BWV 645

All of Bach: a project by the Netherlands Bach Society

Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme

BWV 645 performed by Wolfgang Zerer
St. Catherine's Church, Hamburg

Wolfgang Zerer explains how Bach adapted an aria for this famous organ work.

Ultimate vigilance

A simple arrangement demonstrates Bach’s genius.

Five wise virgins and five foolish virgins are waiting for their bridegrooms. When night falls with not a fiancé in sight, the wise virgins extinguish their lamps, while the foolish ones go to bed without thinking. When the men turn up in the middle of the night, the wise virgins are ready to leave, but the foolish ones miss their opportunity, as their oil has run out and they have no light. This parable from the Gospel according to St Matthew about vigilance and the Last Judgement is read out on the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year. Logically, it became associated with the chorale ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’. Bach’s organ version is possibly his best-known organ work, after the Toccata and fugue in D minor, BWV 565.
This chorale arrangement is more or less a literal copy of ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’, the fourth movement of Bach’s masterly cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. The viola and violin parts are played in unison in the right hand and the bass parts in the pedal, while the chorale ends up in the tenor. The arrangement is simple, with a couple of surprising tricks. The lack of harmony above the now stark bass, for instance, is barely discernible due to extra suspensions and other ornaments. This is the essence of Bach’s genius. Even when there is no elaborate continuo part, his melodies still hold their own.

Schübler-Choräle, BWV 645-650
They may have a number and an epithet, but that does not necessarily mean that Bach wrote the six enchanting Schübler Chorales himself. Five of them are arrangements of known cantata movements – and the sixth may well be an arrangement too, from a lost work. Whereas some people, for example Wolfgang Zerer, do not doubt the hand of the master and identify a well-considered construction in it, other specialists see a big gap between Bach’s own refined transcriptions and these works that have often been transferred rather literally to the organ. Did the master give this task to his son Wilhelm Friedemann, for example? Did he want to give opportunities to players of more popular music in Clavier-Übung III, as well as to the most virtuoso organists? Were these hits also bestsellers when arranged? Although we do not know the answers, it is a fact that Bach himself owned a copy of Schübler’s publication, which is very interesting for its abundance of improvements and changes by a composer in the latter years of his life.


Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

organ work (chorale arrangement)

Schübler-Choräle/Sechs Choräle von verschiedener Art



special notes
Arrangement for organ of the fourth movement of cantata BWV 140, published by Johann Georg Schübler in Zella.

Cast & Crew

release date 16 October 2015
date 21 October 2014
LOCATION St. Catherine's Church, Hamburg
Organ Various builders between the 15th and 19th century. Restoration: Flentrop 2013.
ORGANIST Wolfgang Zerer
PRODUCER Frank van der Weij
FILM DIRECTOR Jan Van den Bossche
CAMERA ASSISTANTS Andreas Grotevent, Lucas Lütz
FILM EDITOR Jasper Verkaart
interview Onno van Ameijde
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Vadim Dukart, Andreas Fischer

Vocal Texts




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