First 2014 post, happy New Year! We go on with our Christmas celebrations and this post is about the Three Kings; they are getting closer our homes and if we’ve been good guys, they will leave us their presents (unless Father Christmas has already paid you a visit, of course). And talking about the Three Kings, this is a perfect day to meet a new composer on the blog, Peter Cornelius.
Peter Cornelius (1824 - 1874) was born in a family of artists (painters and actors) and from childhood, he was aimed toward Arts as well, especially music, when his parents realized he was really gifted. He was in touch with important composers and poets, mainly Liszt and Wagner, but also Eichendorff, Heyse, Berlioz or Brahms, and he worked as a music teacher at Ludwig II of Bavaria court. Let's say that if Cornelius were a lead actor, the supporting roles should be some of the most important cultural personalities in Germany during the 19th century.
He composed some operas, chamber and religious music but these works are pretty much unknown, at least by non-expert audience; if we know him is thanks to his lieder. He wrote nearly eighty of them with an uncommon feature: Cornelius was a composer but he never gave up his literary aspirations, and wrote most of his lieder texts, including the one we are listening today.
His most famous work is the song cycle Weihnachtslieder op 8, a collection of six carols, written in 1856 and revised in 1859 and 1870. The song no. 3 is Die Könige (The Three Kings), and it tells, as you can imagine, the Three Kings’s long trip from the east to Bethlehem. A year ago we talked about Geistliches Wiegenlied by Brahms and said that the viola accompaniment was based on a traditional German carol, remember that? Well, we are in a similar situation with this Lied, the piano accompaniment is also based on a previous work.
This piece of work is a Lutheran chorale, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star!), written in the late 16th century by Philip Nicolai, who was based on a psalm written fifty years earlier. Here you can listen to the chorale performed by the Vocal Concert Dresden:
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern Voll Gnad und Wahrheit von dem Herrn, Die süße Wurzel Jesse! Du Sohn Davids aus Jakobs Stamm, Mein König und mein Bräutigam, Hast mir mein Herz beseßen, Lieblich, freundlich, schön und herrlich, Gross und ehrlich, reich von Gaben, Hoch und sehr prächtig erhaben.
How brightly shines the morning star! With grace and truth from heav’n afar Our Jesse tree now bloweth. Of Jacob’s stem and David’s line, For thee, my Bridegroom, King divine, My soul with love o’erfloweth. Thy word, Jesu, inly feeds us, Rightly leads us, life bestowing. Praise, O praise such love o’erflowing.
And this is the Lied in its original version for voice and piano, performed by Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau:
Drei Könige wandern aus Morgenland; Ein Sternlein führt sie zum Jordanstrand. In Juda fragen und forschen die drei, Wo der neugeborene König sei? Sie wollen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold Dem Kinde spenden zum Opfersold.
Und hell erglänzet des Sternes Schein: Zum Stalle gehen die Kön'ge ein; Das Knäblein schaun sie wonniglich, Anbetend neigen die Könige sich; Sie bringen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold Zum Opfer dar dem Knäblein hold.
O Menschenkind! halte treulich Schritt! Die Kön'ge wandern, o wandre mit! Der Stern der Liebe, der Gnade Stern Erhelle dein Ziel, so du suchst den Herrn, Und fehlen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold, Schenke dein Herz dem Knäblein hold!
Three kings from Persian lands afar To Jordan follow the pointing star: And this the quest of the travellers three, Where the new-born King of the Jews may be. Full royal gifts they bear for the King; Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.
The star shines out with a steadfast ray; The kings to Bethlehem make their way, And there in worship they bend the knee As Mary’s child in her lap they see. Their royal gifts they show to the King; Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.
Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem The kings are trav’lling; travel with them! The star of mercy, the star of grace, Shall lead thy heart to its resting place. Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring; Offer thy heart to the infant King.
But probably the best-known Lied’s version is the one with a choir replacing the piano, that is, the soloist sings his part while the choir sings the original hymn; this is the English version performed by Gerald Finley and The Cambridge Singers:
Today we’ve made an exception and we’re listening to more music than usual; you know, Christmas excesses; to make up for it, the text is shorter. Next week the Christmas ornaments will be put away and we will go back to normal.