Six Days of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

This guest post was written by Dr. Carol Reynolds, author of Discovering Music.
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Everybody knows the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” but what about the six days of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio?

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cover of Johann Sebastian Bach

It’s an astonishing work, but encountered far less often than Handel’s nearly contemporary Messiah. And when we hear it, it’s likely in a concert setting, divided into two 90-minute halves. The concert rendition of Christmas Oratorio, however, shields us from the work’s essence.

Despite the singular form of its title (Weihnachtsoratorium), Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six individual cantatas that, taken together, narrate the Gospel from the birth of Christ to the Flight into Egypt. Each of the cantatas was tagged to one of six festive days of the Christmas season. Here, of course, we speak not of the secular Christmas season that increasingly begins around Halloween! Rather, this music embellishes the liturgical season that runs from Holy Night (Dec. 24) to Epiphany. The six cantatas of Christmas Oratorio were written for First Christmas Day (Dec. 25), Second Christmas Day (St. Stephen, Dec. 26), Third Christmas Day (Dec. 27), New Year’s Day, (Jan.1, Feast of the Circumcision), First Sunday after the New Year, and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

The text of each cantata was appropriate for the day’s liturgy. That is the role of a sacred cantata: to be a musical extension of the liturgy. It also explains a cantata’s concise nature. Cantatas in Bach’s time tended to contain 20 to 30 minutes of music. Depending on the feast and the musical resources, the cantata would begin with an opening chorus and be followed by a string of recitatives to convey the story. These recitatives were broken by one, two, or three arias and perhaps a duet to express the emotional and lyrical aspects of the piece. There would usually be an internal chorale (four-part hymn style), rich with theological import, and a closing choral or, more luxuriously, a full chorus. The form, while predictable, was flexible to the occasion and the available musicians.

Bach wrote this work in Leipzig for the 1734/35 Christmas season. He was a busy man, in charge of music at the Thomanerkirche (St. Thomas Church, known still today for its boys’ choir) and the Nikolaikirche. He struggled to balance his exasperation with the talented but unruly boys, the maintenance of the organs, the hiring of seasonal musicians, the meager budgets, and the interference of officials on the one hand with the needs of his large family on the other. He was, after all, still raising children, his second brood after the death of his beloved Maria Barbara in 1720 and his subsequent marriage to Anna Magdalena in 1721.

But most trying for Bach in these Leipzig years (1723-1750) was the undeniable fact that his musical interests had shifted. He found himself fascinated with secular musical pursuits, particularly the trendy concerts staged at the local, bustling coffeehouses – Europe’s newest craze. That’s where much of the cutting-edge music was sounding, and Bach enjoyed the scene, as we might say.

Today, in Leipzig, you can crawl up and down the low-ceiling storeys of Zum arabischen Coffe Baum, one of the original businesses to inspire Bach’s hilarious Coffee-Cantata. You can almost hear Bach’s heavy footsteps on the creaking stairs.

But that takes us far away from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio . . . or does it? Remember, all of this was pop music back then. New, fresh, and much discussed. To illustrate this popular status, let’s turn to Weihnachtoratorium’s opening chorus (Part I): “Jauchzet frohlocket” (Exult! Rejoice!). Bach was extravagant here in his use of trumpets and timpani – a sharp diversion in the genre of nativity music that typically emphasized pastoral sounds.

I dare you to listen to this version and not dance! Turn up the sound, feel the sharpness of the 18th-century timpani blows (they ring more clearly than our modern timpani). And dance across your kitchen, dance as you trek through the grocery store or enter the office, dance in your mind while stuck in traffic. Bach would be pleased!

You’ll also want to visit the “hit aria” of the Christmas Oratorio, also in Part I: “Bereitet dich Zion” (Prepare Thyself Zion). And then, if you have time, pick one of the less familiar of the six cantatas, just one, and listen to it as a liturgical unit. Imagine it integrated into that day’s service, in wintry Leipzig, sounding either against the ceiling of the airy Nikolaikirche or within the more formidable Thomanerkirche (no, Bach’s portrait hadn’t been set into the stained-glass windows yet).

Think of the ever-critical parishioners, curious as to what Herr Bach would compose for that year’s Christmas feast. In 1734/35, they got quite a treat. But Bach was growing old by then, acknowledged as the undisputed master of counterpoint, but out-of-sync with the younger Kapellmeisters in neighboring cities. No one in the congregation could have envisioned Johann Sebastian Bach as a musical icon: the indispensible cornerstone of Western music. They were witnessing just another Christmas season and another well-crafted work that fit a liturgical niche.

Perhaps that’s the greatest message of Weihnachtsoratorium: the stunning level of a routine composition by Bach. It clearly attests to the musical and dramatic achievements of this work, one of hundreds churned out by a working composer who just happens to be our undisputed master.

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Professor Carol Reynolds employs her passion for arts education in creating homeschool curricula for high-school and middle-school students. Her Discovering Music course, taking students through Western Culture from 1600 to 1914, makes your history curriculum more interesting and memorable. Carol will release her new series of programs on America’s Musical Heritage in 2011.

For more than 20 years, Carol was Associate Professor of Music History at the Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

She now makes her home on a farm near Bowie, Texas, where, with her husband, she raises La Manchagoats and soaks up the rich cultural heritage of rural America. She maintains a second residence inWeimar, Germany – the home of Goethe, Schiller, Bach, and Liszt, and the focal point of much of Europe’s artistic heritage.

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