In marked contrast to his London-based contemporary George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach composed only a few oratorios. He took up the genre only after his production of cantatas was largely completed. As recently discovered sources indicate, after 1730 Bach increasingly performed sacred cantatas by his contemporaries, but only occasionally wrote his own works for the church. The time he saved was devoted by the Thomaskantor to preparing and performing especially ambitious compositions. These include his Christmas Oratorio (1734–35) and Ascension Oratorio (1735), as well as the revised (1736) version of the St Matthew Passion, a work with double chorus for which Bach, in his fair copy of the score, notated the Evangelist’s part in red ink. Clearly he regarded the original Biblical text as timeless and enduring — in contrast to the many passages of free madrigalistic poetry, whose transitory quality he must already have recognised. It is uncertain whether Bach composed only the three oratorios (for Christmas, Easter and Ascension Day) that have come down to us or if other works of this type disappeared shortly after his death. In an obituary dating from the end of 1750, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach refers to his father’s “many oratorios”, but it remains unclear which compositions Bach’s second-eldest son may have meant.
Bach’s oratorios are based on self-contained Biblical narratives and occupy the same position in the service as the sacred cantatas: their textual basis is also the Gospel for the respective Sunday or feast day. The Christmas Oratorio was composed for the services between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Bach accordingly divided it into six parts, each associated with one of the Sundays or feast days during Christmastide, but always with an overall plan in mind. That much is clear from Parts I, III and VI, which form the oratorio’s framework. In terms of layout, key and scoring, they are part of a unified conception, and it is surely no coincidence that the oratorio’s first and last chorales are both based on the melody “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”. The twofold appearance of this passion chorale is evidence of the deliberate thematic link between Parts I and VI, but it also indicates that Bach, in the narration of Christ’s birth, is already drawing attention to his Passion.
In composing the oratorio, Bach made considerable use of music from his secular cantatas. These are essentially works of congratulation and homage which he had composed recently for the Saxon-electoral and Polish-royal family: “Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen” (BWV 213), for the birthday of Friedrich Christian, heir to the electorate (2 September 1733); “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!” (BWV 214), for the birthday of Electress Maria Josepha (8 December 1733); and “Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen”, for the first anniversary of August III’s election as King of Poland (5 October 1734). Bach may even have composed those cantatas with the intention of reusing them in a later work. He took great care over the reworking of individual movements (or their adaptation to the new text). Indeed the Christmas work represents an enhancement of its secular sources: Bach substantially enriched some of the adapted movements with more colourful and lavish instrumentation and a further refinement of musical detail.
As was often the case on high feasts (and, in particular, the first three days of Christmas, New Year’s Day and Epiphany), Bach’s time was limited as a result of the holidays’ close succession and the number of performances needing to be provided with music. Therefore instead of borrowing the choruses, arias and recitatives for the last part of the oratorio from his secular congratulatory cantatas, Bach deviated from his original parody plan and, as a time-saving measure, turned to one of his church cantatas (BWV 248a). The composition in question, which survives only as a fragment, was composed a few months earlier and apparently was intended for Michaelmas (29 September) 1734. It is fascinating to discover how text fragments from the parody model’s cantata libretto found their way into Part VI of the oratorio, the opening chorus of which refers to the “raging” fiend that uses its “sharp talons” for destruction. Little imagination is needed to connect the raging fiend’s “sharp claws” with the cantata’s “raging dragon”. Similarly, the text passage “Tod, Teufel, Sünd und Hölle sind ganz und gar geschwächt” (“Death, Devil, sin and hell are utterly diminished”; movement 64) must also have come, intact or modified, from the Michaelmas cantata: the archangel Michael’s victory over the Dragon has vanquished the powers of darkness. The “raging monster” in Part VI of the oratorio represents King Herod, who is not defeated with the sword but rather outwitted at God’s command by the Wise Men from the East.
Also deviating from Bach’s initial parody plan, some of the oratorio is newly composed, including the alto aria “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder” (movement 31). Bach set this text with extraordinary dedication: his first compositional sketch remained a fragment, apparently because his original scoring (for alto, two flutes, strings and continuo) seemed ostentatious coming directly after the Biblical text “Maria aber behielt alle diese Worte und bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen” (“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”). He therefore completely revised it for solo violin, alto and continuo. This exceptionally inward, deeply felt tone-poem is (like all the other alto solos) conceived for the Virgin Mary. The great care Bach invested in this “centrepiece” of his oratorio shows that he regarded his work for Christmas as anything but a routine project, however much that might be suggested by his repeated recycling of earlier occasional music. Whereas most of the choruses and arias are borrowings from existing pieces, the chorale settings and recitatives were largely newly composed. Bach paid special attention to the chorales: Part IV contains no fewer than three of his own melodies (“Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben”, “Jesu, meine Freud und Wonne” and “Jesus richte mein Beginnen”) that can be found in none of his other works.
The period in which Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio is precisely documented. Both the autograph score and the original printed libretto are dated 1734. The individual performances spanned the period from Christmas Day of 1734 to Epiphany of 1735. Whether and how often the work was revived in later years, however, is unknown. Its librettist was presumably the Leipzig civil servant and successful author of occasional verse Christian Friedrich Henrici (known under his pseudonym Picander), who had written the texts of the secular congratulatory and homage works already mentioned as sources of the oratorio. Bach himself undoubtedly took a decisive role in shaping the libretto — not just in the choice of texts for the choruses and arias, but also the Biblical passages and chorale stanzas. It was therefore essential for him to collaborate directly with his poet, since the new oratorio texts needed to be adapted to the music being reused.
The characteristic musical language of the oratorio is one of easily singable melodies; indeed the melodic expression in some arias already seems to be approaching the mid-eighteenth-century musical aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit, marked by intimacy and subjectivity. Often the upper part dominates, as the melodic element assumes precedence over polyphony. Strict counterpoint is often relaxed by means of concertante instrumental figuration. Perhaps this new feature in Bach’s music, beginning to show itself around 1730, is one reason for the oratorio’s great popularity today.
In his scoring, Bach has given each part of the oratorio its own instrumental profile, and thus the respective scenes are already illustrated for the listener through their characteristic sonorities. This is most conspicuous in the instrumental Sinfonia that begins Part II. The musicologist, organist and physician Albert Schweitzer interpreted this piece as an antiphonal dialogue between angels (strings and flutes) and shepherds (oboes). In Parts I, III and VI — the work’s cornerstones — trumpets and timpani, the royal instruments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, symbolise the power of the newborn Son of God, who has appeared to mankind on earth to redeem them and reconcile them with his Heavenly Father.
After Bach’s death, the Christmas Oratorio came into the possession of his secondeldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, in Berlin. In later years, he made use of a single movement from the work, the opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket!”: with text unaltered but lightly modified instrumental scoring, he placed it at the beginning of the Easter music he performed in Hamburg in 1778. There was apparently no opportunity in that city for a performance of his father’s Christmas work.
Unlike J.S. Bach’s Matthew and John Passions as well as some of his cantatas and Masses, the Christmas Oratorio was not heard again after 1800 for a relatively long time. The first documented public performance — although only of the first two parts — took place on 20 December 1844 with the Breslau Singakademie under its enterprising director Johann Theodor Mosewius. Further performances followed in 1845, 1847 and 1848, again in Breslau. At this time the work was still unpublished. The oratorio’s first performance by the Berlin Singakademie came in 1857, when the work’s technical demands (especially on the singers) led the choir’s director, Eduard Grell, to transpose it down a semitone (to D flat). He also cut the work drastically, as was customary in the performance practice of that time. Whether there was “sufficient interest on the part of the public” for a complete presentation — as the Singakademie’s director hoped the future would eventually bring — remains doubtful: enthusiasm for Bach in Berlin was still limited.
The Christmas Oratorio was not performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus until 1922, although individual movements were given in Gewandhaus concerts conducted by the kapellmeister Carl Reinecke, including the “Shepherds’ Sinfonia” (1862 and 1870), the opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” (1861) and the second part of the chorale “Wir singen dir in deinem Heer” (1862). On 20 December 1923, Parts I–III were heard for the first time, but a complete performance had to wait until 13 and 14 December 1958.
The present recording is based on acclaimed performances given in the Gewandhaus on 7 and 8 January 2010 — performances which formed part of an ongoing Bach cycle that began with the six Brandenburg Concertos in 2007, followed by the St Matthew Passion in 2009, the keyboard concertos with pianist Ramin Bahrami in 2009 and 2010, and the St John Passion in 2010. The next instalment in the cycle, the Mass in B minor, is planned for 2014.
Translation Richard Evidon