Program Notes: A Christmas Oratorio

Program Notes: A Christmas Oratorio

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One-minute notes:

Bach: Christmas Oratorio

The Christmas season of 1734–35 in Leipzig, Germany, included a multi-day unveiling of newly-composed music by Bach that we now know as the Christmas Oratorio. Each of its six cantatas was designated for a specific day spanning Christmas and the Epiphany, and together the set forms the narrative of the birth of Christ through the arrival of the Wise Men. These concerts feature the first three cantatas. In the first, the orchestra, choir and soloists jubilantly celebrate the birth of Christ with regal chorale melodies and arias, punctuated by the addition of trumpets and drums. The second cantata, marking the Angel’s announcement to the shepherds, opens with a pastoral orchestral sinfonia—the only one of its kind that Bach includes in the oratorio. Elation is apparent in the third cantata as brilliant choruses and trumpet fanfares depict the shepherds’ adoration of the newborn King. 

Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantatas I, II and III

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” of six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany. These were 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 six days near the mid-1730s, Johann Sebastian Bach’s congregation was filled with inspiration by a cantata that recounted one of these stories, commenting and reflecting upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community.

a unique oratorio for the season

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense. Instead the format is that of a cantata. Like the composer’s Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. 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 are paired with more complex instrumental lines 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 oratorio’s initial audience.

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 already 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 i dating from 1733, the year before he produced the Christmas Oratorio. 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 composed in triple meter—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.

Today’s concert features the first, second and third cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio, thus condensing three days of celebration, as Bach’s original audience would have experienced this music, into a single performance.

the cantatas in brief

On the First Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Nativity). 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 mezzo 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. The movement that follows for bass soloist and the sopranos of the choir is among one of the most interesting movements in Bach’s entire cantata canon. 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 (From heaven above to earth I come), with trumpets and drums punctuating each cadence, ends the first cantata.

On the Second Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Annunciation to the Shepherds). This is the only one of the six Christmas Oratorio cantatas not to begin with a celebratory chorus but rather with an expansive sinfonia. With the 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 (Break forth, o lovely light of morning) contemplates the child’s radiance. 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 (multiple notes extending the same syllable) in the voice and flute.

The Evangelist then describes the infant Jesus in the manger. The chorale tune Vom Himmel hoch (From heaven above), 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 mezzo, flute and strings. Notice how the flute hovers above the mezzo 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.

On the Third Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Adoration of the Shepherds). 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 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 (Praise be to You, Jesus 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 mezzo 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.

Program notes ©Craig Smith and Ryan Turner, courtesy of Emmanuel Music,


Minnesota Orchestra Staff