How bright appears the Morning Star

Hymn #329
Text: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)
Music: Philipp Nicolai

The text for this hymn was originally published (in German) in 1599, with the first line “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” Originally including seven stanzas, it bore the title “A spiritual bridal song of the believing soul concerning Jesus Christ, her heavenly Bridegroom, founded on the 45th Psalm of the prophet David.” This description may perplex us, as we often sing this hymn during the Epiphany or Advent seasons, and — based on the English translation in our Hymnal — for good reason. After all, the first stanza ends with the plea: “Great Emmanuel, come and hear us.” The second stanza refers (with allusions to the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians) to the “whole creation’s Head and Lord” assuming “our very nature,” while the third stanza explicitly uses the somewhat technical theological term “Incarnation.” Those are affirmations resonate well with Advent. The text also expresses the Epiphany theme of the Gospel being extended to the whole world: “till all know thy salvation.” But how is this a bridal song?

Our Hymnal credits William Mercer (1811-1873) with the paraphrasing of Nicolai’s hymn. Mercer was an Anglican priest and hymnal editor, who in the 1850s published his rather loose rendition of Nicolai’s text. The bridal imagery in Nicolai’s title gets played down significantly in Mercer‘s translation.

In Advent, the Church/Bride reminds herself that she awaits her Bridegroom. Nicolai’s title suggests a marriage between Christ and the individual believer, not Christ and the Church. John Julian, in his Dictionary of Hymnology (1907), writes that Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern “marks the transition from the objective churchly period to the more subjective and experimental period of German hymn writing; and begins the long series of Hymns of Love to Christ as the Bridegroom of the Soul.” The original text is frankly hard to imagine as a congregational hymn:

1. How beautifully shines the morning star
full of grace and truth from the Lord,
the sweet root of Jesse!
You son of David from the line of Jacob,
my king and my bridegroom,
have taken posession of my heart,
[you who are] lovely, friendly,
beautiful and glorious, great and honourable,
rich in gifts,
lofty and exalted in splendour!

2. Ah my pearl, my precious crown,
true son of God and Mary,
a king of most noble birth!
My heart calls you a lily,
your sweet gospel
is pure milk and honey.
Ah my dear flower,
hosanna, heavenly manna,
that we eat,
I cannot forget you!

3. Pour most deeply within my heart,
you clear jasper and ruby,
the flames of your love,
and make me rejoice, so that I may remain
in your chosen body
a living rib!
Because of you,
gracious rose of heaven,
my heart is sick and smouldering,
wounded with love.

4. A joyful light from God comes to me
when with your dear eyes
you look on me as a friend.
Oh Lord Jesus, my beloved good,
your word, your spirit, your body and blood
refresh me within.
Take me like a friend
in your arms, so that I may become warm
with your grace
To your word I come invited.

5. Lord, God, Father, my mighty hero,
before the world you have
loved me in your son.
Your son has betrothed me to himself,
he is my treasure, I am his bride,
most greatly I rejoice in him.
Yes, yes.
Heavenly life he will give me
in the the world above!
My heart shall praise him for ever.

6. Pluck the strings on the harp
and let the sweet music
resound full of joy,
so that with dear Jesus,
my most beautiful bridegroom,
in constant love I may make my pilgrimage!
Sing, leap,
rejoice, triumph,
thank the Lord!
Great is the king of honour!

7. How full I am therefore of heartfelt joy
that my treasure is the alpha and the omega,
the beginning and the end;
To his reward he will
take me up to paradise,
and so I clap my hands
Amen! Amen!
Come, you sweet crown of joy,
do not long delay,
I wait for you with longing.

William Mercer’s “paraphrase” as it has appeared in the Episcopal hymnals since 1916 is stirring and theologically compelling, but it has little to do with Pastor Nicolai’s original. The text as we sing it survives in The Hymnal 1982, but with a more accurate attribution: “Words: William Mercer (1811-1873), after Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608).” That preposition between the two names is certainly doing some heavy lifting.

Here are the three stanzas that appear in our Hymnal:

1. How bright appears the Morning Star,
with mercy beaming from afar;
the host of heav’n rejoices.
O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod,
the Son of Man and Son of God,
we too will lift our voices:
Jesus, Jesus, holy, holy, yet most lowly,
draw thou near us;
great Emmanuel, come and hear us.

2. Though circled by the hosts on high,
he deigned to cast a pitying eye
upon his helpless creature.
The whole creation’s Head and Lord,
by highest seraphim adored,
assumed our very nature;
Jesus, grant us, through Your merit,
to inherit Your salvation.
Hear, O hear our supplication!

3. Rejoice, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply;
with praise, ye sinners, fill the sky
for this, his incarnation.
Incarnate God, put forth thy pow’r;
ride on, ride on, great Conqueror,
till all know your salvation.
Amen, amen! Alleluia! alleluia!
Praise be given
evermore by earth and heaven.

Here is a recording of this hymn sung by the All Saints choir, part of our 2020 Choir in Quarantine project.


So, if the text we sing in this hymn doesn’t really represent Philipp Nicolai’s original poem, surely the tune (designated FRANKFORT in our Hymnal, more commonly known as WIE SCHÖN LEUCHTET) was Nicolai’s creation, as our Hymnal indicates. Well, maybe, but (without going into the details) it seems that Nicolai may have patched this tune together from a few earlier sources, which was not a disreputable practice in the 16th century, before modern notions of “intellectual property” took hold.

Whether he actually deliberately cribbed from those sources we don’t know. We can be fairly certain that the original was more rhythmically complex, with some snappy syncopation. The version we sing may not be as rhythmically interesting, but it boasts a harmonization by Johann Sebastian Bach, who seems to have liked this tune a lot, featuring it in several cantatas. The last half of the melody is used in the final movement of the Advent cantata Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61). That movement begins with two “Amens,” and then the choir sings the very last lines of Nicolai’s bridal poem: “Come, you beautiful crown of joy, do not delay for a long time! I wait for you with longing.” The entire chorale melody is heard in the middle of one of his other Advent cantatas, Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36), with the text from verse 6 of the poem. Clearly, Bach recognized in this wedding song an analogue of the Advent longing.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (BWV 172), written for Pentecost Sunday, closes with a rendition of the 4th verse of Nicolai’s hymn. Finally, a cantata Bach wrote for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary (commemorating Mary’s visit to Elizabeth), Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1), opens with a festive chorus that features the melody of this wonderful hymn, with the 1st verse of the poem in its original and intimate form.

Bach also wrote at least three chorale preludes for organ based on thus tune, including this one (BWV 739), played here by Kay Johannsen.

When Bach wrote this piece, he was extending a long tradition of composing variations on this melody. For example, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was always on the lookout for festive tunes that he could arrange for choral and instrumental forces. Here is one of his settings of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, performed by the instrumentalists of Musica fiata and the voices of La Capella Ducale, directed by Roland Wilson.

A bit later, another German composer, Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), would experiment with this melody. Here is a chorale prelude for organ played by Timothy Roberts.

Finally, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), an organist and composer who had a great influence on the Bach family, composed this more intricate and festive setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.