Hymn of the Week: November 28
by David Sinden, Organist and Director of Music
St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ladue
Hymns 61 and 62: "'Sleepers, wake!' A voice astounds us"
"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start," sings Julie Andrews in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. Every Advent, the Church year starts anew, and we sing the story from the beginning once again.
In many hymnals, the hymns appear in the order of the liturgical year, so the hymn found at the very beginning is an Advent hymn.
Many early German hymnals began with "Savior of the nations, come!" (Hymn 54 in The Hymnal 1982), which may explain why it received so much attention from composers of chorale preludes for the organ. These composers, too, thought the beginning was a very good place to start.
The English Hymnal (1906) begins with "Creator of the stars of night" (Hymn 60 in the 1982), a translation of the Latin Office Hymn "Conditor alme siderum."
In the Episcopal Church, The Hymnal 1940 began with "Come, thou long-expected Jesus." Hymn 3 in this hymnal is "'Wake, awake for night is flying,'" Catherine Winkworth's translation of the German chorale "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme."
In The Hymnal 1982, the beginning of the Advent section of the hymnal is a bit harder to find. The hymnal begins with an extensive Service Music section, followed by 52 hymns for use at the Daily Office. We don't reach Advent until Hymn 53. And the German chorale "Wachet auf" is included in a translation by Carl P. Daw, Jr. at Hymn 61 and 62.
Even if it isn't the very first Advent hymn in our hymnal, Hymn 61 "'Sleepers, wake!' A voice astounds us," long identified with the beginning of the Advent season, remains as appropriate for the First Sunday of Advent as it ever was. Watchfulness, wakefulness, and readiness — this hymn's themes open our eyes to the fresh liturgical start Advent provides and some of the more eschatological aspects of our faith.
In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent this year, Jesus implores us to "be on guard" and to "be alert at all times." On this day in Year A, this sentiment is rendered "Keep awake" in the Gospel of Matthew. In Year B, the reading from Luke is particularly insistent, with Jesus repeating the command in the final line of the pericope: "And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
The splendid chorale tune for this hymn, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" by Philip Nicolai, has been called the "King of Chorales." Its heraldic opening — ascending notes outlining a major chord — is a clarion call to a holy wakefulness. (Incidentally, Nicolai also composed the "Queen of Chorales," often sung in Epiphany: "How bright appears the morning star," Hymns 496 and 497). In The Hymnal 1982, J. S. Bach's harmonization of the tune is used at Hymn 61, and a more historic rendering of Nicolai's tune is found at Hymn 62.
For whatever reason, recordings of the hymn as it appears in the Hymnal 1982 are few and far between. So instead, I invite you to listen to Bach Cantata 140, which takes the original German chorale tune as its point of departure.