The Christmas Oratorio, composed in 1734, sets the story of the birth of Jesus in six cantatas, which include devices from Italian opera, such as the recitative and aria. Talented librettists Erdmann Neumeister and Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) provided the text. To present the Christmas story as told in the New Testament books of Luke (Parts 1–3) and Matthew (Parts 4–6), Bach assembled and rewrote some of his existing secular music and composed new pieces. Picander assisted Bach with the libretto changes required to transform secular text into sacred. Recitatives by the Evangelist unify the parts into a cohesive story.
The Oratorio’s six parts were written to be performed over the 13 days of Christmas in the Lutheran Church calendar (December 25 to January 6). The Gospel unfolds in polyphonic wonder in movements unified by the recurring key of D. Tonight’s performance presents the second half of the Christmas Oratorio, from the Feast of the Circumcision on New Year’s Day to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.2
Bach chose text that recalls events and anticipates their effect, a duality intended to wholly engage the listener and encourage reflection. The congregation is likely to have sung along with some of the chorales.3 For example, Bach set a well-known hymn melody at both the beginning and end of the Christmas Oratorio.4 All 15 of the chorales are affirmative statements of faith with which churchgoers of the day could identify. The oboe, Bach’s favorite instrument, appears in 16 movements of the Christmas Oratorio. Its earthly tone is fitting for characterizing Jesus’s mortal beginnings.
Part 4, Am Fest der Beschneidung Christi (For the Feast of the Circumcision) celebrates the day of Jesus’s circumcision and naming and heralds a new beginning for humanity. A triple-meter dancing rhythm accompanies the chorus in celebrating divinity’s presence. Hunting horns accompany the festivities, anticipating the more triumphant trumpets to come in the last cantata.
In a demanding fugal tenor aria, a believer expresses courage and virtue. The chorus portrays fully committed new and renewed believers with a traditional 4-part chorale, an example of the culmination of Bach’s chorale style. The dancelike rhythm continues throughout the cantata, anticipating a reason for joy.
The bass and soprano solos engage in sacred dialog about overcoming the fear of death to reach an understanding of Jesus’s ultimate act of unconditional love. The soprano sings an aria about the interplay between universal belief and individual belief with “yes” and “no” questions, “a genre especially popular in the Protestant motet repertoire.”5 The questions lead to the revelation of who Jesus is.
Part 5, Am Sonntag nach Neujahr (For the first Sunday after New Year’s), opens a world saturated with divine light in the bright-sounding key of A-major. Oboes supply an intimate tone for what would otherwise be a distancing contrast between mortals’ gloomy hearts and God’s luminous grace. Violins suggest the presence of angels. A story about unifying heaven and earth is at hand.
The tenor recitative, quoting Matthew 2:1-6, tells us about the Magi. The chorus assumes the role of the three Wise Men as they discuss what the star in the East means and what they must do. In the spirit of individual preparation, the bass soloist offers a prayer for divine deliverance from his dark thoughts. A tenor recitative dramatizes the evangelist’s account of Herod’s alarm upon hearing about the birth of a king.
A trio for soprano, alto, and tenor soloists poses the questions of those who do not yet know that Jesus is born, but the alto interrupts with “Schweigt! Er ist schon wűrklich hier”! (Hush! He is already here!). Nothing more need be said. A solo violin, in 16th-note figurations, carries hope toward heaven. In the ending chorale, a humble heart opens to the bathing light of mercy — Bach at his spiritual, sensual best.
Part 6, Am Epiphaniasfest (For the Feast of the Epiphany), raises the specter of Herod. Lest we think believers can relish a world of light as a matter of choice, this cantata reminds us that dangerous enemies will attack and deceive us. The orchestra, led by the trumpets and timpani, introduces the opening chorus characterizing Herod’s anger. “To depict a mood of aggressive conflict, Bach chose to write an impressive fugue, whose subject is characterized by upward jabbing leaps.”6 Tenor and bass recitatives tells of Herod’s deceptive plot. Accompanied by an oboe d’amore obbligato, the soprano soloist sings a syncopated aria, praising God’s power against the enemy’s pride.
A tenor recitative continues the evangelist’s story (Matthew 2:7-12), and a chorale places the listener at the story’s center, the manger holding the baby Jesus. The evangelist warns the Magi to escape before Herod can intercept them.
A tenor aria dances with a gallant-style rhythm, so lighthearted it seems frivolous, except that its meaning is profound: “Mein Heiland wohnet hier!” (My Savior dwells here!) The instrumental scoring, with two oboes d’amore and basso continuo, shows off Bach’s “ability to develop a few melodic-rhythmic cells through constant variation.”7 These variations provide a forward drive past moments when the singer seems to be lost in thoughts of Jesus. Ultimately, he regains his vigorous resolve, deflecting the rage of his foes.
Each of the four soloists in turn sings a fanfare motif, each in a different key. The orchestra opens the last movement with a variation of the fanfare, and then launches into a lively tempo that leads to the confident and triumphant conclusion in the chorale’s message: “Bei Gott hat seine Stelle das menschliche Geschlecht” (By God’s side is where the human race belongs).
— Carol Talbeck
- The Choral Society performed the first half (Parts 1, 2, and 3) in December 2008.
- Movements 38, 40, 49, 56, and 61 have been omitted intentionally from tonight’s performance to allow time to include Magnificat on the program.
- The chorale was an invention of Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church. Its simple, hymn-like melodies enabled congregations to sing along. Bach added harmony to these well-known melodies to create his chorales.
- The first occurrence (in the fifth movement of Part 1) is “Wie soll ich dich empfangen?” (How shall I receive thee?). The second is “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen” (Now thou art well avenged), from Part 6.
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (WV 248), Ignace Bossuyt, translated by Stratton Bull, Leuven University Press, Leuven, Belgium, 2004.
- J. S. Bach’s Major Works for Voices and Instruments: A Listener’s Guide, Melvin P. Unger, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2005.