In the course of his life as a church musician, Johann Sebastian Bach probably wrote 300 sacred cantatas. That seems like a high number to us, but consider that his contemporaries Telemann and Graupner composed well over a thousand cantatas each!
In what surviving documents we have, Bach himself rarely uses the Italian term “cantata” to describe these pieces, preferring “concertos,” “pieces” or simply “the music” to describe these works for Lutheran church services. It was only in the 19th century, as Bach’s music was being collected and catalogued, that the term “cantata” would become the official label for this sizeable chunk of Bach’s output.
Most of Bach’s cantatas were written for performance in Leipzig, where Bach was expected to provide sacred music for not one, but TWO churches, each Sunday.
On today’s date in 1731, the 27th Sunday after Trinity that year, Bach presented what would become one of his most popular cantatas: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, or “Awake, the Voice calls to us.” In the catalog of Bach’s work compiled long after his death, this is his Cantata No. 140.
The text is based on a parable from the Gospel of St. Matthew recounting the story of the wise and foolish virgins, who are called, ready or not, to participate in a wedding feast. The opening choral melody may have been already familiar to Bach’s performers and congregation, but his dramatic setting of it is downright ingenious.
Music Played in Today's Program
J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)Cantata No. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme)Bach Ensemble; Helmuth Rilling, cond.Laudate 98.857