For the Twelfth and last Day of Christmas and for the Feast of Epiphany let us examine the “Queen of Chorales,” “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” (“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”). Composed by the Reverend Philip Nicolai (1556-1608), it is often sung as an Epiphany hymn although it can be sung on other occasions as well.1
For this post, I simply wish to share two settings of this hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Both are from Cantata No. 1, a Chorale Cantata2 composed for the Feast of the Annunciation.3 The first is the spectacular opening movement of this cantata scored for two oboes da caccia , two French horns, bassoon, two solo violins, strings, and organ. Perhaps to interpret the loveliness and brightness of the “Morning Star”, Bach draws from the Italian concerto tradition casting the hymn into a concerto grosso with a solo group that consists of two violins, the two oboes, and the two French horns. The sopranos of the chorus sing the melody in long sustained notes while the rest of the choir, along with the orchestra, swirl around the it in joyful counterpoint. The two violins are especially virtuosic alternating statements of the thematic material with wonderful duets.
To listen to this first setting, follow the link below. The performance features the Peoria Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra in concert on June 6, 2008. The violin soloists are EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks and Laraine Kaizer.4 Both grew up in or near Peoria, studied at Bradley University with Marcia Henry Liebenow,5 and have earned doctorates in violin performance (from SUNY Stonybrook and Indiana University respectively). Below the link you will find an English translation of the text.
O Morning Star, how fair and bright!
You shine with God’s own truth and light,
Aglow with grace and mercy!
Of Jacob’s race, King David’s son,
Our Lord and master, You have won
Our hearts to serve You only!
Great and glorious,
Rich in blessing!
Rule and might o’er all possessing!
In the final triumphant chorale, the horns are featured. While the choir sings of present joy and of joy to come, the first horn plays the melody with the sopranos while the second horn is featured in a unique descant of triumphant fanfares.
What joy to know, when life is past,
The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning!
He will one day, oh, glorious grace,
Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning!
Come, Lord Jesus!
Crown of gladness!
We are yearning
For the day of Your returning!”
May God be with you in the New Year and give you joy, gladness, and great rejoicing!
- For a downloadable devotion on this hymn by Nathan Eickmann from the Center for Church Music, click here. To read the full text, click here.
- A Chorale Cantata is a cantata based on a hymn.
- The Feast of the Annunciation is not generally observed by Lutherans anymore. It celebrates Mary receiving from the angel Gabriel the announcement that she was to be the mother of the Savior. It is held on March 25, nine months before December 25 when His birth is celebrated.
- For information on Emmy, visit www.newportstringproject.org. For information on Laraine, visit www.larainespainting.com.
- For information on Marcia, visit www.marciahenry.com