More Than A Bach Wake-up Call

September 12, 2019
 

I could just imagine what you were thinking. When I began the program with the famous chorale prelude by Bach known as “Sleepers Awake” on a Monday morning, I guessed that you probably would assume that it was a reference to Monday mornings in general and the lasting effects of weekends.

It wasn’t. It could have been. And because I supposed that you would be thinking it was, I decided to do more than just play the prelude and let you wonder if that’s all I had in mind. In case you weren’t tuned it, I mentioned a few things about the famous piece. 

First of all, a chorale is a congregational hymn. The term sounds just like a similar word. And indeed, Peter Schickele, in his “research” into the music of PDQ Bach, once introduced us to the “OK Chorale.”

A chorale prelude is an instrumental introduction to a hymn and may incorporate improvisation and composition. The full title of the chorale prelude “Sleepers, Awake” is “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” which is translated “Awake, the Voice is Calling.” The reference is to a biblical passage about the importance of being prepared – spiritually.

Bach based an entire cantata – a work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra – on the hymn with that title. The hymn is by Philip Nicolai, written almost a century before Bach was born. Nicolai was living at the time of an outbreak of the plague, which might help explain the subject matter of the hymn. 

Bach’s cantata includes the famous chorale prelude. It’s basically Nicolai’s hymn tune with what Bach added to it – including the well-known opening, which serves as a countermelody and accompaniment to the hymn tune. In the cantata, it’s the orchestra that plays Bach’s prelude. He arranged it for solo organ.  And the famous piano transcription is by Ferrucio Busoni.

I didn’t mean to spoil the fun for those who would have been satisfied with just the thought that I was referring to the universal challenge of trying to get going on a Monday morning. But now they – and you -  know that there’s more to “Sleepers Awake.”

For those who travel each morning, sometimes it’s just when they get going that they find themselves having to wait for long traffic lights or at railroad crossings. I was steered into thinking about those listeners recently when I played a little overture by Luigi Boccherini. I noticed it being described as a fast and spirited piece that suddenly has to come to a halt to let a slower episode pass. And then it’s on its way again.

That description is suggested in the recording notes of musicologist David Montgomery. When I searched for him online – and by the way, he’s a conductor and keyboard artist as well – I had to wait for entries for running back David Mongomery, a rookie with the Chicago Bears, to go by. And those seemed to go on and on. Bears fans might find that to be a good omen.

I’m guessing that even if you have to stop and wait for trains, you never stop to think about what train conductors do when they retire. So I’m guessing you don’t think about what orchestra conductors do when they retire. How do they “conduct” themselves at that point? Do they get fidgety when they go to concerts or even when they’re just listening to orchestral recordings, wanting to interrupt and give the players a few pointers? Do they find themselves waving wooden spoons and spatulas as if those were batons while they’re in the kitchen?

I had all sorts of amusing thoughts when I learned that the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink announced his retirement after 65 years on the podium. And he announced it at a ceremony at which the Vienna Philharmonic made him an honorary member. That wasn’t just a nice gesture. He has conducted that orchestra more than 100 times over the years since 1972, as well as having made recordings with them.

Haitink turned 90 earlier this year, and there were rumors that with a busy schedule at age 90, most of those engagements were probably farewells. Well, now it’s official. But don’t’ be alarmed. We’re not retiring his recordings – not a chance!

And don’t worry about having to be wide awake to join us for Classic Mornings. We’ll get you going with or without Bach! Tune in Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.


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These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

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