English speaking world – namely, ubiquitous! Bach just loved this particular melody, and used it as often as he could – at least three times that I know of. Our music director, Geoff, did the organ solo version of it a few weeks ago, and there’s a straightforward choral hymn version of it, and then there’s this one, which is a slow day for the sopranos and a mad fugal party for everyone else. We did this one year, and if I recall correctly, not only did Geoff end the service with the organ version, the minister also put Zion Hears The Watchmen’s Voices as one of the congregational hymns, just in case anyone in the congregation hadn’t got the point yet.

I actually included a version of the chorale in last year’s Advent Calendar, but unfortunately could only find a beautifully sung but painfully slow version of the piece. Fortunately, in the intervening months, the JS Bach foundation has put up another recording, and it’s brilliant – lively and vigorous and that orchestra is phenomenal. And it’s shown me something I didn’t know about this piece of music, too, which is always a bonus. You see, I always thought of it as the sopranos singing the melody (very sloooowly) while the rest of the parts did the interesting stuff below. And from an alto perspective (I am sadly not very good at looking outside such a perspective), that’s exactly what’s going on.

Hearing the piece with full orchestra, and particularly hearing this recording, however, gives me a different perspective. My first thought was that the altos weren’t loud enough (a thought I have often when listening to choral music, see aforementioned remarks about the alto perspective). But actually, what is going on is that the piece is a great big soprano solo, and the altos, tenors and basses are part of the orchestral accompaniment. They aren’t supposed to be in the foreground, really, any more than the violins are – which is to say, they all have their moments of standing out (the alto line in the alleluia, for example), but basically, they are the accompaniment. Which is still having more fun than the sopranos, but hey, that’s how it goes sometimes…

Ad hoc translation from my dimly recalled German is as follows:

The watchers high on the roof call us “Wake up! Wake up, city of Jerusalem, for this is midnight!” They call us with bright voices “Where are the wise virgins? The bridegroom is coming, get up and take your lamps, Halleluja! Prepare for the wedding feast – you must go to him.

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