Updated: May 3
German: Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern
Text: Philip Nicolai (1556-1608) Tune: Philip Nicolai (1556-1608)
Philipp Nicolai, (1566-1608) Lutheran pastor in Unna, near Dusseldorf, Germany, wrote this hymn, tune and text, now known as the Queen of Chorales. (The King of Chorales is "Wake Awake for Night is Flying" also by Nicolai.) It is said he wrote it during the pestilence of 1597 when he had to preach at many funerals. The constant grief overwhelmed him, but one day his sights were raised to the Morning Star, Jesus Christ. He is said to have spent the entire day doing nothing but writing this hymn of great joy in the midst of the darkest time.
The hymn is based on Psalm 45, known as the wedding psalm. Nicolai adds to it the image of the Morning Star from Revelation 22:16. It became the hymn for weddings
and funerals in Germany. Lutherans also used it for the celebration of the
annunciation, when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel.
Johan Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata "Wie Schon Leuchter der Morgenstern" for the celebration of the Annunciation in 1725. He used this hymn as the basis for his composition. He followed the language and thought of the entire hymn in his cantata, using the first and last stanzas of the hymns with two arias of rapturous beauty in the middle. These were reflections on the meaning of the Annunciation. They enhanced the pastor’s sermon on the same biblical passages.
The cantata was first performed on Palm Sunday, March 25, 1725, unusual during Lent but allowed when it was also the Feast of the Annunciation. It expressed the Christian’s great joy in the teeth of despair because of the coming of Jesus.
Imagine the sturdy burghers of Leipzig coming to the Thomas church where Bach
was cantor and hearing this for the first time. The spring was just about to bloom
and Holy Week was beginning. This joyful respite from the penitence of Lent, just
before the deep reflections of Holy Week, must have lightened the steps of the
congregants. Customarily the congregation sang the last stanza of the hymn along
with the choir and instruments. Bach reveled in the opportunity to preach the
gospel on the day’s texts in all of his many cantatas.
The first recitative ends with a wonderful exclamation at the coming birth of Jesus in
Bethlehem: “O sweet delight, O heav’nly bread/Which neither grave, nor harm, nor death/From these our hearts can sunder.” Good words for today! Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
May the rapturous beauty of the cantata give you joy in the coming of the Lord.
Especially in this time of plague and pestilence!
Nicolai wrote both tune and text for this hymn. One can find the entire text of the hymn by scrolling down to the bottom of the page
at this link:
The text of the entire cantata can be found here.
Then if you choose to expand your Sunday devotions, you can listen to or watch the
first section of the cantata being performed here.
If you would like to hear the entire cantata, known as Wie Schön Leuchtet der
Morgenstern, BWV 1, Amazon Music will let you download it if you are a member