Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying
Philip Nicolai, 1599; translated by Catherine Winkworth
The year is 1598, and the time is early morning. A middle-aged minister in the Westphalian town of Unna is sitting at his desk, praying, with a pen in his hand. He is a poet, a theologian, and a musical composer all in one, rare even for that time, unheard of in ours. The plague has been through Unna — actually, since 1348, the plague had settled down in Europe for a five-hundred-year stay, periodically flaring up in virulence. So it did in Unna that year, and the minister, Philipp Nicolai, had been called upon to preside at many a funeral, and to bury many a friend. One of these was his student, a mere boy, the young Duke of Waldeck. In all his sadness, Nicolai gave himself up to the love of God, for whom he longed most fervently, writing that if God had given him everything that any human soul would desire, but not Himself, it would be nothing at all. Filled with the peace of confident expectation, he began to compose a hymn in his mind, and then to write it down, and so rapt was he in contemplation and composition, the night fell, and the time for supper was three hours past, before he arose. We may say that he was all awake: his spirits were most attentive. And as a loving tribute to his student, he began his three stanzas with the letters W, Z, and G, for the young GRAF ZU WALDECK.
It was the German hymn “Wachet Auf,” translated into English by Catherine Winkworth, who did more than any other person to bring the sacred German chorales into English churches. In Germany, people said that you weren’t really married unless they had sung this hymn at your wedding. Debra and I didn’t know about that, but we did love the hymn, and we chose it for our processional thirty-six years ago this day, when we were married in North Carolina. That is, we chose to enter the church to the great organ arrangement of Wachet Auf, by Johann Sebastian Bach. The hymn means even more to us now than it did then. For our son David has learned to play that piece, and that is no easy thing to do. You must imagine that the hymn melody is embedded musically into a completely different surrounding melody, with your left hand and your feet playing the one, and your right hand playing the other.
That’s complex, sure, but it’s what the old masters did all the time. And I guess it’s right, too, because what was going on in the hymn itself? A polyphonic song of joy and expectation, with many motifs from Scripture all woven together. The bridegroom is coming, so let the wise virgins trim their lamps with oil. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, the glory that is to come. Arise, Jerusalem, and greet your king! The sentinels are on the ramparts, they behold the break of day, and they sing for joy. The Lamb’s feast is ready, the table is prepared. The Savior has come, and worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.
But please don’t think that the hymn was just for the educated elites. Far from it! For there’s one more feature in it that makes it much more like a popular and boisterous medieval carol than like a piece of chamber music. In how many of those carols did the fine sons and daughters of merry England – and other nations too, for that matter – burst out with a little bit of Latin that everybody knew: Gloria in excelsis Deo! And sometimes they liked to draw out a syllable in a jaunty way, as in the so-called Boys’ Carol: Ideo, o, o, ideo, o, o, ideo gloria in excelsis Deo. Nicolai can’t restrain himself, but must break out in the joyous exclamation, Io, Io! – followed by the final line of his hymn, in a German and Latin mix: Ewig in dulci jubilo, Forever in sweet joy. Miss Winkworth knew better than to try to do that in her translation, which however captures all the literal meaning and the joyous power of the original.
Wake, awake, for night is flying, The watchmen on the heights are crying; Awake, Jerusalem, at last! Midnight hears the welcome voices, And at the thrilling cry rejoices: Come forth, ye virgins, night is past! The Bridegroom comes, awake, Your lamps with gladness take; Hallelujah! And for His marriage-feast prepare, For ye must go to meet Him there. Zion hears the watchmen singing, And all her heart with joy is springing, She wakes, she rises from her gloom; For her Lord comes down all-glorious, The strong in grace, in truth victorious, Her Star is risen, her Light is come! Ah come, Thou blessed Lord, O Jesus, Son of God, Hallelujah! We follow till the halls we see Where Thou hast bid us sup with Thee! Now let all the heavens adore Thee, And men and angels sing before Thee, With harp and cymbal's clearest tone; Of one pearl each shining portal, Where we are with the choir immortal Of angels round Thy dazzling throne; Nor eye hath seen, nor ear Hath yet attained to hear What there is ours, But we rejoice, and sing to Thee Our hymn of joy eternally.
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Happy Anniversary, Anthony & Debra!...And many more:)
being raised Lutheran i'm quite familiar with this hymn, but didn't know the WZG connection. Lovely!