The Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated each year on 25th March and for this day – on which, as an exception during Lent, music was performed in Leipzig – Bach wrote this cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The lesson and gospel passage for this day are closely related. The lesson – Isaiah 7: 10-14 – contains the traditional prophecy related to the birth of Christ: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. The gospel passage, Luke 1: 26-38, tells how the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. The familiar chorale text by Nicolai is filled with the expression of abundant love for Jesus, and Bach’s librettist reworks the middle strophes in Advent-like anticipation of joy by focusing our attention on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
When the founders of the Bach Gesellschaft were unable to procure the manuscript for the Mass in B Minor, their original choice as the inaugural volume in the publication, they chose ten of the most brilliant and varied cantatas to introduce to the world. Eight of the ten cantatas were from the 2nd Jahrgang. Our cantata here was the first. It was a brilliant choice, for the founders were dealing with Bach's reputation as a dry fugue writer. Here they have a piece with an extraordinarily colorful orchestration, based upon a still familiar tune, mostly happy and verbally unthreatening. The editors of the Bach Gesellschaft thought that their constituency would be mostly church musicians. Here they failed to draw that body of musicians in. Even a cursory look at the volume reveals not only many instruments either unknown or rare in 1850, oboes d'amore, violoncello piccolo, oboes da caccia. Even the modern equivalent of this last-named instrument, the English Horn, was not as prevalent as it is today. French horns were unused to playing in the stratospheric range of Cantata BWV 1. The imagined revival of this music in the churches of Germany never happened; it is still much more common in concert halls than in liturgies. Certainly the exotic sound of the two solo violins, the two high F horns, the two oboes da caccia, in addition to the strings and continuo, has nothing to do with the sound of the modern orchestra as imagined then or now.
What is quite wonderful in either a period instrument or modern instrument performance of this piece is how well it sounds, how almost miraculously everything balances out, how, with a relative minimum of effort, every strain of this elaborate texture can be heard. This is not always the case with Bach's orchestration. Some instrumental and vocal combinations that were logical in the 1720's are now problematical. But here, perhaps the most bizarre and exotic combination of instruments in all the cantatas works well. Much of that brilliance is the perfect use of different registers for each pair of instruments. The highest register is occupied by the two solo violins, sometimes doubled by the rest of the strings but usually alone. The alto register is occupied by the horns. They are usually used in a motivic fashion, and while understandably less active than the violins are nevertheless quite agile. The tenor range is occupied by the oboes da caccia. They also play with great agility but often because of their range play in unison. The cantus in long notes for the sopranos is pitched quite high so never has a problem being heard.
The chorale tune is one of two by Philipp Nicolai used by Bach in the 2nd Jahrgang. Like its companion "Wachet auf!" it is a large bar-form melody, although unlike "Wachet auf!" by Bach's time the last four phrases had been consolidated into two. There are four discernable themes. The first combines a theme derived from the chorale with figuration illustrating the "morning star." In addition an arpeggiated figure and a swinging tune and a descending figure all combine to make an unusually varied musical texture. This "patchwork" technique is useful to construct a large chorale fantasia. This is probably the thing that Stravinsky most liked about Bach. So many of his pieces are put together in the same fashion. The actual chorale tune in long notes is marvelously set up. It usually begins alone with the sopranos against the "morning star" figuration. When the lower voices precede the soprano they often sing the chorale, also in long notes as a kind of prelude. The only time this doesn't happen is the stunning last phrase where the three lower voices propel us into the chorale.
Bach uses the oboe da caccia only three times with the solo soprano voice in the cantatas. The tenor range of the obbligato gives such color to the soprano, and the voice can easily soar above the texture. In the soprano aria, the oboe da caccia starts with a wonderful bouncy theme over pizzicato bass accompaniment. The soprano takes over the theme but is soon expanding upon and coloring the texture. Notice what happens on the word "flammen." There is something wonderfully adolescent and energetic about this music, perfectly depicting Mary.
After a passionate secco bass recitative, the tenor aria brings back the texture from the opening chorus. Two solo violins play with the ripieno strings. This is a lively virtuoso piece, one of the most difficult tenor arias. It has a marvelous breathless quality that is supported by the joyous words. The reference to the "mouth and strings resounding" brings forth not only wonderful echo effects between the groups of strings, but lively interplay between the athletic tenor part and the solo violins. It is interesting how Bach is willing to write "instrumental" and "unvocal" voice parts and make them sound so good.
The final choral harmonization is predictably rich. The 1st horn doubles the soprano with the 1st violins; the 2nd horn plays a lively and bouncy independent line. The two oboes da caccia double the altos and tenors with the strings. Once again, Bach gives us a perfect, skillful orchestration so that every line can be heard.
©Craig Smith, edited by Ryan Turner