Bach, J.S.: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Germany   
DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: Much of the material is a reworking of music that had appeared in earlier vocal works, principally in 1733 and 1734. The Christmas Oratorio was first heard in six installments between December 25, 1734, and January 6, 1735, at the principal churches of Leipzig (the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche). The first cantata of the six was first heard on December 25, 1734, at the Thomaskirche, the second on December 26 at the Thomaskirche, the third on December 27 at the Nikolaikirche, the fourth on January 1, 1735, at the Thomaskirche, the fifth on January 2 at the Nikolaikirche, and the sixth on January 6 at the Thomaskirche. Bach conducted in every case

US PREMIERE: 1894, when portions of it were presented in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania by the Moravian Church Choir, a precursor to the Bach Choir of Bethlehem

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (both doubling oboe d’amore) and 2 oboes da caccia, 3 trumpets, strings (1st violins, 2nd violins, and violas), and timpani, in addition to 4 vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), a 4-part choir, and a continuo complement comprised of cello, bassoon, and organ

DURATION: About 2 hrs

By their nature, all multi-movement musical compositions are the sum of their parts. With Bach’s Christmas Oratorio the question is rather more complicated: It comprises six discrete cantatas, and while Bach certainly viewed those six works as adding up to a large entity, he did not imagine that they would be performed back-to-back in a single sitting. He conceived of his Christmas Oratorio in somewhat the same way Wagner would conceive of Der Ring des Nibelungen—as a series of self-standing works, each of which is aesthetically fulfilling in and of itself yet which might gain in cumulative impact when heard one after another through the course of several days, with time off in between to refresh the ears and the mind.

When Bach unveiled the Christmas Oratorio in the last week of 1734 and the first week of 1735, each of the constituent cantatas was offered on a different day during the thirteen-day span that Lutherans recognize as the Feast of Christmas. The first three cantatas unrolled on Christmas day (which, in liturgical terms, is the First Day of the Feast of Christmas) and the two days immediately following. The fourth cantata was heard on the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), the fifth on the First Sunday of the New Year (which in 1735 was January 2), and the sixth on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, which is the last day of the Feast of Christmas).

No music-loving, church-going Lutheran in Leipzig would have wanted to miss any of the installments. In the course of the thirteen days, during which those listeners might well have heard no other music, the sense of an evolving narrative would have stuck more easily than it would over such a time span today, when we are bombarded with music almost constantly.

When Bach set about creating his Christmas Oratorio he was forty-nine years old. He had achieved consummate artistry as a composer and was comfortably ensconced as the music director of Leipzig, where he had signed on in 1723, following church and court appointments at Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, and Cöthen. From 1729 through 1741 he eked out his official obligations in Leipzig through a freelance involvement directing a collegium musicum, a mostly amateur assemblage of students and musical aficionados who met regularly for evenings of music making, and he occasionally got involved in organizing special entertainments of municipal interest, some of which included dramatic vocal and instrumental performances. On September 5, 1733, he oversaw one such event, an outdoor concert celebrating the eleventh birthday of Prince Friedrich of Saxony, the heir of the local Electorship; for the occasion he composed his secular Cantata No. 213, Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen, which involved the classic theme of Hercules making a choice between lust and virtue. Three months later, on December 8, he unveiled his Cantata No. 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken, erschallet, Trompeten at another of these celebratory evenings, this one in honor of the birthday of Maria Josepha, Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland. The transitory nature of these events pretty much determined that the cantatas would be performed once and then forgotten. This did not sit easily with Bach, who was first and foremost a practical musician.

Not many months later he found himself thinking about composing his Christmas Oratorio, but his jam-packed schedule of church services and teaching didn’t leave much time in which to realize the project. One assumes that Bach started putting together the piece a few months before the premiere performances, and it seems likely that he didn’t focus his attention on the project in December, when (due to restrictions involving Advent) cantatas were not performed as part of the weekly church services in Leipzig. As a result, the hard-working music director would have had some extra time on his hands—though not enough in which to realize a full six-part oratorio. He therefore turned to the birthday concerts he had written a year before and retrofitted a new sacred text to much of the music from those unabashedly secular compositions. The libretto is the work of an unidentified author, quite possibly Christian Friedrich Henrici (who wrote under the pseudonym of Picander), who had provided the libretto for the Saint Matthew Passion. The text of the Christmas Oratorio follows the Nativity story as related in the first twenty-one verses of the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke (for the first four cantatas) and the first twelve verses of the second chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew (for the last two).  

To Bach-era minds, the distance between a heavenly king and an earthly king—or queen, or prince—would have represented a very bridgeable gap in any case, the majesty of aristocrats being considered a reflection of the divine right invested in them. A choral exhortation to play trumpets and drums becomes the opening of the Christmas Oratorio, now offering a more generalized call to celebration (“Jauchzet, frohlocket”), but keeping the trumpets and timpani intact; a song in which Seduction tries to tempt Hercules becomes the shepherds’ cradle song for the baby Jesus (“Schlafe, mein Liebster”); and so on. In fact, at least eleven of the movements from the Christmas Oratorio are lifted more-or-less wholesale from the two birthday cantatas of the year before plus a couple of other Bachian sources.  

At the head of his autographed score Bach inscribed the word “Oratorium,” clarifying that he viewed this section-piece as falling within the earlier German oratorio tradition of composers such as Schütz and Buxtehude. It stands as one of three works he titled thus; with his Easter Oratorio (April 1735) and Ascension Oratorio (May 1735) it makes up his oratorio trilogy devoted to the three major festivals of the Christian liturgical calendar, which for unknown reasons was occupying him in 1734-35.

Still, for stylistic sources, one can just as easily look towards better known works—Bach’s own Passions. He had completed both his Saint John Passion (1724) and Saint Matthew Passion (1727) some years before he created his Christmas Oratorio. The Evangelist, the tenor soloist whose lengthy narration keeps the action moving in those works, is with us again in the Christmas Oratorio, offering his music in secco recitatives (that is, accompanied only by the continuo group). Here, too, are the four vocal soloists, whose arias provide moments of respite in which to reflect on the action. In the Passions, the Gospel texts were full of dramatic possibilities in the form of not only narrative opportunities but also dialogue and dramatic interaction among the characters. Direct interchange is not built into the Christmas story as much; with rather few exceptions, the Gospels settle for describing the events of the Nativity story, and they don’t tell us much about what Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, the angels, the shepherds, and the three kings actually said as the events unrolled. As a result, the interpersonal confrontations that add so much drama to Bach’s Passions play a smaller role in the Christmas Oratorio, and the present work is given over almost entirely to narrative and meditation. Bach seems to have accepted this flavor completely. It is curious, for example, that even the several “conversational” opportunities that do exist in the Christmas story are downplayed in Bach’s setting, being relegated to “reportage” by the Evangelist.

Other peculiar things happen elsewhere in this drama. The bass soloist in the Second Cantata is not a character in the drama, but that doesn’t prevent him from speaking directly to the shepherds or the angels. At moments such as this, one can not help but think of Renaissance devotional paintings in which the donor finds his way into the picture, not only ensuring for himself a sort of immortality but also serving as a bridge connecting the scenes of Biblical antiquity to mortals looking in from the distance of centuries. So, too, do the chorales draw the listener into the events being described. All of the congregants who heard the Christmas Oratorio cantatas when they were unveiled would have known the words and melodies of the chorales that pepper the proceedings, and these familiar hymns might have served as points of departure suggesting pathways to meditation and reflection. In the first cantata, for example, the words “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” are set to the melody that listeners would surely have also connected to the words “O haupt voll Blut und Wunden”—the famous Passion chorale that pervaded the Saint Matthew Passion only a few years earlier. Making an appearance in the Christmas Oratorio, in stern A minor, it seems to invite the listener to ponder the dire fate that lies in store for the Christ child. It seems likely that members of the congregation would have sung along in the chorales. If they did, they probably limited themselves to singing only the melody lines, since in this work Bach’s chorale harmonizations and instrumental accompaniments achieve a level of imagination and subtlety that is rare even in his output.

On the whole, the Christmas Oratorio is a work of joyful optimism, as befits the not-yet-tarnished hopefulness of its subject. The choruses are particularly exultant, and the first, third, and sixth cantatas are made more brilliant and festive thanks to their trumpets-and-timpani orchestration. But a quieter, more personal warmth resides in the Christmas Oratorio, too. The opening Sinfonia of the Second Cantata is one of the greatest achievements in the popular Baroque tradition of the “pastoral symphony”; here, a pair of flutes contrasts with a quartet of two oboes d’amore and two oboes da caccia (literally “hunting oboes,” with the modern equivalents being the English horn) to evoke rustic simplicity.

We do not know if Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, whether its individual cantatas or the whole cycle, was ever presented during the composer’s lifetime after the Feast of Christmas in 1734-35. There is no doubt, however, that the work quickly faded into oblivion and went unheard for more than a century following the composer’s death. Even after Felix Mendelssohn launched the Bach revival with his performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, the Christmas Oratorio would wait nearly three more decades to be rediscovered through a complete performance, also in Berlin, in 1857. It appears not to have reached the United States until 1894, when portions of it were presented in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania by the Moravian Church Choir, a precursor to the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which would play a critical role in introducing the composer’s works to modern America. These nineteenth-century performances coincided with the upsurge in the celebration of Christmas as a popular holiday (as opposed to simply a notable Church Feast), a trend that helped Bach’s masterpiece achieve the enduring place it deserves in this season of festivity.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(November 2017)