Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) Christmas hymn: Vom Himmel hoch (1831). Video Source: Youtube.
Merry Christmas! Above, a Christmas hymn from Mendelssohn, a great 19th century admirer of Bach. See my earlier post on Mendelssohn, here. Below, Bach's cantata 140, Sleepers Wake, is properly played on the 27th Sunday after Trinity, or the last Sunday before Advent, in late November. Given the mood of Advent 2016 - gloom from the liberals, and glee, mixed with conspiratorial paranoia, from their opponents - the message of Sleepers Wake remains relevant this Christmas.
When every news headline today announces catastrophe, and people are bitterly divided over values and politics, it helps to remember what a real catastrophe is. Sleepers Wake is a much-loved piece for a very good reason, and it is not just Bach's music.
Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), a Lutheran pastor and poet, wrote the chorale upon which Bach's 1731 cantata is based. Nicolai composed the original hymn after falling ill with the plague in the late 16th century. He expected to die, as did most people in his town. Instead, he recovered.
Today, we can cure the plague - barely. It takes all the powers of modern medicine, and weeks on life support in intensive care. How miraculous would it be, then, to survive the plague in the 16th century? Imagine Nicolai, waking in amazement from the bed he thought was his death bed. He thanked God for surviving the Black Death by writing two hymns. They became known as the King and Queen of Chorales: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us, or, Sleepers Wake; 1599) and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How lovely shines the morning star; pub. 1599).
These hymns became famous, and on penning them, Nicolai entered history. Sleepers Wake has apocalyptic themes and refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins. But all aspects around the hymn really ask: how grateful would you be, if you faced your greatest fears, the most terrible test, and survived? If you survived the scourge? Sleepers Wake says, wake up, be glad, and be ready not for doom and death, but survival and a happy life instead. If you are so inclined, thank God for it. We live in secular times, when the religious message of Christmas is muted, and the holiday has been diminished by materialism and conspicuous consumption. It was never about that. For millennia, before Christianity and after, it was about the solstice, and reaching past darkness. I will say: thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - Cantata 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 (1731). Video Source: Youtube.