How does one begin to introduce an iconic work of art that has been scrutinized, analyzed, bowdlerized, dissected, mimicked, transformed, and performed by countless numbers of musicologists, performing musicians, and music lovers? The answer perhaps lies in the question, in the recognition and acknowledgment that "Wachet auf" has achieved iconic status, that the chorale melody that constitutes the cantus firmus is instantly recognizable, and that in its various guises it has appeared, and continues to appear, in a multiplicity of contexts.
Wherein lies its appeal? In its deceptive simplicity? The elegance of its line? Its "hummability"? Its grounding in the human experience? The unequivocally positive trajectory of its message? Probably, "all of the above".
Three choral movements, one at either end and one directly in the center -- Mvt. 1, Mvt. 4, and Mvt. 7 -- provide a solid framework and elevate the rhetoric of the text, a 1599 hymn by Philipp Nicolai, to the universal. The intervening recitatives and arias represent, between the supporting pillars of the choruses, at one level the natural dialogue between a prospective wedding couple, and at another level the communion between Jesus and the Soul of the Believer, together encompassing the entire range of experience between earthly passion and heavenly love (or earthly love and heavenly passion -- take your pick). The author of the text for these recitatives and intimate, but powerfully seductive duets is unknown, but we do know much about their sources. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I highly recommend reading, from Part II of the BCW discussions of BWV 140, Dick Wursten's 2002 enlightening analysis of the connections between the text of these arias and their origins in the Song of Songs. http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV140-D2.htm
Dick also confronts the issue of historical relativism, always a point of contention with Bach, but even more so than usual with such a potentially volatile text: "The so called 'modern' and 'enlightened' Christian feels 'ashamed' of the direct, highly emotional and very concrete language and imagery which Nicolai uses as a poet in 1599 (and which is the power of his poetry)." Literal interpretations of these verses can be implicitly, even explicitly, erotic, while the allegorical connotations of such a human but heavenly union generate an almost tactile immediacy for the believer, enabling him to more effectively grasp his perceived connection to the Deity.
Gender distinctions abound in BWV 140 from beginning to end. Earlier this summer, the suggestion that "flirtatious" and "seductive" characteristics could be attributed to the soprano/bass duet inBWV 192 was dismissed because of the stricture against female singers in a church setting. Given the sources, the subtext, and the metaphorical context for BWV 140, however, it would be difficult to deny the presence of females in the soprano roles, regardless of whether they were sung by a female or a boy soprano. Not only do we have an implicit progression at the literal level of courtship through wedding consummation in the recitatives and soprano/bass duets, but the text forNicolai's hymn is based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). According to Ruth Tatlow: "Luther’s bodily interpretation of biblical images led to some startlingly explicit sexual allusions in Lutheran cantata texts about Jesus and the Soul. Although these may strike a modern audience as irreverent, to the original hearers they were simply a beautiful depiction of the mystic union." And, with respect to the first duet, Alfred Dürr writes: "Musically, the movement belongs among the most beautiful love duets in the musical literature of the world."
The barest outline of a plot might read as follows: the initial midnight cry of the watchmen for the virgins to be prepared (Mvt. 1), the urgency and anticipation of the bride at the approach of the bridegroom (Mvt. 2 and Mvt.