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

Our examination of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” concludes with a look at the work’s final two cantatas. To read the previous installments, click here: Parts I & II, Parts III & IV.

Part V: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (“Glory to thee, God, be sung now”). First performed: January 2, 1735

Members of American Bach Soloists

Musicians of American Bach Soloists

The fifth cantata of the “Christmas Oratorio” was originally performed on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day, so in the timeline of the story the news about Jesus’ birth has had some time to spread. In this cantata we meet the Wise Men of the Christmas narrative and also have our first introduction to an antagonist in the story, King Herod. The Wise Men, sung by the choir, inquire about the whereabouts of the newborn baby in alternation with a recitative sung by the alto soloist who declares, “Seek him within my breast, he dwells here, mine and his the joy!” Their touching exchange communicates that the baby is, in fact, in a manger in Bethlehem, but that he has also already taken up residence in the hearts of the people. The Evangelist then describes how Herod hears of the news and trembles with fear. He commands the high priests and scribes to tell him what the prophecies say about the child and where he might find this threat to his power. Amid all this plot development, the cantata has some thrilling musical moments to listen for. Near the midpoint, the bass soloist sings the great aria “Erleucht’ auch meine finstre Sinnen” (“Illumine, too, my gloomy spirit”). A favorite of many basses and baritones, this aria (along with “Großer Herr, o starker König” from Part I) is one of the most frequently recorded of all of Bach’s arias for low voices. Also, near the end of the cantata is another superb highlight, “Ach, wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?” (“Ah, when will that time appear then?”). Scored for vocal trio (soprano, alto, and tenor soloists), solo violin, and continuo, this Terzetto weaves each of the vocal lines together with each other and with the violin to create a constantly shifting sonic tapestry of colors and textures. It is fascinating to hear how Bach requires these different voices and instruments to work together to form a cohesive unit that proceeds along with all of the elegant complexity of one of the composer’s organ fugues. Part V closes with the impressive chorus, “Zwar ist solche Herzensstube” (“Though in truth my heart’s poor lodging”). Musically, this chorus would be a fitting climax for almost any concert and send the audiences (like Bach’s congregation) out into the rest of their day, evening, and year with a tapping foot. Bach, however, has something more in store for us. Of course he must finish the story (we are still waiting to find out if Herod will find the child), but his conclusion for the oratorio has implications for all humanity. So, on to Part VI!

Part VI: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde Schnauben (“Lord, when our boastful foes blow fury”). First performed: January 6, 1735

Members of the American Bach Choir

Members of the American Bach Choir

The conclusion of the “Christmas Oratorio” celebrates Epiphany, the church festival that commemorates the coming of the Magi to the Christ child. The Evangelist describes how the Wise Men follow the star in the East to the baby in Bethlehem. King Herod asks them to report on the location of the child so that he too might pay his respects, but the Wise Men suspect his motives and defy the king. Through a recitative and aria that is accompanied by two oboes d’amore, the tenor soloist, again departing from the role of Evangelist, declares, “Now may ye boastful foes be frightened / what fear can ye in me awaken?” This defiant tone, along with the rousing and triumphant final chorale (“… Death, devil, hell, and error / to nothing are reduced”), amplify the work’s message: through the coming of this child, humanity will triumph over death. Bach’s music here is extraordinary; a thrilling conclusion to the work! Listen for the high-flying work of the trumpets and the exhilarating energy of the entire ensemble playing together with the choir singing on top of it all.

With the triumphant conclusion of the “Oratorio Cycle,” Bach’s musical accomplishment sent the Leipzig congregation of 1735 out into the new year with the invulnerable armor of belief. For the modern listener, there are a multitude of ways in which we experience this conclusion. Some might find solace in the original message of the text. Others may walk out into the night air with that feeling of fulfillment at having heard a work of musical and cultural significance. Still others might emerge with a sense of wonderment and astonishment, having just experienced something that will nourish their inner lives. How will Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” affect you? Come find out!

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We hope that these brief guides about the six cantatas of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” will add to your experience of the work and give you some key moments to listen for in this vast masterpiece.

To purchase tickets for the December 12 performance at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, please visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.