Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”: An Introduction, Part I

Any opportunity to experience Bach’s magnificent “Christmas Oratorio” should be seized and savored. Containing some of the composer’s most joyous music, the “Christmas Oratorio” relates the nativity story with exuberant choruses, brilliant instrumental textures, and gorgeous arias. On Saturday December 12, Jeffrey Thomas will direct ABS and the American Bach Choir in a complete performance of this masterwork within the magnificent setting of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.


Bach composed his Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248, for the Christmas season of 1734 in Leipzig, where its 6 parts were performed over several days between December 25 and January 6. Repurposing music from cantatas he had composed for secular occasions and a previously existing but now lost church cantata, the oratorio also required a significant amount of new music from the composer along with new Christmas texts and a plan to unify all of these elements into a compelling series of short works that make up a grand, larger one. Opera fans might see parallels to Bach’s ambitious plan in Richard Wagner’s towering achievement of 142 years later, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which tells one story over the course of 4 full-length operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Bach approached his multi-part sacred oratorio with the industriousness and brilliance that characterizes so much of his work and, in the face of a tight deadline, created a cohesive masterpiece.

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

Rather than hear the work over the course of the six different days it took to complete the first Bach “Oratorio Cycle,” or even the more typical practice of dividing the oratorio into two separate performances, ABS will present the “Christmas Oratorio,” in its entirety, on one night. A little longer than the Mass in B Minor, but shorter than either of Bach’s great settings of the Passion, the “Christmas Oratorio,” like those other masterworks, carries the listener across a broad narrative arc and through an astonishing diversity of musical forms to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Like the Passions, Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” utilizes a tenor soloist Evangelist to narrate the story using only words from scripture.

Perhaps the best approach for gaining a grasp on the “Christmas Oratorio” is to examine its six parts individually before encountering the whole. Below is a brief outline of the work’s structure and some important points to know and listen for in each of the six parts.

Part I: Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tage (“Triumph, rejoicing, rise, praising these days now”). First performed: December 25, 1734

ABS_TrumpetsThe work opens with a rousing fanfare of timpani, trumpets, and full chorus. This opening will sound familiar to those who know Bach’s secular Cantata 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet Trompetten! (“Sound the drums! Ring out ye trumpets”), which ABS last performed in January 2014. The two works have different texts, but they are musically identical. As Bach scholar and performer John Butt has pointed out, Bach’s repurposing of music from a secular celebration to a church cantata in no way implies laziness or anything sacrilegious. That assumption overlooks significant differences between Bach’s time and our own. In 18th century Germany, members of the ruling class, especially monarchs, were accorded God-given authority and Bach, like most everyone else, did not question this hierarchical system. Bach composed Cantata 214 for the 34th birthday celebrations of the Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony, so he found the music to also be suitable for the opening of his “Christmas Oratorio”; they are both noble occasions. As this opening chorus is among the most jubilant and celebratory music Bach ever composed, it is fitting that his congregation would get to hear it, too! After this grand opening, the Evangelist presents some of the useful backstory about the Roman census being collected in Galilee and how Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary, unable to find accommodations, must rest in a manger. After the birth of the baby Jesus, Bach has the sopranos of the chorus and the bass soloist take turns describing the child in a tender fashion to the accompaniment of two oboes d’amore and continuo. This section is followed by the bass aria, “Großer Herr, o starker König” (“Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign”), which changes the mood considerably as the soloist makes it clear who this child actually is. Note: “Goßer Herr” is one of Bach’s most glorious arias; be sure to arrive on time so you don’t miss this standout piece in Part I!

Part II: Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (“And there were shepherds in that very region”). First performed: December 26, 1734

ABS oboist Debra Nagy playing an Oboe da Caccia

ABS oboist Debra Nagy playing an oboe da caccia

The second cantata opens with a gentle sinfonia that features the strings and flutes alternating with two oboes da caccia (curved instrument that is named for and resembles a hunting horn) and two oboes d’amore (larger oboe with a rich, warm sound). Bach uses the sonorities of this oboe quartet to establish a pastoral setting for this part of the story, which is filled with shepherds receiving the good news about the child’s birth from an angel. At different parts in the cantata, the angel’s words are sung by the soprano soloist or the entire chorus. The tenor soloist takes a momentary break from Evangelizing to sing the aria “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” (“Joyful shepherds, haste, ah hasten”) which describes the shepherds leaving their fields to follow the angel to the manger. Here, the tenor is accompanied by flute and continuo, but the character of the aria is quite different from that other famous Bach aria for tenor and flute: “Benedictus” from the end of the Mass in B Minor. Next, the alto soloist sings an aria, “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (“Sleep now, my dearest”) which is a gorgeous lullaby to the sleeping child. This aria presents great opportunities for the soloist to sing with gentle tenderness, but it also makes great demands on his/her breath control; the words “Schlafe” and “Liebster” require four measures each, leaving only tiny chances to sneak in a breath. Hearing how performers manage to sing this aria expressively is one of the work’s many delights, and also an example of Bach’s ability to create thrilling effects within the calmest of settings. The absence of trumpets and tympani in this cantata distinguish it from the overall celebratory tone of the rest of the work. It is also the only part of the Oratorio to open with a sinfonia rather than a chorus. Note: If you love the adagio movements in classical symphonies, you will love the peaceful, pastoral mood of Part II.

Continued in a second installment.

To purchase tickets for the December 12 performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church, please visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.