Sleepers wake!

I struggle with J.S. Bach’s famed cantata Sleepers Wake! (Wachet Auf).


Some years ago I attended the Canberra Choral Society‘s Christmas Concert, as guest of a friend who sings in the Society’s choir. The program was Sleepers Wake [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140], Heinreich Shütz (1585-1672) Die Weihnachtshistorien [Christmas story], and and Saint Saëns‘s Christmas Oratorio. I’d never heard any of these properly, so I looked forward to the concert.

The Saint-Saëns piece, played in the second half of the concert, was delightful. But I got very restless in the first half as the Bach and Schutz droned on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Bach, especially his keyboard music. So what was wrong?

Bach prepared a shorter version as the first (BWV 645) of his Six Chorales of Diverse Kinds (the Schübler Chorales BWV 645-650). As played by organist Ton Koopman Ton Koopman,in Bach Organ Works v.2, it’s truly superb (Teldec 4509 94459 2).

We sing the hymn version of Wachet Auf in church. Our organist is top-class, yet only a few can sing the thing and it drags terribly. So I’m led to a heretical question. Why does such a well regarded piece so dull? (Or why is such a dull piece so well regarded?)