Himself the son of a Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai was born at Mengeringhousen in Waldeck (near Arolsen), Hessen, Germany, on August 10th 1556, he started his university career in Erfurt in 1575 but a year later he forsook Erfurt in favour of Wittenberg graduating in 1599 and from where he ultimately received his doctorate in divinity in 1594. His career is a testament to the social religious turmoil then engulfing Germany. He was forced to resign his first independent posting as a preacher because the Town Council were Catholics who reintroduced the Mass after the invasion by Spanish troops in 1586. He then held several posts but in 1592 was prohibited from preaching by Count Franz of Waldeck who supported the Calvinists in the "Sacramentarian controversy". Four years later in Unna in 1596 he was again locked in bitter dispute with the Calvinists but his time there was filled with grief as a result of an outbreak of Bubonic Plague which took place during 1597 and 1598 and ended with him being forced to flee for his life on December 27th 1598 from the invading Spanish troops. He did not return to Unna until the end of April, 1599.
Living amongst these scenes of plague, fear, death and grief, together with his own escape from an agonising death at the hands of Spanish soldiers caused Nicolai considerable distress, to relieve this anguish he turned once again to study immersing himself in St. Augustine's "City of God" and contemplating eternal life. So effective were his studies and meditations that he wrote a book of meditations entitled "Freudenspiegel deß ewigen Lebens", ("Joyful Mirror of the Eternal Life") which included amongst its devout reflections two hymns "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" and "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" that are notable both for their ardour and for their complex musical rythmns.
A Radical Departure in Lutheran Music
"Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("How brightly shines the morning star") marks the start of something new, something that must have been very exciting in Lutheran church music. Nicolai published "Freudenspiegel deß ewigen Lebens" at a time when Lutheran music – in particular Lutheran hymnology, was modelled upon the simplicity and fitness for purpose of early Latin hymnology, psalmody, and the hymns attributed to Saint Luke. Nicolai's writings broke with this and pioneered a new style which soon became very prevalent and which led to that class of hymn callled "Hymns of the Love of Jesus." This new departure resembles in some ways some of the late medieval hymns devoted to the Virgin and to the Saints, its scriptural basis was the Song of Solomon and the Apocalypse and it not only reached back to pre-reformation hymnology but also built upon the Lutheran foundation of hymns addressed to God the Father through the intercession of Jesus, the intercession of the Trinity, or if the hymn was one of sorrow and repentances through the intercession of The Saviour. However this new style pioneered by Nicolai did not stop there it developed further taking as one of its subjects Nicolai's conception of the mystical union of the soul with Christ and (as the theme was taken up by later hymnologists) even allowing the use secular allusions and similes. It marks in short the transition from the objective to the subjective in Lutheran hymnology and laid the basis for the numerous hymns such as those written by Franck and Scheffler which celebrate Christ as the soul's bridegroom.
I said above that "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" must have been very exciting for his contemporaries and those who followed after him. It rapidly became what I can only describe as a hit. It was seized upon by the composers of the period, Buxtehude used it (BuxWV223), as did Kuhnau (I have a posting in draft form about this and plan on publishing it towards the end of February), Bach used it repeatedly (BWV 1, 739, 763, 764,), and so did Praetorius. But it didn't stop there it entered civic culture too, Nicolai's tune was used by city chimes , it was a regular fixture at weddings, and its verses were to be found in pamphlets, samplers, and even on earthenware.
Praetorius: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
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