Advent Calendar Day 9: Wachet! Betet! (J.S. Bach)

A few months ago, when I was preparing for my exam, I sent the Bach alto aria I was learning to my German theologian friend, Anna, to check that my translation wasn’t too wildly wrong.  She sent back the translation with her comments, and also mentioned that in Bach, the alto soloist is usually the voice of the believing soul.  I thought that sounded gorgeous, and set out today to find some advent-suitable soulfulness to share with you.

And I found some.  But this isn’t it, because what I also found in my travels was that Bach, being the excellent church musician that he was, had actually written a cantata for the second Sunday in Advent – which is today.  I am not an excellent church musician, but I am a conscientious one, and having found beautiful music that was actually written for this precise day in the church year, I am incapable of choosing something else.

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Monday Music: Ei, wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse (Oh, how sweet coffee tastes) (J.S. Bach)

Bach is not a composer known for his lively sense of humour (unless you like obscure mathematical jokes involving making codes out of people’s names and setting them to music, in which case you’ll probably find him an absolute scream).  Indeed, the first allegedly humourous piece of his that I heard was an obscure cantata using Greek myth to express the fact that he was a much better musician than one of his rivals, who pretty much had donkey’s ears.  This sort of thing is extremely amusing, when your name is Johann Sebastian…

But he was, apparently, capable of more generally intelligible light moments, and he wrote, as it happens, an entire cantata about coffee.  What could be more appropriate for a Monday morning?

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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.

Advent Calendar Day 2 – Wachet Auf (J.S. Bach)

For December 2, then, here is Bach’s Wachet Auf. Actually, this version is so very slow that it should probably be called “Schlafet Mehr”, but of all the recordings available online, this one had the best choir. So it’s slow, but worth waiting for.

This is not the organ prelude you (and most of YouTube) are thinking of when you hear Wachet Auf and Bach in the same sentence, but the choral version with the awesome alto alleluia in the middle (there will be a theme of excellent alto lines in this advent calendar, at least until I run out of pieces I personally remember singing in Advent. This is what happens when you let the alto control the programming). It is more fun when it goes faster, but this can’t be helped.

If you’re not a Bach afficionado, the way this piece works is that the sopranos sing the melody line of Wachet Auf (Zion hears the watchmen’s voices) very, very slowly (very, very, very slowly in this recording), while the altos, tenors and basses sing something completely different and polyphonic underneath. The effect is gorgeous, if a bit boring for the sopranos (see note above about what happens when you put the alto in charge of choosing music).