Christmas Oratorio

The Christmas Oratorio (German: Weihnachts-Oratorium), BWV 248, is an oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach intended for performance in church during the Christmas season. It was written for the Christmas season of 1734 and incorporates music from earlier compositions, including three secular cantatas written during 1733 and 1734 and a now lost church cantata, BWV 248a. The date is confirmed in Bach's autograph manuscript. The next performance was not until 17 December 1857 by the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin under Eduard Grell. The Christmas Oratorio is a particularly sophisticated example of parody music. The author of the text is unknown, although a likely collaborator was Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander).

The work belongs to a group of three oratorios written in 1734 and 1735 for major feasts, the other two works being the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) and the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249). All three of these oratorios to some degree parody earlier compositions. The Christmas Oratorio is by far the longest and most complex work of the three.[1]

The Christmas Oratorio is in six parts, each part being intended for performance on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period. The piece is often presented as a whole or split into two equal parts. The total running time for the entire work is nearly three hours.

The first part (for Christmas Day) describes the Birth of Jesus, the second (for December 26) the annunciation to the shepherds, the third (for December 27) the adoration of the shepherds, the fourth (for New Year's Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the fifth (for the first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi, and the sixth (for Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi.

Narrative structure

The structure of the story is defined to a large extent by the particular requirements of the church calendar for Christmas 1734/35. Bach abandoned his usual practice when writing church cantatas of basing the content upon the Gospel reading for that day in order to achieve a coherent narrative structure. Were he to have followed the calendar, the story would have unfolded as follows:

  1. Birth and Annunciation to the Shepherds
  2. The Adoration of the Shepherds
  3. Prologue to the Gospel of John
  4. Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
  5. The Flight into Egypt
  6. The Coming and Adoration of the Magi

This would have resulted in the Holy Family fleeing before the Magi had arrived, which was unsuitable for an oratorio evidently planned as a coherent whole. Bach removed the content for the Third Day of Christmas (December 27), John's Gospel, and split the story of the two groups of visitors—Shepherds and Magi—into two. This resulted in a more understandable exposition of the Christmas story:

  1. The Birth
  2. The Annunciation to the Shepherds
  3. The Adoration of the Shepherds
  4. The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
  5. The Journey of the Magi
  6. The Adoration of the Magi

The Flight into Egypt takes place after the end of the sixth part.

That Bach saw the six parts as comprising a greater, unified whole is evident both from the surviving printed text and from the structure of the music itself. The edition has not only a title—Weihnachts-Oratorium—connecting together the six sections, but these sections are also numbered consecutively. As John Butt has mentioned,[2] this points, as in the Mass in B minor, to a unity beyond the performance constraints of the church year.

Performance

The oratorio was written for performance on six feast days of Christmas during the winter of 1734 and 1735. The original score also contains details of when each part was performed. It was incorporated within services of the two most important churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. As can be seen below, the work was only performed in its entirety at the St. Nicholas Church.

First performances:

  • 25 December 1734: Part I – 'early in the morning' at St. Nicholas; 'in the afternoon' at St. Thomas
  • 26 December 1734: Part II – morning at St. Thomas; afternoon at St. Nicholas
  • 27 December 1734: Part III – morning at St. Nicholas
  • 1 January 1735: Part IV – morning at St. Thomas; afternoon at St. Nicholas
  • 2 January 1735: Part V – morning at St Nicholas
  • 6 January 1735: Part VI – morning at St. Thomas; afternoon at St. Nicholas

Music

Bach expresses the unity of the whole work within the music itself, in part through his use of key signatures. Parts I and III are written in the keys of D major, part II in its subdominant key G major. Parts I and III are similarly scored for exuberant trumpets, while the Pastoral Part II (referring to the Shepherds) is, by contrast, scored for woodwind instruments and does not include an opening chorus. Part IV is written in F major (the relative key to D minor) and marks the furthest musical point away from the oratorio's opening key, scored for horns. Bach then embarks upon a journey back to the opening key, via the dominant A major of Part V to the jubilant re-assertion of D major in the final part, lending an overall arc to the piece. To reinforce this connection, between the beginning and the end of the work, Bach re-uses the chorale melody of Part I's Wie soll ich dich empfangen? in the final chorus of Part VI, Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen; this choral melody is the same as of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, which Bach used five times in his St Matthew Passion.

The music represents a particularly sophisticated expression of the parody technique, by which existing music is adapted to a new purpose. Bach took the majority of the choruses and arias from works which had been written some time earlier. Most of this music was 'secular', that is written in praise of royalty or notable local figures, outside the tradition of performance within the church.[1]

These secular cantatas which provide the basis for the Christmas Oratorio, are:

In addition to these sources, the sixth cantata is thought to have been taken almost entirely from a now-lost church cantata, BWV 248a. The trio aria in Part V Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen? is believed to be from a similarly lost source, and the chorus from the same section Wo ist der neugeborne König is from the 1731 St Mark Passion (BWV 247).[3]

Instrumentation

The scoring below[2] refers to parts, rather than necessarily to individual players. Adherents of theories specifying small numbers of performers (even to 'One Voice Per Part') may however choose to use numbers approaching one instrument per named part.

Part I
3 trumpets, timpani, 2 transverse flutes, 2 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 violins, viola, continuo group[I 1][I 2]
Part II
2 flutes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 oboes da caccia, 2 violins, viola, continuo
Part III
3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 violins, viola, continuo
Part IV
2 horns, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo
Part V
2 oboes d'amore, 2 violins, viola, continuo
Part VI
3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 violins, viola, continuo
Notes
  1. The continuo part is open to interpretation in matters of scoring. Examples: for his 1973 recording, Nikolaus Harnoncourt employed bassoon, violoncello, violone (double bass) and organ;[4] Peter Schreier (1987) used violoncello, double bass, bassoon, organ and harpsichord;[5] René Jacobs in 1997 chose violoncello, double bass, lute, bassoon, organ and harpsichord;[6] and Jos van Veldhoven in 2003 opted for violoncello, double bass, bassoon, organ, harpsichord and theorbo.[7]
  2. The different types of oboes referred to above are mostly called for at different points in each section. However, numbers 10, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19 and 21 in Part II call for 2 oboe d'amore and 2 oboe da caccia. This scoring was intended to symbolise the shepherds who are the subject of the second part. It is a reference to the pastoral music tradition of shepherds playing shawm-like instruments at Christmas. Similarly, the pastoral sinfony in Handel's Messiah (1741) is known as the 'Pifa' after the Italian piffero or piffaro, similar to the shawm and an ancestor of the oboe.

Text

The ease with which the new text fits the existing music is one of the indications of how successful a parody the Christmas Oratorio is of its sources. Musicologist Alfred Dürr[8] and others, such as Christoph Wolff[9] have suggested that Bach's sometime collaborator Picander (the pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici) wrote the new text, working closely with Bach to ensure a perfect fit with the re-used music. It may have even been the case that the Christmas Oratorio was already planned when Bach wrote the secular cantatas BWV 213, 214 and 215, given that the original works were written fairly close to the oratorio and the seamless way with which the new words fit the existing music.[9]

Nevertheless, on two occasions Bach abandoned the original plan and was compelled to write new music for the Christmas Oratorio. The alto aria in Part III, Schließe, mein Herze was originally to have been set to the music for the aria Durch die von Eifer entflammten Waffen from BWV 215. On this occasion, however, the parody technique proved to be unsuccessful and Bach composed the aria afresh. Instead, he used the model from BWV 215 for the bass aria Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen in Part V. Similarly, the opening chorus to Part V, Ehre sei dir Gott! was almost certainly intended to be set to the music of the chorus Lust der Völker, Lust der Deinen from BWV 213, given the close correspondence between the texts of the two pieces. The third major new piece of writing (with the notable exception of the recitatives), the sublime pastoral Sinfonia which opens Part II, was composed from scratch for the new work.

In addition to the new compositions listed above, special mention must go to the recitatives, which knit together the oratorio into a coherent whole. In particular, Bach made particularly effective use of recitative when combining it with chorales in no. 7 of part I (Er ist auf Erden kommen arm) and even more ingeniously in the recitatives nos. 38 and 40 which frame the "Echo Aria" (Flößt, mein Heiland), no. 39 in part IV.

Until 1999 the only complete English version of the Christmas Oratorio was that prepared in 1874 by John Troutbeck for the music publisher Novello.[10] A new edition has been worked up by Neil Jenkins.

Parts and numbers

Each section combines choruses (a pastoral Sinfonia opens Part II instead of a chorus), chorales and from the soloists recitatives, ariosos and arias.

By notational convention the recitatives are in common time. Less conventional is Bach's use of key signatures in these freely modulating passages; for example, No. 27 retains the three-sharp continues key signature of the previous movement while modulating from c minor to A major.

Part I

Part I: For the First Day of Christmas
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource – Audio
1ChorusD major3/8Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings (violin I, II, viola) and continuo (cello, violone, organ and bassoon)BWV 214: Chorus, Tönet, ihr Pauken!
2Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Es begab sich aber zu der ZeitContinuoLuke 2:1-6
3Recitative (alto)Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam2 oboe d'amore, continuo
4Aria (alto)A min3/8Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen TriebenOboe d'amore I, violin I, continuoBWV 213: Aria, Ich will dich nicht hören
5ChoraleA minorCommonWie soll ich dich empfangen2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings and continuo"Wie soll ich dich empfangen", v. 1 (Paul Gerhardt, 1653); Zahn 5385a (Hans Leo Hassler, 1601)[11]
6Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und sie gebar ihren ersten SohnContinuoLuke 2:7
7Chorale (sopranos)

Recitative (bass)

D major3/4
Common
Er ist auf Erden kommen arm

Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn

2 oboe d'amore, continuo"Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ", v. 6 (Martin Luther, 1524); Zahn 1947 (Wittenberg 1524)[12][13]
8Aria (bass)D major2/4Großer Herr und starker KönigTrumpet I, flute I, strings, continuoBWV 214: Aria, Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen
9ChoraleD majorCommonAch mein herzliebes Jesulein!3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings and continuo (cello, violone, organ and bassoon)"Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her", v. 13 (Martin Luther, 1535); Zahn 346 (Martin Luther, 1539)[14]

Part II

Bach's autograph of the Sinfonia opening Part II, and the ensuing recitative:

Part II: For the Second Day of Christmas
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource – Audio
10SinfoniaG major12/82 flutes, 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuo
11Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und es waren Hirten in derselben GegendContinuoLuke 2:8-9
12ChoraleG majorCommonBrich an, o schönes Morgenlicht2 flutes, 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuo"Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist", v. 9 (Johann Rist, 1641); Zahn 5741 (Johann Schop, 1641)[15]
13Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Angel, soprano)Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen
Fürchtet euch nicht
Strings, continuoLuke 2:10-11
14Recitative (bass)Was Gott dem Abraham verheißen2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuo
15Aria (tenor)E minor3/8Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eiletFlute I, continuoBWV 214: Aria, Fromme Musen! meine Glieder
16Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)[II 1]Und das habt zum ZeichenContinuoLuke 2:12
17ChoraleC majorCommonSchaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall2 flutes, 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuo"Schaut, schaut, was ist für Wunder dar", v. 8 (Paul Gerhardt, 1667); Zahn 346 (Martin Luther, 1539)[16]
18Recitative (bass)So geht denn hin!2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, continuo
19Aria (alto)G maj/E min2/4Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh'Flute I (colla parte an octave above the alto soloist throughout), 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuoBWV 213: Aria, Schlafe, mein Liebster, und pflege der Ruh
20Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und alsobald war da bei dem EngelContinuoLuke 2:13
21ChorusG majorSplit Common (2/2)Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe2 flutes, 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuoLuke 2:14
22Recitative (bass)So recht, ihr Engel, jauchzt und singetContinuo
23ChoraleG major12/8Wir singen dir in deinem Heer2 flutes, 2 oboe d'amore, 2 oboe da caccia, strings, continuo"Wir singen dir, Immanuel", v. 2 (Paul Gerhardt, 1656); Zahn 346 (Martin Luther, 1539)[17]
  1. In some performances sung by the Angel (soprano).

Part III

Part III: For the Third Day of Christmas
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource – Audio
24ChorusD major3/8Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das LallenTrumpet I, II, III, timpani, flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuoBWV 214: Chorus, Blühet, ihr Linden in Sachsen, wie Zedern
25Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhrenContinuoLuke 2:15
26ChorusA major3/4Lasset uns nun gehen gen BethlehemFlute I, II, oboe d'amore I, II, strings, continuo
27Recitative (bass)Er hat sein Volk getröst'tFlute I, II, continuo
28ChoraleD majorCommonDies hat er alles uns getanFlute I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuo"Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ", v. 7 (Martin Luther, 1524); Zahn 1947 (Wittenberg 1524)[12][13]
29Duet (soprano, bass)A major3/8Herr, dein Mitleid, dein ErbarmenOboe d'amore I, II, continuoBWV 213: Aria, Ich bin deine, du bist meine
30Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und sie kamen eilendContinuoLuke 2:16-19
31Aria (alto)D maj/B min2/4Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige WunderViolin solo, continuo
32Recitative (alto)Ja, ja! mein Herz soll es bewahrenFlute I, II, continuo
33ChoraleG majorCommonIch will dich mit Fleiß bewahrenFlute I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuo"Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen", v. 15 (Paul Gerhardt, 1653); Zahn 6461 (Georg Ebeling, 1666)[18]
34Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und die Hirten kehrten wieder umContinuoLuke 2:20
35ChoraleF minorCommonSeid froh, dieweilFlute I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuo"Laßt Furcht und Pein", v. 4 (Christoph Runge, 1653); Zahn 2072 (Kaspar Füger, 1593)[19]
24Chorus da capoD major3/8Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das LallenTrumpet I, II, III, timpani, flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuoBWV 214: Chorus, Blühet, ihr Linden in Sachsen, wie Zedern

Part IV

Part IV: For New Year's Day (Feast of the Circumcision)
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource
36ChorusF major3/8Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit LobenHorns I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuoBWV 213: Chorus, Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen
37Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und da acht Tage um warenContinuoLuke 2:21
38Recitative (bass)
Arioso (sopr./bass)
Immanuel, o süßes Wort
Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben
Strings, continuo 
39Aria (soprano & 'Echo' soprano)C major6/8Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein NamenOboe I solo, continuoBWV 213: Aria, Treues Echo dieser Orten
40Recitative (bass)
Arioso (soprano)
Wohlan! dein Name soll allein
Jesu, meine Freud' und Wonne
Strings, continuo 
41Aria (tenor)D minorCommonIch will nur dir zu Ehren lebenViolin I, II, continuoBWV 213: Aria, Auf meinen Flügeln sollst du schweben
42ChoraleF major3/4Jesus richte mein BeginnenHorns I, II, oboe I, II, strings, continuoWords: Johann von Rist, 1642

Part V

Part V: For the First Sunday in the New Year[V 1]
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource
43ChorusA maj/F min3/4Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungenOboe d'amore I, II, strings, continuo 
44Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Da Jesus geboren war zu BethlehemContinuoMatthew 2:1
45Chorus
Recitative (alto)
Chorus
D majorCommonWo ist der neugeborne König der Juden[V 2]
Sucht ihn in meiner Brust
Wir haben seinen Stern gesehen
Oboe d'amore I, II, strings, continuoBWV 247: St Mark Passion, Chorus,
Pfui dich, wie fein zerbrichst du den Tempel[3]
46ChoraleA majorCommonDein Glanz all' Finsternis verzehrtOboe d'amore I, II, strings, continuoWords: Georg Weissel, 1642
47Aria (bass)F minor2/4Erleucht' auch meine finstre SinnenOboe d'amore I solo, organ senza continuoBWV 215: Aria, Durch die von Eifer entflammeten Waffen
48Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Da das der König Herodes hörteContinuoMatthew 2:3
49Recitative (alto)Warum wollt ihr erschreckenStrings, continuo 
50Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und ließ versammeln alle HohenpriesterContinuoMatthew 2:4-6
51Trio (sopr., alto, ten.)B minor2/4Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?Violin I solo, continuounknown
52Recitative (alto)Mein Liebster herrschet schonContinuo 
53ChoraleA majorCommonZwar ist solche HerzensstubeOboe d'amore I, II, strings, continuoWords: Johann Franck, 1655
  1. Part V is meant to be performed on the Sunday between New Year's Day and Epiphany on 6 January; in some years there is no such day, e.g in 2017, 2018 & 2019.
  2. Matthew 2:2

Part VI

Part VI: For the Feast of Epiphany
No. KeyTimeFirst lineScoringSource
54ChorusD major3/8Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnaubenTrumpet I, II, III, timpani, oboe I, II, strings, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
55Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Herod, bass)Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich

Ziehet hin und forschet fleißig
ContinuoMatthew 2:7-8
56Recitative (soprano)Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällenStrings, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
57Aria (soprano)A maj/F min/A maj3/4Nur ein Wink von seinen HändenOboe d'amore I, strings, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
58Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Als sie nun den König gehöret hattenContinuoMatthew 2:9-11
59ChoraleG majorCommonIch steh an deiner Krippen hierOboe I, II, strings, continuoWords: Paul Gerhardt, 1656
60Recitative (Evangelist, tenor)Und Gott befahl ihnen im Traum'ContinuoMatthew 2:12
61Recitative (tenor)So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hierOboe d'amore I, II, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
62Aria (tenor)B minor2/4Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schreckenOboe d'amore I, II, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
63Recitative (soprano, alto, tenor, bass)Was will der Höllen Schrecken nunContinuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata)
64ChoraleD majorCommonNun seid ihr wohl gerochenTrumpet I, II, III, timpani, oboe I, II, strings, continuoBWV 248a (lost church cantata); Words: Georg Werner, 1648

S. D. Gl.

Recordings

References

  1. 1 2 Markus Rathey. 2016. Bach’s Major Vocal Works. Music, Drama, Liturgy, Yale University Press
  2. 1 2 Sleeve notes to Philip Pickett's recording of the Christmas Oratorio (Decca, 458 838, 1997)
  3. 1 2 Werner Breig, sleeve notes to John Eliot Gardiner's recording of the Christmas Oratorio (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv, 4232322, 1987)
  4. Das Alte Werk (Warner), 2564698540 (1973, re-released 2008)
  5. Decca (Philips), 4759155 (1987, re-released 2007)
  6. Harmonia Mundi, HMX 2901630.31 (1997, re-released 2004)
  7. Channel Classics Records, CCS SA 20103 (2003)
  8. Alfred Dürr, sleeve notes to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's first recording of the Christmas Oratorio (Warner Das Alte Werk, 2564698540, 1972, p. 10) and repeated in the notes to Harnoncourt's 2nd recording of the work (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 88697112252, 2007, p. 22)
  9. 1 2 Christoph Wolff, sleeve notes to Ton Koopman's recording of the Christmas Oratorio (Warner Erato, 0630-14635-2, 1997)
  10. Background note by Neil Jenkins on his translation of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, 1999
  11. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(1)/5 at www.bach-chorales.com.
  12. 1 2 BWV2a (1998), p. 474.
  13. 1 2 Luke Dahn (2018). BWV BWV 248(3)/28(5) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  14. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(1)/9 at www.bach-chorales.com.
  15. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(2)/12(3) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  16. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(2)/17(8) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  17. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(2)/23(14) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  18. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(3)/33(10) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  19. Luke Dahn (2018). BWV 248(3)/35(12) at www.bach-chorales.com.
  20. Juloratoriet (1996) on IMDb
  21. Christmas Oratorio (Rilling, 2000) review
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