Advent Calendar Day 11: Wachet Auf, ruft uns di Stimme (J.S. Bach)

I know, I know, we had Bach just a few days ago, but this week’s schedule of Advent music is full of dreamy 19th and 20th century music, and I thought a bit of up-beat Baroque was just what we needed for contrast.

Besides, this is a seriously cool piece of music, and this choir and orchestra perform it just impeccably (and I love the way the violinists are, without exception bobbing on the first beat of each bar. It’s like a little minuet for violinists!).  Also, hearken to the alto joy at 4:01!  We sang this maybe seven years ago in choir, and I can still do that bit from memory – it’s the only way one can possibly get one’s voice around the notes, because nobody can sight read that fast.

What to else say about this?  Well, it’s one of the classic Advent texts – I’m pretty sure I heard it at the service last Sunday, though it must be confessed that all my Advent services are beginning to blur together.  I’ve certainly sung the hymnified version in the last week, and also heard the organ solo version.  After a while, one starts suspecting that Bach spent a large portion of his career writing variations on Wachet Auf, actually.  But I digress.

The text is generally translated ‘Zion hears the watchmen’s voices’, but it’s closer to ‘Wake up, the voices call us – it is the watchmen on the roofs’, and it is all about the Bridegroom coming (with digressions about Wise Virgins, who presumably have lamps, but Bach figured we knew all about that, and left the lamps out).  It tends to be played a lot especially in early Advent, because it is all about preparing for the arrival of Christ.  Though I think the implication is more Second Coming than mangers and oxen and Bethlehem.

I do love this rendition of it – it’s lively and strongly sung and definitely wakes one up of a morning.


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).