2014-02-02 Notes from the Bench

“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” by Philipp Nicolai

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

The German Lutheran chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (translated as, “How bright appears the Morning Star” in The Hymnal 1982, #497) is today’s closing hymn and the basis for the chorale fantasia setting composed by Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707), today’s prelude selection. This chorale is considered by many to be one of the all-time great German chorales, along with “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Awake, a voice calls to us”). The text and music were written by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), a Lutheran pastor in Unna, Westphalia, a region in Western Germany. Following a regional pestilence in 1597, Nicolai contemplated the doctrines of Eternal Life through the Blood of Christ and wrote the original German text as part of a series of daily meditations which were published in 1599, in a book entitled, Frewdenspiegel dess ewigen Lebens (Mirror of the Joy of the Life Everlasting). The text of the hymn was inspired by Psalm 45 and Revelation 22:11. Since its publication, numerous composers through the Baroque, Romantic and Modern eras have based vocal and instrumental works on “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.”

Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707) was an organist and composer of the mid-Baroque period and today is considered among the most important composers of the era. Buxtehude was born in Helsingborg, Skåne, at that time a part of Denmark, but now part of Sweden. Buxtehude is probably best known as the organist for the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the principle church of an imperial city located in present-day northern Germany. Buxtehude succeeded Franz Tunder in this position in 1668, with the stipulation that Buxtehude agree to marry Tunder’s daughter, Anna Margarethe, which was a common practice during this time. In 1703, when Buxtehude was ready to retire, he offered his position to George Friderich Handel and Johann Mattheson with the requirement that they marry his daughter; however, they both refused the offer and quickly left Lübeck. In addition to his duties as musician, Buxtehude attended to the church finances as bookkeeper.

Buxtehude composed a variety of vocal and instrumental works, and was closely associated with the annual Abenmusiken, or evening music, held at the Marienkirche; a series of music performances that attracted a variety of musicians including Johann Sebastian Bach. Buxtehude is best known for his important organ works wiich are included among most organists’ standard repertoire. Among Buxtehude’s chorale-based compositions is his well-known chorale fantasia “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.”

Chorale fantasias are typically longer compositions, a genre that originated during the seventeenth-century and composed by north-German organists, notably Heinrich Scheidemann (1595-1663) and Franz Tunder (1614-1667). These extended chorale settings allow the composer opportunities to elaborately treat each phrase of the melody with different motives and textures, as heard in the Buxtehude setting.

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