Bach's Cantata 140, Part 1. T. Herbert Dimmock provides an introduction to this work by discussing the bridesmaids' parable and the special use of the number 2.  BDP #306.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

Welcome to the virtual concert series of Bach in Baltimore. I would like to introduce to you right now one of Bach’s most beloved Cantatas and actually one of my favorites. It is Cantata 140, Wachet auf, rug tuns die Stimme, in English “Wake, Arise, the Voice is Calling.” It is a cantata associated with Advent usually. It was first performed in November of 1731. So, Bach being bornin 1685 and dying in 1750, he was at the absolute height of his powers, just 20 years abefore his death.

The work is based on one of the parables of Jesus as found in St. Matthew’s gospel the 25th chapter. The parable centers on the story of ten bridesmaids who are waiting for a bridegroom. The bridesmaids fall into two groups: those who are prepared for this evening wedding and those who are not. Bach focuses on this idea of two and it is going to permeate the entire Cantata from end to end as well will see.

First of all, the Cantata itself is composed on two levels. There is the literal level, the story. Basically this is the retelling of the parable. And a deeper story, a subjective story that explores the expansion of a personal commitment for all of humanity. So, the idea that first appears in the Cantata shows up like this.


Did you notice two things about this? The first thing is that the strings and oboes are playing at the bottom of their ranges. So, there is a darkness to the color. So this is reminiscent of it being at night time. But then the rhythm pattern.


That rhythm is called the “French Overture Style.” I think it is important to know what that refers to. It is music that was first written for King Louis the XIV of France, the so called “Sun King.” Ever since it first appeared, it has been associated with royalty. So, Bach is saying in this opening music that this piece about the story of bridesmaids is awaiting a royal bridegroom.

So, we are talking about Bach writing for two groups. Here we see the two groups. Here are the double reeds of the orchestra. Here we have the upper strings the violins and violas. This French overture style with rhythm is showing that the royal bridegroom is coming. It is alternated from one group to the other, back and forth. Emphasizing the fact that this is in groups of two.

<music, opening to Cantata 140>

So, where is this bridegroom coming from? Well, the bridesmaids aren’t really sure.
So, we have both groups of instruments have their first player—the first violin and the first oboe—go off and search. So, the violin plays <music> this kind of energetic, exciting hunt, running off and looking. After that the oboe plays <music> also looking. They are looking in different directions. Rather quickly they can’t find him. Again, Bach alludes back to who they are looking for: a royal bridegroom. Now both instruments, particularly the oboe, go way up high to a mountain top, if you will, and linger up there. When they linger up there, they have these long note reminiscent of a halo or perhaps a crown. Again, another reference to a king. It sounds like this here is our oboe <music> staying up top, hunting for the bridegroom.

Now at this place the sopranos in the choir are going to enter. They are going to sing this tune associated with Wachet Auf. This is a well-known tune. In fact, Phillip Nicolai wrote this hymn tune 100 years before Bach. So, the tune is 400 years old and it is still can be found in many, if not most hymn books today. That is what a wonderful and beloved tune it is. The sopranos come in and sing that tune in long notes.


Of course, underneath the royal rhythms <music> continues to go and above it the solo violin and solo oboe continue to search. So, while the sopranos are singing this long and stately tune you hear <music> and <music> and <music>. On and on they look searching for this bridegroom, which in the music (which Bach has indicated) is a royal bridegroom.

Now, this treatment of the of the text continues all the way through this hymn, which is a long hymn, until it gets to the word, alleluia, towards the end. I just love this place. Every time we get to this place, I just cherish it. At this place, Bach’s inventive genius, the plasticity of his melodies assert themselves in a wonderful way. Actually, the image that came to my mind the very first time that I did this was of reading a definition in an unabridged dictionary—say the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary. You know how when you read the definition of an interesting word, sometimes the definition covers and entire column within the dictionary. Well, that is what Bach does on the word “alleluja.” He is trying to say in his treatment of the word alleluja, that our alleluias should be endlessly inventive and joyful. He writes and endlessly inventive and joyful treatment for this word.

Now, all four sections of the choir are going to sing this. I am just going to play one section of the choir, the first one to come in, which is the alto. I am just going to play their first treatment of the word alleluja, and you will see how it just goes and goes and has different rhythms, different runs and melismas, and all kinds of interesting things. There are syncopations and dancing notes as Bach’s astonishing genius asserts itself on the word alleluja. By the way, it is reminiscent a little bit of what we heard the violin and oboe do in the beginning hunting for the bridegroom.


That is not even the end of this wonderful alto line. It is weaving and dancing together with the other lines within the piece. It is just a wonderful moment. So, I hope when you listen to the entire work you will particularly burrow in at this moment and appreciate and enjoy Bach’s amazing genius at this spot.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>