Sleepers, Wake (J S Bach, arr. Philip Sparke

from Canata 140 ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent the last 27 years of his life as cantor (he preferred rather grander title Kapellmeister) at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig. It was a position with which he was never entirely happy: he frequently argued with the authorities there and eventually took on other work in Dresden. As part of his Leipzig contract he had to provide for Sunday services cycles of cantatas, which were traditionally based on Lutheran chorales relevant to the church year. He produced almost one a week, five yearly cycles in all, although many of these have not survived.

Cantata 140 was written in 1731 for the 27th Sunday after Trinity (the first week of Advent) and is based on a chorale by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) and takes as its text the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

The fourth movement of the cantata is beautiful in its simplicity and consists of only three melodic lines: unison violins and violas play a graceful melody over the chorale tune (sung by the tenors of the choir in the original and played in this arrangement by trumpets and trombones) and a basso continuo. It is an example of Bach’s counterpoint at its elegant and imaginative best, all the more remarkable in the knowledge it was part of a frenetic cantata output, written during a period when he had grown disillusioned with his social and musical position in Leipzig.