Philipp Nicolai was the son of a Lutheran pastor. He studied theology at the universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg, 1575-1579, and became a pastor himself. It was a time of religious wars in Europe, and several times he had to flee or go into hiding and minister to his congregations secretly in house meetings. He was a theological writer, defending Lutheran theology chiefly against Calvinistic opponents. He also preached with great power and effectiveness. In 1588 he became pastor at Altwildungen, in 1596 he became pastor at Unna in Westphalia, and in 1601 pastor in Hamburg. But he is remembered today for writing two hymns.
While he was pastor in Westphalia, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597, 170 in one week. To comfort his parishioners, he wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel (Mirror of Joy), and to this he appended two hymns, both of which have become world-famous.
The first hymn was, "Wake, awake, for night is flying" (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). It uses the image of the watchman on a city wall (Isaiah 52:8), and of the Parable of the Bridesmaids welcoming the Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the Song of Triumph in Heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). It is a favorite Advent hymn.
The second hymn was, "How bright appears the morning star" (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern). This also, with a wealth of imagery, hails Christ as our deliverer, and celebrates his triumph. It has become a favorite wedding hymn, but is also sung for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany, and and as a general hymn of praise.
Philipp Nicolai wrote both the words and the tunes, but the arrangements we know are due to J.S. Bach. The earliest English translations are those of Catherine Winkworth, but there have been many translations since, some of them (especially for the second hymn) content to reproduce the general spirit of the original words rather than their specific meaning. In addition, several hymn-writers have set their own words (in various languages) to one of Nicolai's tunes. If pure quality, without respect to quantity, were our criterion, Nicolai would have to be ranked as history's greatest chorale-writer, and one of its greatest hymn-writers.