Christmas Oratorio J.S. Bach
The greatest musical Christmas story of all time.
Jauchzet, frohlocket − Shout for Joy! exclaims the choir, followed by timpani, trumpets and the rest of the ensemble in the opening chorus of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. French conductor Francois Leleux, who is known for his Bach interpretations, conducts a starry cast of soloists and the Oslo Philharmonic Choir as we perform the greatest musical Christmas story of all time. Nearly 300 years after its creation, Bach’s narrative recitativos, beautiful arias, solemn chorales and magnificent writing for choir prove more popular than ever.
That J.S. Bach’s (1685−1750) Christmas Oratorio was to become the timeless, international success story and great part of our Christmas tradition that it has, was not always apparent. When Bach died in 1750, his music was considered old-fashioned, and Bach’s sons, such as Carl Philiip Emmanuel and Johann Christian, were far more popular as composers. During Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s time, few, with the exception of these composers themselves, had any connection to the old Bach and his music. It was only when Felix Mendelssohn performed St. Matthew Passion in 1829 that something of a Bach revival took place, and his music was more frequently performed in the course of the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, there was a growing interest in researching instruments and performance practice from Bach’s time in order to perform his music in as original a fashion as possible.
One of Bach’s most important roles as a composer was his position as cantor in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig for twenty-seven years, from 1723 until his death in 1750. This is where he composed most of his famous church music. Not only did he write a new cantata for every Sunday for a long period of time, but he also created works on a greater scale such as St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, Mass in B Minor, and, not least, his Christmas Oratorio. The oratorio was composed for the Christmas of 1734 and consists of six parts written for, respectively, the first, second and third days of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the first Sunday after the new year, and the day of the Holy Three Kings (6 January). The obligation to write so much new music in general forced Bach to recycle a great deal of musical material, and also the Christmas Oratorio consists of only partially new writing. Bach had used several of the movements in other contexts earlier. This was normal practice in the 18th century, and it was only in the 19th century that the idea of the unique and ingenious “work” gained a foothold, even though some of Bach’s most monumental compositions do give the impression of being unified works of genius.
In terms of form, the Christmas Oratorio is actually not technically an oratorio, but a cycle of six cantatas. Nevertheless, there is such a strong musical and textual coherence between the six cantatas that it seems natural to perform and to view them as one unified work. The Christmas Oratorio consists of several distinct movement types which have clear functions in the musical and textual narrative. The biblical Christmas story - primarily The Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:1-20), but also parts of the book of Matthew, are told through the recitativos. Here, the biblical text is recited by “The Evangelist”, a tenor soloist, accompanied only by the continuo group consisting of one chord instrument (usually organ or cembalo) and a bass instrument (usually cello or double bass).
Between the recitativos, the narrative is interrupted by chorales, arias and choir parts which comment on or embellish the biblical tale. The chorales are hymn melodies in a restrained, four-movement choral arrangement, but the most interesting and complex musical ideas are placed in the jubilant choir parts such as the opening chorus Jauchzet, frohlocket, Ehre sei Gott, and Herrscher des Himmels, and not least, in the many arias. It is primarily the arias which lend the work variation in terms of expression and mood. The arias vary between mighty tributes such as the bass aria Grosser Herr und starker König, to lyrical and tender solo movements, such as the tenor’s Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet, and the alto’s Schlafe, mein liebster, to name just a few.
Bach has also drawn contrasts between the six parts by changing both the orchestration and the musical expression. In the first and last parts, Bach makes use of timpani and trumpets, letting the music celebrate the great Christmas miracle and the greatness of God with an a jubilant, powerful expression throughout. In the second part, the trumpets are gone, and the expression is more subdued, the text being about sheperds on the land. The instrumental pastorale movement which opens the second part, is also one of the best-known parts of the work. In short, Bach makes use of all the melodic and harmonic means of expresssion he has in order to illustrate, comment upon and give praise to the great miracle of Christmas.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Det Norske Solistkor; Photo: Kjetil Almenning)
What is played
- Johann Sebastian Bach