Opening Voluntary: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
At Communion: Wake, Awake – Albert H. Beck (1894-1962)
Closing Voluntary: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme – A. W. Leupold (1868-1940)
Today’s incidental organ music is all based on the great German hymn, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, which we sing in English translation as our entrance hymn today (“Sleepers wake! A voice astounds us,” # 62, The Hymnal 1982). This classic hymn, sometimes known as “King of Chorales,” was both written and composed by 16th century Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608). The hymn was written during the time of a deadly epidemic that raged in his town of Unna, Westphalia from July of 1597 to January of 1598. Claiming some 1300 victims in total, the pestilence resulted in as many as 30 burials per day, most of which Nicolai could observe from his home that overlooked the churchyard. In such dark times, it was not surprising that Nicolai’s thoughts turned to death and the contemplation of the “last things.” Nicolai reported that he was, at this time, most concerned with “the contemplation of the noble, sublime, doctrine of Eternal Life, obtained through the Blood of Christ. This I allowed to dwell in my heart day and night, and searched the Scriptures for what they revealed on this matter.” It is hardly surprising that the full German original is, thus, filled with scriptural illusions (from Isaiah, Ezekiel, The Revelation to John, 1st Corinthians and the Gospel of Matthew). It is most obviously related to the parable of the wise virgins from the Gospel of Matthew as evidenced by Nicolai’s subtitle “Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom.” The text and tune were first published in an appendix to his meditations in the year 1599. It first appeared in English in the Lyra Davidica of 1708, a hymnal published in London of translations from German and Latin. It was made popular to English listeners as part of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “St. Paul” oratorio which premiered in English translation in Liverpool in the year 1836. Although most often sung to the translation by the famous Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), the editors of The Hymnal 1982, commissioned a new translation by Carl Daw that they felt conveyed more of the vigor of the German original.
The Opening Voluntary is the famous “Schübler” chorale version (BWV 645), Bach’s own transcription of his setting from his Cantata 140, composed originally for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. The name “Schübler” is that of the engraver and publisher of the original 1748 collection. The short version at the communion was published in 1945 and is the original work of 20th century Lutheran musician, Albert H. Beck (1894-1962), a professor at Concordia College in River Forest, IL from 1923 until his retirement. The closing voluntary is by German organist and composer Anton Wilhelm Leupold, organist at St. Peter’s, Berlin for 40 years until his death in 1940.