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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Wake)

Cantata 140

  • Twenty Seventh Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: 2 Corinthians v. 1-10 (Assurance of Salvation)
  • Gospel Matthew xxv. 1-13 (Parable of the Wise Virgins)
  • Rating: 1*

The gospel for the day concerns the parable of the wise virgins, portraying the second coming of Christ as if he were a bridegroom come to claim his bride, the soul. Cantata BWV 140 is based around Nicolai's beautiful chorale melody Wachet Auf and develops the analogy of Christ and the bridegroom to portray the passionate love between Christ and the soul.

Throughout the cantata, Bach's tuneful invention is at it very best. The opening chorus may remind listeners of the form of the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion: Not one great tune, but two! A short recitative is followed by a duet accompanied by a violin theme that also will evoke memories of the St. Matthew Passion. Then the accompanied chorale that was later used in the Schubler Chorales. Being brought up in the Anglican tradition as a choirboy, this is one of those pieces that brings memories flooding back, of summer evenings in the English countryside after choir rehearsals. A wonderful duet, with a delicious oboe accompaniment pledges eternity between the lovers, now one flesh. The cantata closes with the chorale melody as a Gloria.

Cantata 140 is deservedly recognised as one of Bach's best known and loved pieces and surely stands among the greatest of his works.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.