Wachet Auf

Tradition is a wonderful thing for running things together. In church last week we sang a version of “Sleepers, Awake,” the text and music for which were written by Philip Nicolai in the 1590’s. But nobody thinks of Nicolai when they hear “Sleepers, Awake,” because J. S. Bach used the text and hymn tune in his famous BWV 140 (“Wachet Auf”), taking what was already beautiful and immortalizing it. Bach’s name and the whole wonderful tune-text composite have been married ever since.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Where are the virgins pure and wise?
The Bridegroom comes: Awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care and faith’s bold prayer,
To meet the Bridegroom, come, prepare!”

Zion hears the watchmen’s voices,
With gladness all her heart rejoices,
She eager wakes to greet the day.
See, her Lord from heaven descending
With grace and truth and power unending;
Her daystar dawns with brightest ray.
O come, thou blessed One,
Lord Jesu, God’s own Son,
We follow there thy feast to share,
And taste the joys beyond compare.

Glory now to God we render,
Who reigns on high in heav’nly splendour;
Let ev’ry tongue in praise unite.
Lo, we enter heaven’s bright portal
To join the song of saints immortal
With angels round thy throne of light.
No mortal joy can e’er
With heav’n’s true bliss compare;
Rejoice below,
I o, i o!
Sing out in dulci jubilo!

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Even before Bach, this hymn was a queen among songs. It has naturally been translated several times. You won’t find the version above anywhere, however:  it’s a compilation of Catherine Winkworth’s translation (1st verse) and what appears to be John Rutter’s (2nd and 3rd verses). Yet this is the version we sang in church. Rutter has not translated the first verse, so naturally one has to borrow from elsewhere. And so tradition runs things together again.

The great thing about Rutter’s translation is the last two lines. The wordless i o, i o and the elevation into Latin make for a great ending, don’t they? But the curious thing is that the original German hymn by Nicolai didn’t have those lines. At least, the version published in 1599 didn’t. And Winkworth’s translation of Nicolai doesn’t have them. But Bach’s version of “Wachet auf” does have them in German, so I surmise that either Bach himself altered the lines, or the German tradition between Bach and Nicolai had already done so. And so when Rutter went to translate Bach, he translated the altered lines into English.

And that was surpassingly lucky. Those lines almost make the hymn. I think it is because they are neither plain English nor plain German.  I o, i o is sheer exclamation, and in dulci jubilo is the sound of joy in an ancient and now ceremonial language. Coming just after “no mortal joy can e’er / with heaven’s true bliss compare,” those ending lines express the unspeakable. And so we see tradition at work here too, running things together and making good things even better.


About middlingpoet

From the Gawain poet to Rainer Maria Rilke: I love traditional poetry.
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