Johann Sebastian Bach: Zion hört die Wächter singen
J. S. Bach’s church cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (‘Awake, calls the voice to us’) was composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. It’s first performance happened on the 25th November 1731. This work completed Bach’s second annual cycle of choral cantatas that he started in 1724. The cantata is based on three stanzas of Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is scored for three vocal soloists (soprano, tenor and bass), a four-part choir (SATB) and a chamber ensemble consisting of a horn, two oboes, taille, violin piccolo, strings and basso continuo.
Zion hört die Wächter singen is the fourth movement of the cantata, and is based on the second verse of Nicolai’s hymn. German & English translations
Zion hört die Wächter singen, / Zion hears the watchmen sing,
das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen, / her heart leaps for joy within her,
sie wachet und steht eilend auf. / she wakens and hastily arises.
Ihr Freund kommt von Himmel prächtig, / Her glorious Friend comes from heaven,
von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig, / strong in her mercy, powerful in truth,
ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf. / her light becomes bright, her star rises.
Nun komm, du werte Kron, / Now come, precious crown,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn, / Lord Jesus, the Son of God!
Hosianna! / Hosannah!
Wir folgen all / We all follow
zum Freudensaal / to the hall of joy
und halten mit das Abendmahl. / and hold the evening meal together.
Written in the style of a chorale prelude, with the text being sun by the tenors from the chorus. This particular chorale doesn’t put the whole onus on the voices. The orchestra play a key part in this movement, with the lyrical melody played by the strings becoming one of Bach’s most iconic melodies. The opening orchestral prelude is led by the violins and violas as they set in the famous lyrical line. Played in unison, the phrasing that Bach uses is what makes it such a powerful statement of union. The tenors then enter intermittently between the string motif. Their line is often simple in rhythm and slow in movement. With the orchestra utilising quavers and semiquavers, the voices enter chiefly with crotchets and minims. Bach’s incredible use of word painting lights up the text in Zion hört die Wächter singen, with particular phrases bringing the work to life. For instance, the second line in sees the tenors leap (like the text) into a joyous upper register which shows the direction of the text as well as the music. Throughout the chorale various words are emphasised by either the choir, the orchestra, or even both to highlight their importance. Words like ‘Hosianna!’, ‘mächtig’ and ‘Freudensaal’ are all enriched by the chorus and orchestra working together harmoniously.
Zion hört die Wächter singen is a fantastic example of Bach’s uncontested sacred choral writing. From the iconic string theme to the syncopated simplicity of the tenor cantus firmus, this chorale is one of the highlights of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.