Three kings from Persian lands afar
Peter Cornelius was a native of Mainz, and a member of the Weimar circle of the mid-nineteenth century. He was both a poet and a composer. His first opera, The Barber of Baghdad, is a comedy showing the influence of Beethoven and Liszt. Unfortunately, the latter resigned as director of the Weimar theatre after a badly received first performance in 1858. Cornelius moved to Vienna where he met Wagner, subsequently following him to Munich in 1868.
Cornelius set his first poem "Die Könige" in a simple ballad-like style. The setting we know today was sketched in 1859 and published in a set of six Weihnachtslieder (carols) in 1871. The chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) was suggested as an accompaniment by Liszt.
In this setting, the accompaniment is provided by a choir singing the first verse of the chorale under a soloist singing the Three Kings. The text of the Three Kings is a simple rendition of the Epiphany story. This eccentric conjunction of Epiphany text and Christmas accompaniment may have arisen from an assumption that Wie schön leuchtet refers to the star which led the magi to Bethlehem. However, it is now accepted that the Morgenstern (Morning Star) is Christ, the "dayspring from on high" (Luke 1:78). The image is of the sun or a bright star rising in the morning sky, and represents Christ's birth into a world of darkness.
Wie schön leuchtet is a companion to Wachet auf! (Sleepers wake!), both great Lutheran hymns composed by Nicolai. Each chorale pays homage to the Count of Waldech in the form of an acrostic. In the original German seven verse setting of Wie schön leuchtet, the first letter of each verse spells out: Wilhelm Ernst, Graf und Herr (Count and Lord) zu Waldech.
The most popular arrangement is for soloist and eight-part choir by Ivor Atkins (1869-1953) who was organist of Worcester Cathedral from 1897-1950.