Following Bach’s cantata writing in 1725, we have now come to Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an oh so pretty composition with two horns in the orchestra, also the very last of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas. And Bach probably knew that when he was writing it. It is based on the chorale about the Morning Star, a metaphor for Christ.
The recording of this cantata I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, with soprano Monika Mauch, counter-tenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephan MacLeod. Please find it here in my playlist on Spotify. If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can purchase the album here on Amazon or listen to Harnoncourt’s recording on YouTube.
Find the text here: http://bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV1-Eng3P.htm
Find the score here: http://bach-cantatas.com/BGA/BWV001-BGA.pdf
This cantata was the first I ever wrote about. It was in college, as an assignment for Frits de Haen: we had to compare a modern-instrument and a period-instrument recording of a piece of our choice. I don’t remember why I selected this cantata. At the time the only period-instrument recording I had was the one by Harnoncourt. Frits loved the review I wrote (in Dutch) and kept giving me nudges to write more. For several years in a row after that first review I wrote for his class, I would run into him at the Utrecht Early Music Festival or at another concert, and he would always ask “are you still writing?” or “why aren’t you writing?” and told me that I should really write every day or every week. His words have always stayed with me and are one of several reasons why I started writing this blog in January 2016.
You might think it is because of Palm Sunday that there was music in the Leipzig churches again on this Sunday. However, in Leipzig Palm Sunday was firmly part of Lent (the 40 days of introspection before Easter): no thinking beyond the crucifixion until Good Friday, and thus not celebrated with music. Or was it?
An exception was always made for the Annunciation of Mary: if that day, March 25, fell within Lent, it would still be celebrated, an thus Bach could write a cantata for that day.
The only surviving Bach cantatas for the Annunciation of Mary, Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen from 1714** and Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern from 1725 were written for days when this holiday fell on Palm Sunday. And perhaps not surprisingly, both these cantatas are also very much Palm Sunday cantatas, or at least Bach’s librettist interprets the Annunciation as yet another announcement of the arrival of Christ. The references to the coming of Christ outnumber the references to Mary, in the text as well as in the music.
I think it is striking that in Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern Bach uses a chorale that was so strongly associated with the Christmas season, and writes music that is festive and perhaps even regal, but at the same time humble, with horns in the orchestra instead of the trumpets and timpani he would have used for a bigger holiday. Whether he was indeed illustrating the Palm Sunday story (a humble king entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey) I don’t know, but it is very well possible.
Wieneke Gorter, March 23, 2018.
**Read more about Cantata 182 in this post.