Cantata No.140

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantata No.140

BWV140 • “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

This is one of the best-known and most theatrical of Bach's sacred cantatas. It was written in 1731 as part of Bach's series of five cantatas for every Sunday and special feast day in the Lutheran calendar. This particular cantata was written for a rarely occurring date, the 27th Sunday after Trinity. This day occurs only in years when Easter comes unusually early. Since this was a rare event (it happened only twice during Bach's 26 years in Leipzig), Bach used an unusually large ensemble and wrote the cantata on a large scale.

The chorale used in the cantata (and the work's title) comes from a 1599 hymn tune by Philipp Nicolai. Literally, the title translates as "Wake up, the voices are calling us." To fit the three syllables of the German, the more commonly found translation "Sleepers Wake" is used, and it is by this name that it is best known in English.

The text is a treatment of Jesus' parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (or, as some translations have it, Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids). What is foolish about these young women of Jesus' story is that because they did not bring sufficient oil for their lamps, they had to go out to purchase more, and in so doing, were locked out of the wedding and the wedding feast. In fact, they didn't even make it into Bach's cantata, for it only mentions the wise bridesmaids, who did not miss the Bridegroom's arrival and, hence, witnessed the wedding and partook of the feast. The Bridegroom is allegorical for Jesus; his bride is the Christian soul. And these two allegorical figures have an ardent, even operatic, love duet assigned to soprano and bass.

The opening chorus is bustling, depicting crowds in Jerusalem waiting for the Bridegroom. A tenor recitative represents the night watchmen giving word of the arrival. Then follows the duet between Jesus and the soul. The Bridegroom welcomes the bride into his abode, and there is a chorus of thanksgiving and glory.