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Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. I continue to recommend La Festa Musicale’s beautiful series of Advent Chorales on YouTube. Their offering for this Sunday is Johann Crüger’s 1640 setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star). With an almost overwhelming number of performances appearing online over the past weeks, I really wanted to offer some new writing today. There is so much to tell about this particular chorale and all the ways Bach used it in his cantatas. And it helps that today is a rainy Sunday here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When Crüger wrote his setting in 1640, the chorale melody already existed. The chorale is generally attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), but the melody of Nicolai’s hymn might have been based on an existing hymn (with different text) from Wolff Köphel’s 1538 Psalter hymnal. Nicolai wrote the hymn in 1597, when the town where he preached was ravaged by the plague. During that time, as Eduard van Hengel suggests, Nicolai must have had to bury dozens of members of his congregation each day. He published it two years later, as part of a hymnal meant to provide comfort in those trying times, called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of Joy of the Life Everlasting). This publication also featured the famous Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us).

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern was most likely a compelling chorale for Bach. He used it in many cantatas (see below), but the melody first appears in an organ work. In fact, the score of this organ fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739) is the oldest surviving manuscript by Bach. Paper analysis has shown that the piece must have been notated between 1703 and 1709. (Thanks to the Netherlands Bach Society for providing this information on their website).

After that, in cantata movements, Bach would either use the original melody (Nicolai’s, see picture above), or Crüger’s version of it. The difference appears in the third line of text, and can be seen in this image, at superscript number 6. Green is Nicolai’s version, blue is Crüger’s.

In these two cantatas, Bach used Crüger’s version:

Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, in 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the two French horns in the opening chorus. This was the last of Bach’s 1724/1725 continuous series of chorale cantatas, and to me, it communicates a similar Advent sparkle as Cantata 62 from that same series.* Per the standard format for these cantatas, Bach featured the first verse of the chorale in the opening movement, and the last verse in the final movement. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here. Soloists are Eva Oltiványi, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Manuel Walser, bass. To understand why it might make sense that the theme of Advent is celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation, please find my blog post from 2018 about Cantata 1 here.

Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up), an extra-long cantata in two parts, written for the first Sunday of Advent in 1731. The cantata was based on a secular cantata from 1725** but for this First Advent occasion, Bach included several movements based on two Advent chorales: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles) in the soprano-alto duet, the second tenor aria, and the closing chorale; and the sixth verse of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the chorale at the end of Part I of the cantata.

Bach used Nicolai’s version of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the following cantata movements, each time in a different way:

  • The penultimate movement of Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (Ring out, you songs, resound, you strings!) for Pentecost in 1714 (verse 4)
  • The closing chorus from Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland for the First Sunday of Advent in 1714 (last 4 lines of verse 7)
  • The chorale for soprano and alto (3rd movement) from Cantata BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Whoever believes and is baptized) for the feast of Ascension in 1724 (verse 5)
  • The aria for bass with chorale for soprano (6th movement) from Cantata 49 Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen for the 20th Sunday after Trinity in 1726 (verse 7)

As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. Read my blog post from 2016 and 2017 about this cantata here.

Wieneke Gorter, December 13, 2020.

*Find my first blog post about Cantata 62 here and a more detailed explanation of how it fits into the series of chorale cantatas here.

**Read more about the history of Cantata 36 in my post from 2017 here.