Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wake, Awake for Night is Flying


This cantata was written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which is the last Sunday in the Church Year or the “ultimate Sunday.” This means that a performance of this cantata should occur immediately before Advent, the four-week period of repentance and preparation anticipating Christmas. The original hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” in the Lutheran Service Book is rightly located in the “End Times” section. It deals with the eschaton, the coming of the Bridegroom and the great wedding feast of the Lamb of God – Jesus. That this cantata is sung and prayed on the last Sunday of the year points to Christmas and the incarnation, meaning that this child was born to go to the cross. The atonement – the price of dowry has been paid by this groom. The crucifixion is the source of glory in the hymn, which moves the church to gather round the radiant throne – the body and blood of Holy Absolution. It is worth noting that this particular feast, the 27th Sunday after Trinity, is a rare occurrence, since it can only happen when the preceding Easter comes early in the year.



The readings occur from 2nd Corinthians 5:1-10, 1st Thessalonians 5:1-11, and the Holy Gospel from Matthew 25:1-13. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins forms the corpus of the thematic movement of the hymn, though it is not limited to it. It includes paraphrases of Saint John’s Revelation concerning the marital union between the Lamb and the Bride:


"And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God" (Rev. 19:6-9).



The 1st, 4th, and 7th movements mirror this sort of calling, readying, and meeting. No doubt we may see it as a call to worship and to be gathered around the Lord’s preached Word and precious Sacraments. The final chorale erupts in this call to worship, “In Your city we are companion of the angels high around Your throne. No eye has ever perceived, no ear has ever heard such joy like our happiness, Io, io, eternally in dulci jubilo!” The inhabitants of this city are the heavenly hosts of God’s saints who are surrounded by angels. The alleluias and rejoicing is not a subtle form of celebration but the ultimate angelic chorus which reigns throughout all eternity.



The concept of marriage is not a new Christian image but one rooted throughout the Old Testament. Israel is often illustrated and spoken to as Yahweh’s wife. The theology of Hosea stands out as a particularly revealing testimony to how God lovingly interacts with His people. The prophecy contained here reveals a dark time where apostasy and the worship of Baal is common for Israel (4:6). The use of marriage between Hosea and Gomer is used to represent the relationship between God and His people. Hosea deals with an unfaithful bride whom does not return His love. Hosea is continually gracious and takes her back after all kinds of infidelities. Yahweh promises through the prophet, “I will betroth you to myself forever” (2:19), and “I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice and in mercy and in compassion (2:20). Nicolai’s hymn also finds a voice in the prophet Ezekiel, “I passed by you and saw you, and behold, your age was the age of love. So I spread my garment over you, and I covered your nakedness. I swore to you and entered into a covenant with you..and you became mine” (Ezek. 16:8). Here we see how we in the church are continually being reconciled back to God through repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. We may learn from Nicolai that God deals with his church not in cold commands, but rather relationally, in affectionate and even sensuous language that may be perceived as bordering on the scandalous.



In Nicolai’s hymn we see two features, two separate events: a betrothal and the wedding feast itself. In the first movement we sing of the betrothal, “Midnight the hour is named…Make yourselves ready for the wedding.” What is involved in this waking – this readying? Surely it is God’s work that clothes his chosen one with the garment of righteousness. The lectionary for the 27th Sunday after Trinity provides the helpful text from 2nd Corinthians, “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked” (5:2-3). Therefore, this movement of readying ought not be seen as a feverish work to be carried out on the part of the virgins but rather God’s work in readying the church by dressing Her in Holy Baptism and the heavenly feeding of the sacraments. The betrothal is marked by a payment, which Christ himself has made. The wedding garment is defined as the “righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). In this final chorale the saints gather around the throne, around the lamb who was slain. The betrothal then is marked by faith found in God’s claim to His church. Jesus the Christ, the bridegroom, fashions this wedding garment with his own body and blood given for the remission of sins so that His bride may in purity and truth present herself before the throne of God in heaven.


"And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass" (Rev. 21:21). This passage is sung in the final chorale, “Of twelve pearls the portals are made, In Your city we are companions of the angels high around Your throne.” The twelve pearls may very well refer to the twelve tribes of Israel but more likely the twelve apostles. For the church “was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the capstone” (Eph. 2:20). In this text we have a sung confession of the meaning of the apostolic office - the office of pastor. Jesus builds his church by using pastors to preach his bodily word and administer His sacraments.



It is worth noting that Nicolai has tapped into a traditional song type known as the “Tagelied” a sort of “day break song.” This song form is otherwise known in the German tradition as a “Wachterlied,” or “watchman song.” In the French tradition it is called an “Albe” or “Aube.” It is one of the oldest song types from the European continent and goes back to ancient times. It is a troubadour sort of poem in which lovers either part or come together around the strike of midnight. A watchman often warns the couple, sounding an alert of the coming day, or for danger of being discovered. The chorale text in turn has replaced the more secular exchange between lovers, with the sacred text from Christ’s parable.



Philipp Nicolai was born August 10, 1556 at Mengeringhousen in Waldeck, Hessen, Germany. He studied theology at the Universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg from 1575-1579. He himself was the son of a Lutheran pastor and set out also to be one in the midst of religious wars and theological controversies. For years after graduation he lived in Volkhardinghousen, preaching for his father’s congregation. He was appointed as pastor at Herdecke in 1583 until the invasion of Spanish troops in April, 1586, which is turn led to the re-establishment of the Mass, causing Nicolai to resign his post. In 1588 he became Hofprediger (Court Preacher) to the widowed Countess Margaretha of Waldeck and tutored her son Wilhelm Ernst, Count of Waleck in Wildungen. When Nicolai’s student died as a result of the bubonic plague he was spiritually positioned to pen this brilliant hymn of consolation. He was violently moved by the death of his fifteen year old student



He was an ardent theological writer and spent a great deal of time fending off Calvinism. This hymn is clearly an expression of Nicolai’s joy for the Lord’s Supper which stands in total contrast to the mere spiritualizing theology of the reformed theologians. The Sacramentarian controversy was front and center for Nicolai and it is clear that his understanding of the sacraments dominates his hymnody. As a pastor in Westphalia, the plague took over 1300 of his parishioners, at one time 170 in a single week. It was in this context that he wrote “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). Along with “Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern” these hymns begin a somewhat new and alternative expression of Lutheran orthodoxy.



In 1601 he was elected chief pastor of Katharinenkirche (St. Katherine’s Church) in Hamburg. At this time Nicolai was widely esteemed as a brilliant and influential preacher, being called the “second Chrysostom.” At this church he died of a violent fever on October 26, 1608. During the fearful time that the plague ravaged Westphalia Pastor Nicolai was surrounded by the sights and smells of death. He turned to God for hope of Christ’s promise of heaven and deliverance from evil. He wrote in the preface to his Frewden-Spiegel:



"There seemed to me nothing mere sweet, delightful and agreeable, than 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 as to what they revealed on this matter, read also the sweet treatise of the ancient doctor Saint Augustine [De Civitate Dei].... Then day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted In heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my, manuscript the name and title of a Mirror of Joy, and took this so composed Frewden-Spiegel to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare use in health) to comfort other sufferers wham He should also visit with the pestilence.. . . How has the gracious, holy God most mercifully preserved me amid the dying from the dreadful pestilence, and wonderfully spared me beyond all my thoughts and hopes, so that with the Prophet David I can say to Him "O how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee" (dated Aug. 10, 1598).



According to Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, this hymn first appeared in the Appendix to the Frewden-Spiegel, 1599, in 3 stanzas of 10 lines, entitled “Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom. Matt. 25.” Julian notes that the opening “Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme Der Wachter sehr hoch auf der Zinne” is borrowed from one of the Wachter-Lieder, a form of lyric popular in the Middle Ages. There seems to be a consensus that the melody itself was penned by Nicolai. I have not found any sources that say otherwise. It has however, been called to my attention that the melody essentially mirrors tone 5, going back to early Gregorian chant, and now commonly found in the Liber Usualis and common Breviaries.[1] Julian’s analysis of this hymn continues, “It has been called the King of Chorales, and by its majestic simplicity and dignity it well deserves the title.” The first harmonized version of this hymn appeared in the mid-16th century in the Scandinavian collection Piae Cantiones of 1582. Later it was popularized by Praetorius and then of course J.S. Bach.


This opening fantasia is one of Bach’s most beautiful creations. The well known tune from Nicolai’s hymn is woven into pure gold. It proceeds in the key of Eb major which is also known as the “key of love” or devotion, dealing with intimate communion and speaking. It is in this sense of affection that this opening chorus gently takes flight with an awakening, “Awake, calls the voice to us of the watchmen high up in the tower.” There is a summons to meet. There is a mysterious celebration here – a calling that the expected one is coming and desires readiness for the great occasion. One can hear a knocking in the opening movement responsively between oboes and violins. There is a certain dissonance, an opening of a melodically chaotic awakening, from disorientation to orientation toward the sounding call. The congregation is waking, one voice after another – speaking to one another and affirming the good news. There a repeated sequencing, notes flying higher and higher – each virgin waking the next, “Awake, awake!” This chorus is accompanied by oboes, horn and strings. The twelve repeated dotted notes in the first four measures may symbolize a chiming of the midnight bell or perhaps the very knocking of the bridegroom. We get the sense of a processional with the rhythm – a marching of the bridal party. The cantus firmus chorale melody with the Soprano is repeated by the horn, expressing an excitable state – a state of readiness, given the text. There is a glorious dialogue between the strings and oboes which are announcing the news of the coming Savior to each other. The rhythmic motif persists throughout the movement driving home the final text, “You must go to meet Him.” The calls of the watchmen, sung initially by a soprano, cascade across the expanse of the congregation. In the second movement there is the notification, the great announcement that the Bridegroom is coming, “Er kommt, er kommt, der Brau’gam komm!” The bridegroom is compared to a young, leaping stag.


The 3rd aria movement contains a more intimate address of longing and comfort, “When will You come, my Savior?...I wait with burning oil.” It is a curious fact that Nicolai and J.S. Bach do not reference the foolish virgins from Matthew 25. This is a perplexing omission but may be very telling concerning their understanding of the parable and the musical task of preaching the Gospel. In this proclamation the foolish virgins simply do not have a place in the narrative. It may be Nicolai’s, as well as Bach’s position, that agonizing over the foolish and damned virgins simply is not necessary in speaking Christ’s gospel, and comforting sinners. It is likely assumed that the hearers are indeed the wise virgins who are already sealed in Christ’s Holy Church. It may not serve the gospel to speculate which virgins have oil and which do not -for the hearers of this heavenly message are in the pews where their Lord have promised to meet them. This duet introduces the solo violino piccolo which gives a brightness to the scene and joy to the Bride’s preparations. Against the melisma of the violin and steady continuo, the Bride continues to urge and call her Groom, “Now open the hall…Come, Jesus!”



This lovely second chorale movement proceeds in a three part chorale concerto. This movement is unforgettable and sublime in nature – it is one of Bach’s most recognizable pieces. The hymn tune is sung by tenors with the famous and heavenly melody played by unison strings. One may very well see the graceful procession of the maidens going out to meet Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. The fulfillment is drawing near – there is premonition of a lovely and future bliss, “Her heart leaps for joy within her…Now come, precious crown, Lord Jesus, the Son of God!” The obbligato in the strings begins at a different time than the chorale, which in turn clarifies both lines, sounding similar to the final movement in the Christmas Oratorio. There is a sense of a graceful dance and wooing in this movement.


This bass recitative is accompanied by violin, piccolo, and strings. Jesus announces to his church, “So come to me – you my chosen bride!” The Lord announces that He has had his church, eternally betrothed. The union is announced here in its fullness that the Lord wakes his church, after much suffering and heart ache. Jesus desires that the bride rest on his left hand and receive a kiss from his right. There is a sense of encouragement, given by the bridegroom, “I am yours, love will never part us.”


In this dialogue between Christ and the Christian soul is the extravagant bliss of unification. The key is in B-flat major which suggests a cheery and hopeful affection – one of clarity and the utmost of comfort. The roses refer to Holy Absolution, which also occurs also in the Bass Recitative in Saint John’s Passion (31st mvt). In the passion this follows the violent scourging of Jesus where roses of Christ’s blood flow forth from the crown of thorns.


We might consider this “io, io!”the poetry of heavenly rapture – that there exists a natural and apparent discrepancy between God’s promise of our heavenly home and the present circumstance of feeling disconnected and quite far from it. There is a ecstatic “sighing” for the magnificent homecoming which of necessity finds a magnificent tension between promise and the present circumstance which cannot fully apprehend the wholeness of heaven. But nevertheless the soul seeks the Bridegroom of the Church.


A more mystic and stylistic detailing of the relationship between Bridegroom and the church takes place in J.S. Bach’s meditation in the 5th movement, “So come in to Me, you My chosen bride!” which certainly mirrors Solomon’s Song 2:10, “My beloved spake, and said unto me, rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The movement opens with the thought that “My beloved speaks to me.” Besides a linguistic exchange, the relationship between lover and beloved is described in rather lofty terms more illustrative of a graceful ballroom dance than anything else:"My Friend is mine – and I am yours, love will never part us. I will with you – you will with me – graze among heavens roses."


In this mystical dance and interchange between the groom and bride it is the groom who is doing the leading and performing toward and for his bride. The theological proposition of the verbiage of the action is that Christ is doing the work. The dance is not guided and led by the bride but solely by the coming, hastening, and drawing near of Christ. This movement does not render the bride lifeless but her life arises from a more passive interaction marked by “watching,” “hearing,” and “turning” in reaction toward her lover. In this way Bach begins with the great starting point of theology - that God intervenes, leads, and ultimately carries the church to the wedding feast. The bride, the church, does not meet the groom on the middle of the dance floor. She does not meet him “50/50.” Rather the groom condescends completely to the bride who is eagerly watching and waiting to be addressed and taken.



The groom’s action is not to be considered a projection of mystical illumination but instead as initiated and performed through means. Christ performs through “watchmen,” “angelic messengers.” He is present in the flesh and addresses the bride through apostles. Therefore Christ’s speaking, his coming, hastening, and drawing near is not a contemplative pursuit on the part of the church but is achieved on the part of apostles and Christ’s encounter in the flesh. Philipp Nicolai and certainly J.S. Bach must have the apostolic ministry in mind with the priestly duties of the preaching office and administration of the sacraments. Therefore the church meets Christ through pastors who are entrusted to preach the gospel and feeds his dearly beloved his Holy Supper.

1 comment:

  1. Envious of your solid scholarship. it makes my paper look like child's play. Thanks.

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