The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

For Advent

Words: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), 1599

Music: "Nach," Hans Sachs (1494-1576),
adapted by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)
arr. and harm. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / XML
Meter: Irr.

Based on the parable of the ten virgins: Matthew 25: 1-13

1. "Wachet auf," ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
"Wach auf du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde!"
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
"Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohlauf, der Bräutigam kommt,
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit zur Hochzeitsfreud;
Ihr müsset ihm entgegengehen!"

2. 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!
Wir folgen all zum Freudensaal
Und halten mit das Abendmahl.

3. Gloria sei dir gesungen
Mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schön.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Tore
An deiner Stadt, wir stehn im Chore
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt,
Kein Ohr hat mehr gehört
Solche Freude.
Des jauchzen wir und singen dir
Das Halleluja für und für.

Translations on this site include:

Julian lists the following additional translations in Common Use (1892):

Others not in Common Use, according to Julian:



From July 1597 to January 1598, a terrible pestilence ravaged the town of Unna, in Westphalia. For weeks, up to 30 funerals were held in the church. The parsonage of the Lutheran pastor overlooked the graveyard. Over 1,300 fell victim to an agonizing death. Son of a Lutheran pastor, Pastor Philipp Nicolai was regarded as an outstanding and influential preacher, who gained his Doctor of Divinity degree from Wittenberg University in 1594.

During this fearful time, Pastor Nicolai’s thoughts turned to death, and then to God in Heaven, and, finally, to the Eternal Fatherland. He wrote, in the preface (dated Aug. 10, 1598) to his Frewden-Spiegel:

"There seemed to me nothing mere sweet, delightful and agreeable, than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of Eternal Life obtained through the Blood of Christ. This I allowed to dwell in my heart day and night, and searched the Scriptures as to what they revealed on this matter, read also the sweet treatise of the ancient doctor Saint Augustine [De Civitate Dei].... Then day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted In heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my, manuscript the name and title of a Mirror of Joy, and took this so composed Frewden-Spiegel to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare use in health) to comfort other sufferers wham He should also visit with the pestilence.. . . How has the gracious, holy God most mercifully preserved me amid the dying from the dreadful pestilence, and wonderfully spared me beyond all my thoughts and hopes, so that with the Prophet David I can say to Him "O how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee," &c.

He was especially moved by the death of his fifteen-year-old former pupil, Count Wilhelm Ernst who died at Tubingen, September 16, 1598, in the very midst of this horror. These feelings gave rise to one of Nicolai's most beautiful hymns: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Wake, Awake, For Night Is Flying" and many other translations). Described by John Julian as "one of the first rank" the hymn has a deep scriptural basis. While it comes primarily from the story of the wise and foolish maidens as recorded in Matthew 25: 1-13, it is not limited to that parable, but expands to include:

According to Julian, it first appeared in the Appendix to his Frewden-Spiegel, 1599, in 3 stanzas of 10 lines, entitled "Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom. Matt. 25.", and was widely reprinted after that.

In structure, it is a reversed acrostic, W. Z. G. for the Graf zu Waldeck, viz. Count Wilhelm Ernst. Probably the opening lines;

"Wachet anf! ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne"

are borrowed from one of the Wachter-Lieder, a form of lyric popular in the Middle Ages, wrote Julian. But while, formerly, the voice of the Watchman from his turret summons the workers of darkness to flee from discovery, with Nicolai it is a summons to the children of light to awaken to their promised reward and full felicity.

The melody is also apparently by Nicolai, though portions of it, according to Julian,  may have been suggested by earlier tunes. He continues, "It has been called the King of Chorales, and by its majestic simplicity and dignity it well deserves the title."

The first harmonized version of the tune appeared in the mid-16th century, in the famous Scandinavian collection Piae Cantiones of 1582, subsequently by Praetorius and then Bach. Sir John Stainer's popular 19th century harmonization is the version most familiar to us today.

Displaced while his home underwent reconstruction, J. S. Bach wrote this most famous of his cantatas, #140.

This cantata remains popular with people of all ages, according to Alan C. Collyer. He writes that the fourth movement based on the second verse "Zion hears..." appeals to many young people today with its beautiful, biting counter melody against the chorale sung by the tenors. The first movement appears as an extended chorale with the sopranos singing the melody in long notes with each other part weaving around in glorious counterpoint. The final verse with its magnificent transcendent text, combined with Bach's harmonization in E flat (a bit high for the congregation!) can be called, writes Collyer, a deeply spiritual and religious experience.

Sources Consulted:

Christian Classics Ethereal Library [Accessed February 27, 2002; for information on Philipp Nicolai]

Director of Music at St Paul's Lutheran Church, Victoria, Australia - Alan C. Collyer [Accessed February 27, 2002; link broken January 3, 2009]

Emery University, "Rose In Winter 1998: International Traditions and Carols" [Accessed February 25, 2002; link broken January 3, 2009.]

John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892, 1907 (Reprinted by Dover, 1957)

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