Updated: Mar 26, 2022
English: How Lovely Shines the Morning Star
German: Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern
Icelandic: Sjá, morgunstjarnan blikar blí∂
Norwegian: Ei morgonstjerne klar og fin
Swedish: Du morgonstjärna, mild och ren
Psalm 45; Revelation 22:16
Text: Philip Nicolai (1556-1608) Tune: Philip Nicolai (1556-1608)
It's always a bit startling during Lent to suddenly hear the annunciation text being read. But the Christian faith is about very natural and physical things as much as spiritual. Jesus' incarnation sanctifies and makes blessed our flesh and life on earth, even as he comes to save us from the degradations into which the flesh can sink. It has called forth from artists some of the most beautiful art we have. My favorite is Botticelli's "Annunciation" found in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It is a sermon on what happens when Gabriel comes to Mary and asks her to be the mother of our Lord.
Mary is standing, the angel kneeling, holding a lily that is still moving; his entrance has been so swift. We can see something is happening. Their clothes mirror each other, one sees inside Mary's blue coat to a red dress, traditional colors for her. Their hands almost touch. She is serious and maybe sees what her yes will portend. In back we can see the two cities and the river between them: heaven and earth, waiting to be connected by an unfinished bridge, This moment will connect the two. The laurel tree is like the tree in heaven showing the defeat of death. And if you follow the lines between their hands they meet at the church steeple. Much more can be said, but meditate on it for a time.
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 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 Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern" for the celebration of the Annunciation. 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 Jesus.
Especially in a time when evil seems to be threatening all life, see, here the new life that will be born and make all the difference to the world!
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:
Choir singing hymn
Bach Cantata BWV 1 Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Text and information about cantata
The text of the entire cantata can be found here.
Another version of cantata