My hymnal contains two hymns by Philipp Nicolai: “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star.” In both cases, the first line of the hymn serves as the title. Nicolai wrote both the words and the melody of both hymns.
The current German title of the latter hymn is “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” which is a literal translation of the English title given above. However, when the work first appeared, it had an extremely long descriptive title, which the Choral Public Domain Library translates with the words: “A spiritual wedding song of the faithful soul about Jesus Christ, her heavenly groom, made over the 45th psalm of the Prophet David.”
The Morning Star is Jesus. He is the “sweet root of Jesse” and “the Son of David from the tribe of Jacob.” He is “my King and my Bridegroom.” He is described metaphorically as “my Pearl.” He is “the A and O, the Beginning and the End.” Above all, He is the “true Son of God and of Mary.”
Nicolai uses a wealth of German adjectives to describe the qualities of Jesus. He is “beautiful and splendid, great and honorable.” One adjective is hard to translate. Jesus is described as “wunderschön.” In translation, this becomes a clumsy English phrase, such as “wonderfully beautiful.” Alternatively, you might use a pale imitation that does not do justice to the German, such as “lovely.”
The words in quotation marks are my own literal translations from the original German hymn. If you are acquainted with the English translation of this hymn in “The Lutheran Hymnal,” you undoubtedly notice that my translations above differ in many respects from the version with which you are familiar. When translating a song from one language into another, it is not always possible to translate literally. The exigencies of rhyme and meter necessitate changes that are often drastic.
For example, Nicolai writes: “Ei meine Perl’, du werte Kron’…” Literally, this means “Oh, my Pearl, Thou valuable crown…” The anonymous translators of the English version in my hymnal found it impossible to reproduce these concepts. The best that they could do was approximate the thought with the words: “O highest joy by mortals won…”
Nicolai not only describes Jesus, but also reveals what He means to us. “His sweet gospel is pure milk and honey,” and He “will give me everlasting life there above.” He also emphasizes the love that prevails between Jesus Christ and those who believe in him. To this end, Nicolai makes use of the Scriptural metaphor that pictures the Church as the bride of Christ.
Johann Sebastian Bach evidently liked this hymn. At least, he used it in three different cantatas. Nicolai’s hymn is the focus of BWV 1, while BWV 36 and BWV 172 each incorporate one verse of this chorale.
Choral Public Domain Library: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Choral Public Domain Library: Cantata BWV 36
Choral Public Domain Library: Cantata BWV 172
“The Lutheran Hymnal”; Published by Concordia Publishing House; 1941