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J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio

The Wayne Oratorio Society is in rehearsals for the Bach Christmas Oratorio concerts on Saturday and Sunday December 7 and 8.  Typically, the Wayne Oratorio Society presents Handel’s Messiah at the beginning of Advent.  The text of Messiah, untied as it is to any particular season, has over the past two and a half centuries come to be associated with the Christmas season even though it was not composed for any particular season and was in fact first performed in Lent.  Hurricane Sandy last fall forced for the first time, the last minute cancellation of an oratorio concert.  The concert was rescheduled for early this October opening up space in the choir’s rehearsal schedule to prepare Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in place of Messiah.  

An unabridged performance of the Christmas Oratorio would last well over three hours.  Indeed, Bach never performed the entire work as a unit.  By design, the work was to be performed in six separate sections as part of six worship services on six separate days in the 1734 – 1735 Christmas season, each in itself a complete cantata approximately thirty minutes long.  Each worship service had full liturgy and sermon in addition to Bach’s music.  Christmas fell on a Saturday that year and the composer’s scheme for performance of each of the six parts was poured into the resulting cycle of days.  Part I was performed on Christmas Day; Parts II and III on Sunday and Monday, the second and third day of Christmas.  (Worshippers were accustomed to attending church all three days.)  Part IV (On the Feast of the Circumcision) was performed Saturday, January 1, 1735; Part V, For the Sunday after New Year, January 2; and Part VI, For the Feast of Epiphany, Thursday, January 6.  

In his cantatas Bach structures his music using the same homiletic principles as the spoken sermon: biblical exegesis and theological instruction followed by practical moral advice.  The opening chorus of a Bach cantata is based on the Gospel lesson appointed for the day it was to be performed.  This scripture serves as well, as the basis for the entire cantata.  Scriptural, doctrinal, and contextual explanations (recitative) in his texts lead to admonitions of Christian conduct (arias), and to prayer in the form of hymns.  Each of the six cantatas which makes up the Christmas Oratorio are so structured.  

In his oratorios like his passions, the story is told by a tenor soloist, the Evangelist.  He narrates the story while the choir introduces, comments, and plays the role of the at times angelic and occasionally unruly multitude.  The choir also leads the singing of the hymns (chorales) scattered throughout the oratorio, tunes which would have been familiar to the congregation.  The soloists sing arias: songs which reflect on what has just been said.  

The original plan for performance over a number of days would be impractical today, and a performance of the complete work in one sitting would not be possible.  Our performance will be judiciously reduced.  Except for a few chorales, chorus parts have been retained while more plentiful recitatives and arias have taken the brunt of the cuts.  Da capos have been reduced to their instrumental components.  The continuity and spirit of the Christmas narrative has carefully been retained.   

Bach assumed his responsibilities of his church music position in Leipzig in 1723, and by 1734, the year he created the Christmas Oratorio, he had already composed the St. John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke Passions.  (Only the libretto of the St. Mark Passion survives, and St. Luke is totally lost.  Bach’s obituary mentions five passions, so there must have been yet another! )  The Christmas Oratorio predates Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios.  In the Christmas Oratorio, Bach employs the common practice of parody, the reworking and re-use of one’s own musical material.  While it was common for Bach to draw on his own secular or sacred works to produce new sacred music, he was never known to have ever produced new secular works from parodied sacred material.  An example of this parody technique is the opening chorus of Christmas Oratorio.   It was originally composed as cantata 214, a secular cantata with the text Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet Trompeten!  composed to honor the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony.   As the movement begins, instruments enter in the order given by the opening secular cantata text: timpani (Pauken) first, then trumpets (Trompeten), then the full orchestra and chorus.  

No composer before, and perhaps since Bach, has been so artistically freed by the constraints of sacred purpose while simultaneously bringing the boundaries of traditional art of the day to its gloriously unexplored limits. Certainly no composer has climbed higher to the pinnacle where musical art becomes one with sacred message than Johann Sebastian Bach.

Posted by Jeff Fowler at 10:30 AM
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