The various seasons and festivals of the church year reflected in the Hymn-of-the-Month series focus on the life and the teachings of Christ. The church year may be called Christ's year.
The seasons are organized around the two major festivals of Christmas and Easter. Each celebration is preceded by a time of preparation (Advent and Lent), and each is followed by a season of outreach (Epiphany and Pentecost). During January, February, and March the church ends the Christmas cycle with Epiphany and begins the Easter cycle with Lent. In 1989 the season of Epiphany (meaning "manifestation") begins on January 6 and ends on February 7.
Though "How Bright Appears the Morning Star" is found with the Epiphany hymns in many hymnals (Psalter Hymnal 357), none of the original seven stanzas contains any specific Epiphany reference. Trinity Hymnal (434) places this hymn in the section "Union with Christ." Rejoice in the Lord (367) places it under the heading "Jesus Christ Is Lord." Philipp Nicolai, author of the text and composer of the tune, heads the hymn "A sacred bridal song of the faithful soul, of its heavenly bridegroom, Jesus Christ." Because of that headingthis hymn has also been associated with weddings. However, modern translations of the hymn usually omit stanzas and freely paraphrase those that are retained, changing the hymn from a love song of the faithful soul (the bride) to a strong, objective expression of supplication and praise.
The idea of Morning Star (or Day Star) comes from Revelation 22:16, "I, Jesus, …am …the bright Morning Star" with context of meaning coming from Isaiah 14:12, 2 Peter 1:19, and Revelation 2:28. The emphases of the texts in all three hymnals, as suggested by their assignment to different categories, differ widely. However, lines such as "till all shall know your salvation" (Psalter Hymnal), "the nations see and hail afar the light in Judah shining" (Trinity Hymnal), and "you shine with God's own truth and light" (Rejoice in the Lord) make all three texts useful in the season of Epiphany as the church moves in its thought from the Magi to Christ's ministry.
But don't allow the hymn's inclusion in the Epiphany section of the hymnal keep the church from using it in other seasons as well, perhaps including in the bulletin the intimate words of stanza 3 from the Lutheran Book of Worship as a next to last stanza on Sundays when the Lord's Supper is celebrated:
Lord, when you look on us in love,
At once there falls from God above
A ray of purest pleasure.
Your Word and Spirit, flesh and blood,
Refresh our souls with heavenly food.
You are our dearest treasure!
Let your mercy warm and cheer us!
Odraw near us!
For you teach us
God's own love through you has reached us.
Though long, the tune is easy to sing. It is arranged in the so-called bar form in which the first two or three lines of music are repeated, making a long tune relatively easy by reducing the number of notes to be learned.
While the hymn has been included in many modern North American hymnals for decades, it is not sung as often as its text and tune deserve. The reason may be that the beautiful, often-used harmonization of J.S. Bach is not easy to play. A simpler harmony is included here, though the use of the hymnal harmonization is encouraged.
If your congregation is not familiar with the tune, have the choir(s) lead the way by singing the hymnal version in unison or in parts. Many settings are available to assist choirs and congregations in becoming familiar with this hymn:
- Michael Praetorius prepared a highly-effective setting for choir (easy) and solo voices ( more difficult).
- The Eulenburg or Schirmer editions of the hymn are also most useful,although the text they incorporate is from a different translation than that in the hymnals.
- Concordia publishes a chorale concertato on the tune and text by Harold Rohlig. Again the text (and also the rhythm of the melody) is different from that found in the three hymnals.
- Arista publishes an SAB setting (by Hugo Distler) of the tune in the rhythm of the Lutheran hymnals.
The popularity of this hymn provides the organist with a wide choice of organ hymns. Easy to listen to and not difficult to play is the three-voice piece "Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern" by G.P. Telemann in Orgelwerke, Volume I, published by Baerenreiter. Play all three voices on one manual with a bright registration, such as flutes 8' and T. Then learn to add the hymn melody on a 4' reed in the pedal. The prominent rhythm in the accompanying voices consists of two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth—a rhythm associated with joy in the organ hymns of J.S. Bach and having the same effect here. The manual parts, except for the hymn melody, should be played with a crisp, almost staccato, touch.
The two-voice setting of the same melody by Telemann in this collection is very easy and is also very effective. Play the left hand with a crisp touch and registration, perhaps flutes 8', 4' and IV3', and the right-hand hymn melody legato on a solo registration. Of special interest is the setting for organ and treble instrument (oboe) by G. F. Kauffmann in Harmonische Seelenlust, published by Baerenreiter.
New to the Psalter Hymnal (136) and found with fewer stanzas in the Trinity Hymnal (30) and Rejoice in the Lord (136), is "Let Us with Gladsome Mind," the famous metrical version of Psalm 136 by John Milton
The season of Lent is forty days (excluding Sundays), of preparation for Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday - this year on February 8. Its themes are penitence, discipline, learning, pardon, and renewal of faith. For churches using the common lectionary, the two-part emphasis of the season in the Old Testament and signs in Jesus' ministry that point to his death and resurrection.
Psalm 136 fits the Lenten emphasis on the Old Testament history of salvation. Psalm 136 is an attractive song for children-the tunes (MONKLAND in Trinity and Rejoice and GENEVAN 136, alternate tune MONKLAND, in the Psalter Hymnal) are not difficult, and the imagery is vivid. The longer Psalter Hymnal text paints sharp pictures, such as "Red Sea floods," "walls of water," "manna," "Og and Sihon, and heathen kings," that appeal to children.
The Psalm has two major themes: the Lord as Creator and the Lord as Israel's Savior-God from the beginnings of its history at the exodus. Stanza 1 in the Psalter Hymnal is a call to give thanks to God. Stanzas 2-A are thanksgiving for his lordship in his work as Creator. Stanzas 5-9 are thanksgiving for God's saving acts in Israel's history.
The theme, choosing Israel and the church for rescue and blessing, may well be made the theme for the month not only in the use of this psalm but also in the choice of sermon topics. Like an antiphon, the text of the first stanza is repeated as stanza 5 in Rejoice in the Lord and 10 in the Psalter Hymnal, giving emphasis to the theme of the whole Psalm; PRAISE GOD FOR HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER, mercy demonstrated in our creation and redemption.
The three-voice vocal setting of the Psalm (using GENEVAN 136) by Claude Le Jeune, included here, is especially useful in presenting the melody and text to the congregation. Solo voices may sing the two outside parts with an instrument playing the psalm melody found in the middle voice; or two instruments or the organ may play the outside contrapuntal parts with a solo voice or choir voices in the right range singing the psalm melody. If instruments play the outer voices, it is a simple matter to sing any stanza of text to the melody, found in the inner voice. The text repetition of the last four syllables of the first two lines of each stanza in the outer voices complicates the accommodation of the texts of stanzas 5 and 9. Instead of the last four syllables of those lines, repeat "with clasping hand" in stanza 5 and "remembered us" in stanza 9.
If you use the tune MONK-LAND, you may be interested in an easy organ setting included in Twenty Hymn Tune Preludes, Set I by CS. Lang, published by Oxford University Press. Play the hymn melody in the pedals. This prelude may be played twice with the hymn from the hymnal played between.
If you use the tune GENEVAN 136 (also called HOLY NAME), look for the easy organ setting, "Jesus! Name of Wondrous Love!" in Hymn Preludes for the Liturgical Year, Volume 1, prepared and published by Flor Peeters. Another setting, only a bit more difficult, is included in "Introduction and Variations on Psalm 136," found in Three Hymns by Piet Rippen, published by Ars Nova, Goes, The Netherlands. Variations 1, 2, and 3 could be used as accompaniments with the choir, in the proper voice ranges, singing the psalm melody. The final movment is an effective toccata which is not very difficult technically.
Since Easter falls on the last Sunday of March this year, most of March finds the church still in the season of Lent. Two of the themes of Lent, penitence and gratitude expressed in the renewal of faith, are represented in "Ah, Holy Jesus." Whether reserved for Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) or sung earlier for its emphasis on penitence ("It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you") and gratitude ("I do adore you") it is a particularly useful hymn for the month.
Helmut Walccha's unusually effective and easy organ setting, suggesting penitence rather than gratitude, is found in Twenty-Five Chorale Preludes, Volume I, published by Peters. The setting is also included in a most useful organ study book, the Organists' Manual by Roger E. Davis, published by W. W. Norton. The setting of the tune byj. Brahms in 11 Chorale Preludes (Mercury Music) is less easy but no less effective.
Variety in the singing of this hymn may be the simple adornments found in Chorales for Lent by Carl Schalk, published by Concordia. Each chorale in the set is presented in three forms: as a solo melody (to be played by a solo instrument), as a melody with an instrumental descant, and as an organ chorale with which the descant can be used to accompany congregational singing. This simple material invites imagination in employing choir(s), instruments, and congregation. The Schalk setting should be transposed to the key of the hymn in your hymnal.
April: O Sons and Daughters of the King (O FILII ET FLIIAE)
May: Holy Spirit, Truth Divine (SONG 13)
June: Psalm 134: You Servants of the Lord Our God (GENEVAN 134/OLD HUNDREDTH)