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.

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.

Editor's Notes:

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:

Translations on this site include:

  • Benjamin Hall Kennedy, ed., Hymnologia Christiana, Or, Psalms and Hymns Selected and Arranged (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1863), #1008. , pp. 259-260, and

  • Lord Horatio Nelson, et al., The Sarum Hymnal (Salisbury: Brown and Co., and W P. Aylward; London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1868), #24, p. 32.

3. Wake, Arise! The Call Obeying. A good translation by A. T. Russell, as No. 110 in the Dalston Hospital Hymn Book 1848. [Note that the "Dalston Hospital Hymn Book" is properly titled: Hymns for Publish Worship and Private Devotion, For the Benefit of the London German Hospital, Dalston (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1848).]

4. Wake, Oh Wake; Around Are Flying. This is a recast, by A. T. Russell, not for the better, from his 1848 translation, as No. 268 in his Psalms & Hymns. 1851, stanza 3 being omitted. Thence, unaltered, in the New Zealand Hymnal, 1872.

5. Wake, Awake, The Night Is Flying. A very good translation by Miss Catherine Winkworth, in her Lyra Germanica, 2nd Ser., 1858, p. 225, repeated in her Chorale Book for England, 1863, No. 200, with stanzas 2, 7, 8, rewritten. Included in the English Presbyterian Psalms & Hymns, 1867; Scottish Presbyterian Hymnal, 1876, &c.; and in America, in Laudes Domini, 1884, and others. In the Cantate Domino, Boston, U. S., 1859, it begins "Awake, awake, for night is flying."

6. Wake! The Startling Watch-Cry Pealeth. By Miss Frances Elizabeth Cox, in Lyra Messianica, 1864, p. 4, and her Hymns from the German, 1864, p. 27; repeated in W. F. Stevenson's Hymns for Church and Home, 1873.

    The version in J. L. Porter's Collection, 1876, takes stanzas 1-4 from Miss Cox. The rest is mainly from R. C. Singleton's translation in the Anglican Hymn Book, but borrows lines also from Miss Winkworth, and from the Hymnary text.

7. Wake! The Watchman's Voice Is Sounding. By R. C. Singleton. This is No. 259 in the Anglican Hymn Book, 1868, where it is marked as a "versification by R. C. Singleton, 1867."

8. Wake, Awake, For Night Is Flying. This is by Canon W. Cooke, in the Hymnary, 1871, and signed A. C. C. In the edition of 1872, lines 7, 8 of stanza 2 are recast, and the whole is marked as "based on E. A. Dayman." It is really a cento, four lines of the 1872 text (1, line 5; 2, lines 7, 8; 3, line 9) being by Canon Cooke; and the rest being adapted from the versions of P. Pusey as altered in the Sarum Hymnal, of Miss Winkworth, of Miss Cox, and of R. C. Singleton. It may be regarded as a success, and as passed into the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge Church Hymns, 1871; the 1874 Appendix to the New Congregational Hymn Book; Horder's Congregational Hymns, 1884, and others.

9.  Wake, Arise! The Voice Is Calling. This is an anonymous translation in the Ohio Lutheran Hymnal, 1880. [Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal. 16th Edition. (Columbus Ohio: The Lutheran Book Concern, 1896), #462, pp. 412-413.]

10. Slumberers, Wake, The Bridegroom Cometh!, The Rev. J. H. Hopkins (1820-1891). A spirited version, based on Miss Winkworth (and with an original stanza as 4.), by J. H. Hopkins in his Carols, Hymns & Songs, 3rd ed., 1882. p. 88, and dated 1866. Repeated in the Hymnal Companion (Reformed Episcopal) Philadelphia, U.S., 1885.

(1) “Awake, the voice is crying." In Lyra Davidica, 1708, pp. 73-74.

(2) Awake! Awake! The Watchman Calls By Miss Henrietta Joan Fry, Hymns of the Reformation (London: Charles Gilpin, 1845), pp. 33-36.

(3) "Hark! the trump of God is sounding." By Dr. Henry Mills, 1845 (1856, p. 269). This is from the altered form by F. G. Klopstock, in his Geistliche Lieder, 1758, p. 246, as further altered in Zollikofer's Gesang-Buch, 1766, No. 303, where it begins "Wachet auf! so ruft."

Editor's Note: This hymn contains no references to the Bridegroom or any of the other themes that we've seen in other translations. The heading is "Resurrection of the Saints," and it deals with the Second Coming, but does not seem to have anything to do with Nicoli's "Wachet auf." As it envisions the Second Advent, it is properly on this website, just not here. But so that you can make up your own mind, here it is: Hark! The Trump Of God Is Sounding.

(4) "Awake, arise, the voice gives warning." In the United Presbyterian Juvenile Missionary Magazine, 1857, p. 193; repeated in 1859, p. 171, beginning, “Awake, arise, it is the warning."

(5) “Waken! From The Tower It Soundeth" By Mrs. Francis A. Bevan, Songs of Eternal Life (1858), p. 1.

(6) Up! Awake! His Summons Hurried. By James D. Burns, in The Family Treasury, 1860, p. 84, and his Memoir & Remains, 1869, p. 234.

Additional Translations

Sleepers, Wake! A Voice Astounds Us, Carl P. Daw, Jr. (1944-)

Up! Awake! From Highest Steeple, George Ratcliffe Woodward (early 1900s)

Wake, O Wake! With Tidings Thrilling, Francis Crawford Burkitt (1906)


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