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

We continue our exploration of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” with a closer look at the third and fourth cantatas. To review the first two parts of the oratorio, please click here. The last installment of this series of posts about the “Christmas Oratorio” will be posted next week.

ABS musicians William Skeen (violoncello) and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)

ABS musicians William Skeen (violoncello) and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)

Part III: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (“Ruler of heaven, give ear to our stammer”). First performed: December 27, 1734

With the beginning of the third cantata, the pastoral repose of Part II is succeeded by the return of an extroverted, all-out celebratory feel. In fact, the chorus, trumpets, and timpani might give you a bit of a jolt when they get going! The text in this part of the oratorio describes the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem and finding Mary, Joseph, and the child in the manger. The music for the duet near the midpoint will likely sound familiar to anyone who attended ABS’s February 2014 performances of Bach’s Cantata 213, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” but there are significant differences between these works. In the secular cantata, the alto (Hercules) and tenor (virtue) are accompanied by two violas and continuo in what is essentially a love duet where they promise to remain faithful to one another. In the oratorio, the text describes the blessings of divine favor and it is sung by the soprano and bass soloists with the accompaniment by 2 oboes d’amore. This airy, bright texture allows the two vocalists, still enjoying the pastoral accompaniment of oboes, to sing one of Bach’s most easily remembered melodies amid a musical space that recalls a clear, blue sky.

Next, the Evangelist describes how the shepherds’ visit leaves Mary pondering how her private life has suddenly become the very public good news being spread by the shepherds. Bach seizes on this situation to amplify Mary’s contemplative mood with a beautiful aria, “Schließe, mein Herze, dies sledge Wunder” (“Keep thou, my heart now, this most blessed wonder”), for the alto soloist accompanied by only solo violin and continuo. The piece is in both the key of D Major and its relative minor key of B Minor, but its quiet melancholy betrays no turbulence or alternation between emotional extremes. Poignantly, Bach’s score then calls for a chorale, which in Bach’s day would have been sung by the congregation and, effectively, engages them in Mary’s meditation as if to provide her with support and encouragement. After a statement by the Evangelist about the testimony of the departing shepherds about what they have seen, Bach inserts another chorale for the congregation who are, presumably, all warmed up now. The cantata then closes in exactly the way it opened, with the joyous chorus, “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen.”

Part IV: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (“Fall and thank him, fall and praise him”). First performed: January 1, 1735

ABS violone player Steven Lehning

ABS musician Steven Lehning playing viola da gamba

This section of the Oratorio, originally performed on New Year’s Day, commemorates the circumcision and naming of the baby. Interestingly, during the bass recitatives in the interior of the cantata, Bach inserts the Passiontide chorale, “Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben,” sung by the sopranos of the chorus. This melody, which would have been familiar to his congregation in 1735 as an Easter chorale, not only enhances the complexity of the vocal lines but creates a subtle connection between the shedding of Christ’s blood at his circumcision with the final, redemptive sacrifice of the passion narrative. The bass’s dramatic recitatives surround an aria for soprano and oboe with continuo, “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen” (“Doth, my Savior, doth thy name have”). Both the vocalist and oboe soloist enjoy an echo effect throughout the aria, with voice mirroring voice, oboe mirroring voice, and all other combinations thereof. This rhetorical device underscores a theme in the text that occurs in much of Bach’s church music, that of Christ’s interjection on behalf of all humankind to defeat death. The soprano, in effect, asks, “should I fear death?” and she is answered “No!” Then she asks, “Rather, ought I greet it gladly?” and receives the answer, “Yes!” These echoes, perhaps emanating from the Christ child, provide a comforting assurance. Bach brilliantly treats the whole aria with a modern approach that sheds textural complexity for the more gallant style that we associate with later composers like his sons, Haydn, or Mozart. Again, those who remember ABS’s performances of the  “Hercules at the Crossroads” cantata (BWV 213) in February 2014, might recognize this echo aria which also occurs in that work.

Following the second recitative section for bass soloist and choral sopranos, the tenor soloist sings his bravura aria, “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I would but for thine honor live now”). The aria opens with a spirited duet for two solo violins that has all of the flash and energy of the opening movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. The moderately rapid tempo and long stretches of individually articulated (staccato) sixteenth notes establish a formidable challenge for the violins, which the tenor then takes up with his entrance in an extraordinary, four-measure opening phrase that includes 42 notes on just the word “leben”! The text of this thrilling aria implores the Savior to give the singer strength so that his zeal might do honor to the divine. Indeed! This is another brilliant example of Bach’s ability to musically communicate the meaning of the text. It is also another highlight in a work with lots of them.

Continued with a third, and final, 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.