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Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing

Our Story So Far:
  • ~500 BC: Isaiah refers to Jerusalem/Zion as the "Bride of God"
  • 63 BC: Roman conquest of Jerusalem
  • 70 AD: Roman legions destroy the Temple following an unsuccessful rebellion;
    the Jewish diaspora (dispersion) begins
  • 85-90 AD: Gospel of Matthew written, containing the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, in which Jesus warns his disciples to "keep awake" even though "the bridegroom is delayed"
  • 1599: Philipp Nicolai publishes Freu­den­spie­gel des ewig­en Leb­ens (Joy­ous Mir­ror of Eter­nal Life), which contains the Advent hymn "Wachet auf", ruft uns die Stimme ("Wake up," the voice calls us)
  • 1731: Bach composes the cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme for the 27th Sunday after Trinity
    • In the first movement, the sopranos sing the hymn over a wedding march played by the orchestra, while the other voices echo "wach auf, wohl auf" ("wake up, get up")
    • The "Alleluia" is a little fugue (fugato)
The Groom,the Bride, the Feast
Before Bach's setting of the second verse of the hymn, the tenor soloist announces, "He comes, he comes! The Bridgroom comes!", describing the groom in terms taken from the Song of Songs. This is followed by a love duet between Jesus and the Soul. Note the shift of metaphor: here the bride is the Soul rather than Zion. One commentator remarks:
...the dialogue between Jesus and the Soul... was a conventional theme, introduced into music (as dialogue) by Andreas Hammerschmidt in 1644. For the biblical bride and bridegroom motif, see also [as well as Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21] Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1 and particularly Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49. The erotic approach to the union of Soul and Jesus is usually based on an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs and goes back to the Provence of the troubadours and romantic love. Erotic mysticism was well-established (even as part of mainstream Catholicism) by the 12th century. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), for instance, was very explicit in this respect in his famous sermons on the Song of Songs. Both Bach and his text writers seem to feel quite at home in this tradition, which was not really interrupted by Luther's reformation. In fact, Lutheran Germany was directly influenced by the Catholic tradition, which culminated in the 16th century poetry of Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Throughout Bach's cantatas, Jesus is addressed as "bridegroom", which is, according to the tradition, justified by Matthew 25.
Coming now to the second verse of the hymn, we see that the Bride is again identified as "Zion" - Philipp Nicolai wrote it in 1599, prior to the introduction of the Jesus/Soul figuration in 1644!
  • In this verse, the "Bridegroom" reference is now clearly Jesus.
  • There is also an implied reference to the Church, the "new Zion" or "New Jerusalem", as the Bride:
    "We follow all".
  • The "wedding feast" (Hochzeit) has now become the "evening meal" or "supper" (Abendmahl).
    • The German term for the Eucharist is heilige Abendmahl ("holy supper").
Topics for Discussion
  1. In what sense can the Eucharist be considered a symbolic "wedding feast"?
  2. In what sense is it an "Advent celebration"?
German text Literal translation
Zion hört die Wächter singen,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig,
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf.
Nun komm, du werte Kron,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn! Hosianna!
Wir folgen all Zum Freudensaal
Und halten mit das Abendmahl.
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
her heart for joy is springing,
she awakes and gets up in haste.
Her friend comes from heaven in his splendour,
strong in mercy, mighty in truth.
Her light grows bright, her star rises.
Now come, you worthy crown,
Lord Jesus, God's son! Hosanna!
We all follow to the joyful hall
and share the evening meal.
Winkworth (1858) translation
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 blessèd One,
God’s own belovèd Son: Alleluia!
We follow till the halls we see
Where Thou hast bid us sup with Thee.