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Bach's famous cantata was written in 1731 as music to be included in a church service - despite its simplicity, it's now one of Bach's most famous in the genre thanks to its inclusion of a well-known tune.
The opening words of this cantata, Wachet auf, which translates as ‘Sleepers Awake’, contains a tune written by a Lutheran pastor called Philipp Nicolai.
It caught Bach’s attention during his golden Leipzig period. It wasn’t unusual for Bach to transform original melodies by other chorale and hymn-tune composers into his own works of art. The most famous section of this cantata is Part IV: ‘Zion hears the watchmen calling’ and it is here that Nicolai’s tune features.
The first performance of this most beautiful of wake-up calls was on 25 November 1731, which was the 27th Sunday after Trinity – the specific day for which the work was written to be performed. It is notable that there can be only 27 Sundays after Trinity in years when Easter falls early. As a result, this now famous cantata was, in fact, rarely heard in the years after it was written.