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"Sleepers Awake," from Crisis to Cantata

Detail from a stained glass window at Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany
Morn the Gorn / Wikimedia Commons
Detail from a stained glass window at Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany

In the depths of a fearsome epidemic that ravaged his community, a small-town German pastor wrote a hymn to bring his congregation hope. More than 400 years later, "Sleepers Awake" still comforts and inspires us, perhaps now more than ever before.

The Piece

There's a short piece with a gorgeous, unforgettable melody that we play on the radio sometimes, called Sleepers Awake. While you're listening to it, even just for those few minutes, there's peace; everything is calm and beautiful, the music speaking to us as clearly today is it did when it was written.

That's no coincidence. Sleepers Awake has its roots in another epidemic, one that cast a shadow over a small German town. It comes from a meditation on hope in an uncertain time, and took a long and surprising journey to reach our ears yet again with its message of comfort.

The Backstory

When we announce this lovely piece on WCRB, we usually say something like “Sleepers Awake, by Bach.” This is much, much easier to say than the full story, which sounds more like an academic bibliography: “an arrangement of the second chorale from Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140), based on the hymn of the same name by Philip Nicolai.”

Bach based his cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme on a popular Lutheran hymn. The melody of the hymn is woven throughout the cantata, and the three verses of the hymn are used as the text of the cantata’s three chorales. It’s a joyous hymn, focused on Jesus Christ’s return to his faithful followers. Still sung by Christians today, it was written by an otherwise obscure 16th century Lutheran pastor named Philipp Nicolai.

Philipp Nicolai

Nicolai was the pastor of a town called Unna, near the German city of Dortmund. He had just taken the job when the town was hit with a terrible plague. By the end, almost half of Unna had succumbed. For Nicolai, whose parsonage overlooked the cemetery and who had to perform countless funerals, it must have felt like the apocalypse. He consoled himself by writing a collection of meditations to, in his words, “comfort other sufferers whom [God] should also visit with the pestilence.” He called this collection his “Mirror of Joy,” a hopeful light shining in the midst of terrible darkness. And to round it off, he included two original hymns, one of which was Wachet Auf.

The Message

Wachet Auf shows how deeply Nicolai was affected by what was happening to his town. In a touching tribute, he hid the initials of a former student who passed away in the plague in the first letter of each verse. The words of the hymn speak of a bright light coming in the middle of the night, and the first verse tells believers to wake up from their sleep and hold up their lamps. Rather than preparing for some new awful thing, the hymn is saying to be prepared for joy by sharing your light. Nicolai’s lamp was his faith and his hope for a brighter future, and Wachet Auf was his way of shining that lamp for his congregation.

That message of hope and joy, written in the middle of profound tragedy, made Wachet Auf a popular hymn among Lutherans. Over a century later, Bach decided to use it in a cantata for his church. While most of the music in the cantata is his own, he based the chorales around the melody of Nicolai’s hymn. The second chorale is the piece that we now know as Sleepers Awake, and features an original melody that Bach pairs with Nicolai’s:

The whole cantata is really worth listening to, but the movement we're talking about starts at 15:20.

Bach starts his own melody first, dancing over the bassline. Then, he brings in Nicolai’s hymn as a slow, insistent counterpoint. The two melodies intertwine in a cross-century collaboration between an almost unknown pastor and one of the greatest composers of all time.

The next time you hear Sleepers Awake on WCRB, you can think about the long journey it took to get from 16th century Unna to 21st century Boston. Yet even after all of that, its message remains universal. We don’t know what will happen next, but we do know that we can and will get through it. What we can do now is be prepared, hold up our lamps, and bring light to each other’s lives. To everybody helping in whatever way they can through all of this, thank you. We’ll keep our lamp shining the best way we know how: by bringing you beautiful music like Sleepers Awake.

Tyler Alderson was formerly Operations Manager for CRB.