From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it not with a single feast day, but with a "season"—six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany; the birth of Jesus (December 25), the announcement to the shepherds by a host of angels (December 26), the adoration of the baby by the shepherds (December 27), the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day), the coming of the Magi from the East to find the child "born King of the Jews" (the Sunday after New Year’s Day), and finally the Magi’s worship with their gifts (January 6). On each of these days Bach’s congregation was inspired by a cantata that recounted one of these stories, commenting and reflecting upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community.
The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense. Instead the format is that of a cantata. Similar to the Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12. In order to keep clear what is narrative and what is commentary, all the Evangelist recitatives - the Gospel texts- are secco (dry, with simple chords from the cello and organ), while the other recitatives have obbligato instruments or string accompaniment. These recitatives are unified by lyrical meditations, or arias. The rich, imaginative harmonizations of the ten chorales reflect the voice of the people, as they were hymn tunes mostly well known to Bach’s congregation. The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (under the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably gathered and arranged the texts.
Bach had composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble the Christmas Oratorio. In fact many of the movements are paraphrases from two earlier secular cantatas dating from 1733, the year before he produced the Christmas Oratorio: Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen~ Hercules at the Crossroads, BWV 213 (composed for the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony) and Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten, (written to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress). Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. However, one might point to the unifying aspect of the same chorale used in the first and last cantatas. Equally convincing is the fact that all of the opening choruses are in three—an understood symbol of the Holy Trinity—and the oratorio commences and concludes in D major. Yet, there is no one consistent structural pattern uniting these cantatas. Five of them begin with a rousing major-key chorus, and one with a sinfonia. All but one end with a chorale but there is no homogeneity in their presentation, ranging from the unadorned four-part setting of the fifth to the resplendent, chorale/fantasia of the sixth.
Nonetheless the Christmas Oratorio was never performed under Bach’s direction as you will hear it this evening, condensing these six days and six cantata performances into a single performance of the paramount events of this thrice-told tale.
PART I Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
Cantata for Christmas Day
The opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio is a paraphrase, taken from the secular birthday cantata for Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress, BWV 214 , from which Bach subsequently parodied a number of movements for the oratorio. The text for the original chorus called upon drums, trumpets and strings to fill the air. Bach’s transformation of this material to wonderful and idiomatic Christmas music is a marvel. The opening chorus begins with the drums and is followed up by a mighty rush with the strings and winds to the dazzling entrance of the trumpets. Surrounded by two oboes d’amore, the alto recitative expresses contentment with the impending birth, leading us to the first aria, a paraphrase from BWV 213, a cantata originally composed for the House of Saxony. The original text, a denunciation of lust and the serpents of sin, now becomes a call to action----prepare yourself Zion, to behold the fairest.
The first and final chorales of the oratorio are a setting of the Passion chorale, which we usually associate with Lent. However, Bach’s congregations would have been familiar with it as it exists in previously heard cantatas, most notably BWV 135. The movement that follows for bass soloist and the sopranos of the choir is among one of the most interesting movements in the entire cantata canon of Bach. Bach gives the sopranos four chorale phrases, each in a different key, and each is preceded and followed by an instrumental ritornello framing the entire movement. Furthermore, the chorale statements are extended by the bass’s additional explanatory comment. This unique hybrid structure leads us to the powerful bass aria, another paraphrase from BWV 214 whose original form was a song of homage to the queen. A wonderful and grand setting of Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, with trumpets and drums punctuating each cadence, ends the cantata.
PART II Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
Cantata for the second day of Christmas
This is the only one of the six cantatas not to begin with a celebratory chorus but with an expansive sinfonia. With the four oboes as shepherds accompanied by flutes and strings as the heavenly choir of angels, the gently undulating dotted rhythms shape a lush, pastoral effect. The Evangelist then paints the picture of the shepherds in the fields when the Angel of the Lord appears. The unsophisticated, yet beautiful chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht contemplates the child’sradiance. Two short recitatives act as a bridge to the first aria of the cantata, the first accompanied by strings and the second by the oboe choir. In the first the Angel, encompassed by a halo of sustained strings, announces the birth of the savior. The bass, backed by emphasizing woodwind chords, brings a reminder of the ancient promise. The tenor and flute aria is a call for them to gather, hasten and see for themselves the child who can refresh both body and spirit, as depicted by sweeping melismas in the voice and flute. The Evangelist then describes the infant Jesus in the manger. The chorale tune Vom Himmel hoch, one of the most beloved of the chorales, paints a darkish picture of the child in the gloomy stable where oxen once fed setting the scene for the gorgeous slumber aria for alto, flute, and strings. Notice how the flute hovers above the alto voice like a halo. The chorus then sings, without instrumental introduction, the energetic "Glory to God" chorus. There are two stunning moments when "peace on earth" is called for, compelling the choir to sing in hushed tones while the primarily eighth-note-driven continuo line temporarily subsides. The section ends with Vom Himmel hoch, this time accompanied by motives from the opening sinfonia.
PART III Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Cantata for the third day of Christmas
The third cantata completes the narrative wherein the shepherds and others hasten to the manger, extolling Jesus’ powers. It begins with a brilliant chorus, again recycled from an earlier secular cantata, with trumpets and drums. The Evangelist tells of the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem. These words are encapsulated in the following turba chorus, less fully orchestrated and even shorter than the first. One of Bach’s typically energized bass lines suggests determination while the flowing flute and violin melody intimates a flurry of activity.
A rather lengthy contemplative section follows. The first of the three plainly harmonized chorales Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, offers a summation of what the shepherds have been told. The jaunty, rustic duet for bass, soprano, and two oboes d’amore is addressed to the child, placing emphasis upon love and devotion. The Evangelist continues telling of the shepherds finding Mary, Joseph, and the child. The alto then sings an aria with violin describing Mary’s innermost feelings of the miracle of the birth. The shepherds retreat, praising God for what they have witnessed. The final chorale is the only one in a minor mode and is, perhaps, the most potent of the hymn tunes used in the oratorio so far. It is serious, direct, and delivers an authoritative message of great significance. The opening chorus is repeated to close the cantata.
PART IV Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
Cantata for New Year/Feast of the Circumcision
The fourth cantata was written for the Feast of the Circumcision. It is, in a way, the most perfect and symmetrical of the six sections of the oratorio. The offering of praise is now directed more towards Jesus rather than to God, and the entire cantata is focused on the naming of the baby. The two horns give a peaceful, otherworldly quality to the opening chorus, a paraphrase from BWV 213. After the Evangelist tells of Jesus’ name, we encounter a section of gorgeous recitatives by the bass, with the sopranos of the choir intoning a chorale. This is among the most beautiful of all the chorales in the Christmas Oratorio. It is interesting that in this segment of the oratorio, all of the chorale tunes are by Bach and were unfamiliar to the congregation; clearly Bach meant the chorales in the segment to be poetic rather than congregational. Next comes the stunning and popular "echo" aria for soprano and oboe, another paraphrase from BWV 213. For all of its simple, almost popular quality, the relationship between the obbligato, the voice, and the echo (the voice of humankind) is complicated and unpredictable. The soprano chorale returns with the bass recitatives. Then comes a vibrant and rhythmically irresistible tenor aria with violin duet. The final chorale brings back the radiant horns to close this wonderful, rich work.
PART V Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
Cantata for the Sunday after New Year
The shape of the fifth cantata is wholly determined by the emotional impact of the narrative. It begins with the most unabandoned and cheerful chorus and is the only one of the six cantatas to end with a plain chorale. It moves from the sheer ecstasy of Jesus’ arrival to his personal and private adoption within the human heart. While this section of the oratorio has the most modest orchestration, just two oboes d’amore in addition to the strings, it is one of the liveliest sections of the oratorio. It begins with an energetic chorus. The Evangelist tells of the coming of the Wise Men, while the chorus takes the part of the Wise Men with tropes by the alto describing our reaction to them. The following chorale again represents the congregation’s reaction, picturing the untarnished adoration of the infant before inevitable human sinful thoughts and actions manifest themselves. Although poetic rather than biblical, the bass aria clearly depicts one of the Wise Men in his reaction to this remarkable situation. The Evangelist continues to describe Herod’s hysteria. The following trio takes a curious stance when the soprano and tenor ask when the messiah will appear; the alto quiets them and announces that he already has. The concluding chorale, short and symmetrical, is almost rustic in character, and its message somewhat stark.
PART VI Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben
Cantata for Epiphany
The festival of Epiphany, the traditional twelfth day of Christmas, completes the narrative of the Wise Men and the revelation of the arrival of the savior to the world. Bach, therefore, celebrates with the maximum of musical ceremony, recalling the trumpets and drums. While the narration is concerned with the arrival of the Wise Men, much of the music exhibits a darker cast heading toward Lent. The opening chorus has a complexion that is both passionate and vertiginous, going in one direction then veering off unexpectedly in another, as befits the text, which is concerned with the treachery of Herod. After a bit of narration, the soprano sings an accompanied recitative and aria, rather abstract in its condemnation of Herod and its pronouncement of God’s power. The aria is a wonderful piece, full of the trickiest phrasing and unexpected ideas, very much in the manner of the opening chorus. After more narration and a chorale setting, Bach abandons the Wise Men, and in the tenor recitative and aria again concentrates on the treachery of Herod. The little four-voice recitative is thirty seconds of magic and leads into the astonishing final chorus, a triumphant trumpet-and-drum affair in which is imbedded the Passion chorale. The Christmas Oratorio begins and ends, significantly, with the Passion chorale, much in the manner of many nativity paintings of the period that show in the background a little sapling growing which is meant to be the tree from which the cross will be made.
Introduction by Ryan Turner
Individual cantata notes by Craig Smith, adapted by Ryan Turner