Embrace the holidays with H&H’s annual Bach Christmas celebration, featuring three cantatas from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Audience favorite John Finney, Associate Conductor and Chorusmaster, leads the Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus in a moving rendition of this holiday treasure.
- Bach: Cantatas I, II, and VI from Christmas Oratorio
News and Reviews
“Thursday’s performance provided some of the H&H singers with the chance to shine as soloists, and shine they did.”
Handel and Haydn serves up a joyous performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”
Boston Classical Review, December 14, 2012
The blending of text and music sounds effortless and natural when controlled by a master musical storyteller. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was one such composer who intrinsically understood how music could enhance, emphasize, and reach far beyond the impact of any one aspect of a work, and Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) is one of his most beautiful settings.
Bach, the youngest child of John Ambrosius and Maria Elisabetha, was born in Eisenach on March 21, 1685. When he was 10, both of his parents died and Bach was sent to Ohrdruf to live with his older brother, Johann Christoph, who was an organist.
In 1703, Bach was appointed organist at St. Boniface (Neuekirche) in Arnstadt. Four years later, he was named organist at St. Blasius in Mühlhausen. On October 17, 1707, he married Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children, four of whom survived childhood. One year later, Bach was made organist and chamber musician at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar.
On August 5, 1714, Bach accepted the position of Kapellmeister to the princely court at Anhalt-Cöthen. Bach’s employer, Duke Wilhelm of Weimar, however, would not allow Bach to leave his service until December, going so far as to imprison Bach during the dispute. Once in Cöthen, Bach led an orchestra of 18 accomplished musicians and, perhaps for the first time in his career, had a cordial relationship with his employer. While Bach was away from Cöthen in spring 1721, his wife, Maria Barbara, died. Later that year, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a singer at the Cöthen court. Of their 13 children, 6 survived childhood.
Scholars generally agree that Bach considered searching for a new position after the prince, Leopold, married a young woman who did not share his love of music. In 1723, Bach was offered the coveted position at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig; however, this was only after two other candidates declined the selection committee’s offer. This position had two titles: Cantor and director musicus (director of music). As Cantor, Bach’s primary responsibilities included teaching music and directing the choirs at St. Thomas Church and St. Nicolas Church on alternating Sundays. As director musicus, Bach was also responsible for overseeing church music and providing music for any civic celebrations in the city.
During Bach’s time, Leipzig was a thriving city and a hub for commerce and music. At Christmas, many of those activities centered on church services. Celebrations ran from the Feast of the Nativity (December 25) to the Epiphany (January 6). As part of his duties as a church composer, Bach wrote a set of six cantatas, the Christmas Oratorio. One cantata was to be performed during the morning service on each day of the 1734 Christmas season: December 25, December 26, December 27, New Year’s Day, the Sunday after New Year’s, and Epiphany.
Part I of the Christmas Oratorio was premiered at St. Nicolas on Christmas Day. It was then repeated that afternoon at St. Thomas. Parts II and IV were heard at the morning service at St. Thomas and in the afternoon at St. Nicolas. Parts III and V were performed only at the morning service at St. Nicolas. Part VI was performed at St. Thomas at the morning service and St. Nicolas in the afternoon. The entire oratorio was not performed at St. Thomas and anyone who wanted to hear the whole work at St. Nicolas would have attended performances that alternated between morning and afternoon.
Bach took music for the first five cantatas of the oratorio from previously composed secular cantatas, and he borrowed most of the final cantata from a now lost church cantata. In the way Bach added new text to existing music and adapted new music to existing text, the Christmas Oratorio is considered a particularly sophisticated example of parody, or musical borrowing.
The texts of the cantatas tell the story of Jesus’ birth, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, the shepherds’ arrival at the manger, the naming of Jesus, and the visit of the Wise Men. Bach broke with tradition in his division of the cantata texts. He, along with his anonymous librettist, did not follow the Gospel stories associated with each feast or Sunday, choosing instead to tell a more cohesive story in order to preserve the Biblical narrative.
Bach treated the six cantatas of the oratorio as parts of a whole. He had the texts printed together with a single title page, and the work follows an overall tonal design so that the first, third, and last parts are in the same key.
Bach uses chorale tunes throughout the Christmas Oratorio to connect the cantatas. A favorite chorale tune that Bach uses in this and other works, most notably the St. Matthew Passion, is Hans Leo Hassler’s popular Passion chorale (more widely known today as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded). Since this hymn was not exclusively associated with Easter in Bach’s time, he used it to frame the six cantatas of the oratorio. We first hear the chorale melody in a four-part setting in the fifth movement of the first cantata. In this movement, the text asks how the faithful can properly greet Jesus and ultimately follow his example. Bach returns to this same chorale melody in the last movement of Part VI; here, the four-part chorale in the chorus is accompanied by the full orchestra in a jubilant setting that recalls and complements the opening of the oratorio. However, the text of the final movement makes reference not just to the birth of Jesus, but also, obliquely, to the salvation of the faithful. In using this familiar chorale tune in both Part I and the end of the entire oratorio, Bach brings the events told in the Christmas story to a heightened level of immediacy for the congregation.
Another hymn Bach uses is Von Himmel hoch (From Heaven Above). This chorale concludes Part I with a four-part setting for chorus; these phrases are connected with brief, but exuberant, passages for orchestra. Bach returns to the same chorale at the conclusion of Part II, which tells of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. Although this setting is also for four-part chorus, Bach transforms the tune into a joyful dance accompanied by strings and winds.
The lilting rhythms of the final movement of Part II recall that cantata’s opening Sinfonia, which replaces the expected opening chorus. Scored for flutes, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, strings, and continuo, the Sinfonia features the gently rocking rhythms and harmonization in thirds associated with pastoral music and Christmas.
Like much of Bach’s sacred vocal music, his Weihnachtsoratorium was not performed again until the 19th century, specifically 1879. But once it was revived, the Christmas Oratorio became a favorite of listeners and performers alike. Bach’s telling of the Christmas story touches us with its blend of subtlety and exultation, underscoring the mystery and awe of the season.
© Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2012
2012–2013 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Bach: Cantata I from Christmas Oratorio
(The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists; Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor)