Cantata BWV 1Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern


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This cantata was first performed on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25th March 1725. The Feast of the Annunication celebrates the moment that Mary is told by the Archangel Gabriel that she will become pregnant and bear the Christ-child. It's an important feast that usually falls within Lent (and in 1725, it actually fell on Palm Sunday, which is the last Sunday of Lent). Lent has been called a 'musical desert', because as a time of penitential thought, musical extravagances were not considered appropriate. To this day, for example, no Glorias are sung in masses during Lent.

Yet what we have in this cantata is a musical extravaganza of the first order: a large orchestra and a four-part choir tell us that Bach was keen to exploit the relaxation of the dour Lenten approach to music performance occasioned by the Feast of the Annunciation! He uses two horns, two oboes da caccia and two concertante violins to give a rich, sparkly orchestral sound to the work. The lively figurations played by the violins, in particular, are designed to evoke the idea of 'twinkling' and sparkling light coming from the Morning Star which, by allegory, is meant to allude to Jesus himself. References to the inspiration of light and flames accordingly occur time and again throughout the entire cantata text. It was considered such a lovely and happy cantata that the publishers of the first collection of Bach's works decided to begin their work by publishing this cantata first, thus causing it to acquire the 'BWV 1' number in their catalogue index.

For his melody, Bach used a hymn by Philipp Nicolai, dated 1599 (though the tune itself is some 60 years older than that), and set the text of its first and last verses for his own movements 1 and 6. The text of the other verses from the original hymn are paraphrased  in Bach's inner movements, too.

In the opening movement, it is the sopranos who get to 'carry the tune': it's written with the fairly unusual time signature of 12/8 -a compound time that gives the regular sense of 4/4, but with a more dancing three sub-beats per main beat. It's going to sound bouncy and 'dancy' by its very nature (and does!)

The soprano aria (movement 3) is meant to conjour up images of dancing flames, thanks to the use of a perky little line from the oboes da caccia and the elaborate coloratura from the soprano. The tenor aria (movement 5) is another 'spiky' movement, implying sparks and flames, though sung against a dance-like minuet pulse. There are multiple coloratura episodes on the word 'Gesang' (singing) -making it a tricky one to perform!

Personally, I find it a charming and inoffensive cantata. But it doesn't particularly grab me by the lapels and demand I listen to it, with menaces! It is sweet and doesn't disturb, and one can well imagine Bach's original audience finding it a welcome break from the austerity of the preceding days of Lent: a point of repose and refreshment, perhaps; but not one of inspiration or a call to action. So whilst it's clearly a good work that pleases, it's only getting a 'B' from me in the ratings stakes.

Bach Translations and Notes are copyright © Howard Rogers 2020, All Rights Reserved