Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying'

History of Hymns: 'Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying'

4 2 p nicolai
Philipp Nicolai

by HANNAH RACHAL

“Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying”
by Philipp Nicolai; trans. Catherine Winkworth
The United Methodist Hymnal, 720

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
and at the thrilling cry rejoices;
“Where are the virgins pure and wise?
The Bridegroom comes, Awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
Alleluia!
With bridal care and faith's bold prayer,
to meet the Bridegroom, come, prepare!”

The end is near! At how many doomsayers have we rolled our eyes as we drove past them on a crowded street? Most of us feel that we will not live to see a Second Coming and have a difficult time relating with these individuals, leading us to feel uncomfortable with their rather abrasive tactics. As unnerving and somewhat annoying as we may find these encounters now, they likely pale in comparison to what was occurring among those living in medieval Europe.

In that era, there were many more amid the populous who were sure the end of this world was nearly upon them. It’s easy to understand why they believed that, when you consider all the large-scale tragedies occurring around them – plagues, wars, political and religious upheavals. It’s hard to imagine any feeling of stability or assurance in such an environment. Surely, this must have meant that the end was near.

Many theologians, especially the Protestant reformers, were constantly concerned with preparing for the second coming of the Messiah. Most notably, Martin Luther (1483–1546), the father of the Reformation, shared this ideology. Luther’s rebellious posting of his 95 Theses began the Reformation in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. He had a strong influence on the religious identity of medieval Europe. Thus, the religious art of the time reflects these apocalyptic sentiments. From the anguish of medieval artists, we inherited a marvelous body of hymnody centered around Christ’s second coming and, as The United Methodist Hymnal categorizes it, “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Luther’s influence and teachings reached Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), who studied at Wittenberg from 1547 to 1549. Nicolai studied theology at Wittenberg and Erfurt (1574-1579) and was known to be an orthodox Lutheran. Following the completion of his degree in Wittenberg (1594), he was a pastor in five parishes throughout Germany. He composed several volumes of poetry that centered around Christ’s eminent return (Temperley, n. p.). “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Wake, Awake for Night is Flying”) is his best known and most proliferate work. It was first published in an appendix to the author’s Der Freuden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens (“The Joyful Mirror of Eternal Life”) [Frankfurt-am-Main, 1599]. His legacy to hymnology rests upon “Wachet auf” and a companion chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”) [The UM Hymnal, 247]. These two works have been dubbed the “king and queen of chorales,” respectively.

Hymnologist J. Richard Watson provides the context for the hymn:

The hymn is thought to have been written at Unna [the congregation served by Nicolai between 1596-1601] during the plague of 1597, when Nicolai, who witnessed the deaths and internments of many of his flock, determined in his Frewden-Spiegel “to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence” (Julian, 805; quoted by Watson, n.p.).

Indeed, Nicolai acknowledges this context in his preface to Freuden-Spiegel des ewigen Lebens:

Day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God, wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my manuscript the name and title of a Mirror of Joy . . . to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom he should also visit with the pestilence . . . (cited in Glover, 1994, 117).

“Wake, Awake” gained much popularity among Germans. Eventually the hymn reached Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878), a young Anglican Englishwoman who was studying the German language. Winkworth published Lyra Germanica II (1858), in which she translated “Wachet auf” as “Wake, Awake.” From this translation, the hymn gained much esteem among English-speaking faith traditions and has since been included in most mainline denominational hymnals.

Following a pattern of medieval symbolism, Nicolai paid homage to his student at Altwildungen, Grah Zu Waldeck, by beginning each of the three ten-line stanzas with a letter from his name – a reversed acrostic: W-Z-G:

Wachet auf . . .
Zion hört . . .
Gloria sei . . . (Watson, n.p.)

4 1 wachet auf
“Wachet auf”

This text, which became increasingly prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, recalls biblical narratives concerning the end of this world. “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying” is associated with the scripture reading that traditionally occurs on the twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost or the last Sunday of the church year: Matthew 25:1-13. Luckily, for those of us who feel detached from the idea of an end-time, both the lectionary for the end of the Christian Year, along with Advent, help us remember Christ’s promise to come again and help us to prepare for his return.

In this gospel reading, we are taught the parable of the ten virgins. They are equally split into “silly” and “smart”; their status is completely determined by their preparedness. All ten awaited the coming of a bridegroom. The women became drowsy, and all began to slumber while they waited. When the bridegroom arrived, the silly (unprepared) virgins had to leave to purchase more oil for their lamps. The smart virgins, having prepared for such an incident and equipped to be more patient, were in attendance at the beginning of the wedding feast. This cautionary tale warns Christians to be prepared for the Messiah’s arrival.

The gospel text is paralleled in all the stanzas of the hymn, although the first stanza most completely recounts the reading and closes with a charge to “go and meet [Jesus]” at the feast. The second stanza discusses Jesus’ coming “down all glorious” to meet us, referring to him as “God’s Beloved Son,” echoing the passage in John 3:16 and foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This sentiment is rounded off in the closing line in which the image of us being “bid sup with thee” is understood to be the Eucharistic supper, and a foretaste of our eternal heavenly banquet – the marriage supper of the Lamb found in Revelation 19:6-9 (Watson, n.p.).

The final stanza closes with a vision of a new heaven and new earth in which all are adoring and worshiping with harps and cymbals and beautiful voices. Here, we are inspired to see ourselves as a member of the “choir immortal,” though we cannot fully imagine the glory that is to come.

Both text and tune are thought to be contrafacta, a medieval compositional technique of borrowing from earlier works, in this case love songs from the Meistersinger tradition. Thus, the tune WACHET AUF, though composed by Nicolai, may have been influenced by an earlier melody by Hans Sachs (1494–1576), a German Meistersinger (master singer) who was a wildly popular poet, playwright, and shoemaker. German folk music of the day, as well as many chorales (German hymns), were composed in the Bar Form (A A B). Two phrases from a common Meistersingers’ love song “Silberweise” are virtually identical to the measure at the end of each of the A sections. Furthermore, Nicolai may have been inspired by the shape of the opening notes of the fifth Gregorian psalm tone that rises with a triad (Glover, 1994, 118).

The juxtaposition of secular human love in the Meistersinger tradition with the eternal love of the Lamb in Revelation in Nicolai’s chorale was not a problem during the medieval era, where the distinction between secular and sacred realms was not pronounced. Indeed, the era was known for its “Jesus songs” that celebrated both the sensuality and transcendental mysticism of nuptial love of which Nicolai’s chorales were prime examples (Temperley, n.p.).

A great deal of the hymn’s popularity is attributed to J.S. Bach (1685–1750). In 1731, Bach’s Leipzig choir performed his Cantata 140, Wachet auf, translated “Sleepers Awake,” using both its music and text in three of the seven movements. For this cantata, Bach reharmonized Nicolai’s 1599 version of the hymn and simplified the melodic rhythm, making most note values the same (“isorhythm”), a common modification by Bach of earlier German chorales. The chorale appears once again in the oratorio St. Paul (1834-1836) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

Catherine Winkworth, a leading translator of German hymns, classified this hymn as “extremely beautiful, and express[ing] most vividly that sense of fellowship with Christ, of His presence and tender sympathy, of personal love and gratitude to Him, which are among the deepest and truest experiences of the Christian life” (Winkworth, 1869, 159). Through this imagery, we are reminded that Christ not only will return but does return. Through worship, we prepare our hearts to commune with God and our souls for everlasting glory. We are reminded that Christ is with us when we partake of the Holy Supper and that when we worship on earth, we are joining the saints and angels above in their unending songs of praise.

Recent hymnals have often adopted a fresh translation of the original German by Carl. P. Daw, Jr. (b. 1944), “Sleepers, Wake!’ A Voice Astounds Us” (1982) prepared for the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (1985).

Sources and Additional Reading

Raymond F. Glover, The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. IIIA (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994).

John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London: John Murray, 1892).

Nicholas Temperley. “Philipp Nicolai. “The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 16, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/philipp-nicolai.

J. Richard Watson. “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 16, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/wachet-auf,-ruft-uns-die-stimme.

Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany (London, England: Macmillan & Company, 1869).


Hannah Rachal is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where she studied hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program.

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