Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Baroque Era > Christmas Oratorio (J S Bach)
Johann Sebastian Bach
The "Christmas Oratorio" was written by Bach in 1734, the subject being taken from texts in Luke and Matthew pertaining to the Nativity. It is not an oratorio in the modern sense; but the justification of its appellation as such is to be found in Bach's own title, "Oratorium tempore nativitatis Christi."
As the entire six parts are very rarely given, a general review of their character will better suit the reader's purpose than a detailed review of each. The entire vocal score embraces no less than sixty-four numbers. In the first three parts, the connecting narratives, recited by the Evangelist, are assigned to tenor and bass, and declare the events associated with the birth of our Lord -- the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the joy of Mary, and the thanksgiving over the advent of the Lord -- the choral parts being sung by the shepherds. The fourth part relates the naming of Jesus, and outlines His career in a grand expression of faith and hope. The fifth illustrates the visit of the three kings, the anxiety of Herod when he hears of the advent of the Lord, and the assurances given him to allay his fears. In the sixth, the visitors depart to frustrate Herod's designs, and choruses of rejoicing over the triumph of the Lord close the work.
The first two parts are the only ones which need special notice for the purposes of the concert-goer. The first opens with a brillant prelude, introduced by the drum, which Bach, like Beethoven, sometimes treated as a solo instrument. It preludes the narrative bidding Zion prepare to meet her Lord -- a simple, touching melody, followed by the chorale ("How shall I fitly meet Thee and give Thee welcome due?"), set to the old Passion-hymn ("O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden") -- a solemn and even mournful melody, which at first appears incongruous in the midst of so much jubilation. The composer's evident intention was to impress the hearer with the fact that the object of the divine advent on earth was the Passion of our Lord. At the close of the work the same chorale appears, but with another meaning. It is there an exultant expression of Christ's victory over sin and death. As the chorale dies away, the narrative is resumed, leading up to another chorale ("For us to Earth He cometh poor"), combined with an orchestral symphony and bass recitative. The next number is a bass aria with trumpet accompaniment ("Lord Almighty, King all glorious"), and is followed by a chorale set to the words of Luther's Christmas hymn, which also occurs in other parts of the work, differently harmonized to suit the nature of the situation, and with which the first part closes.
The second part opens with one of the most delightful instances of Bach's orchestration, a pastoral symphony. Like the symphony of the same style in Handel's "Messiah," it is simple, graceful, and idyllic in character, and pictures the shepherds watching their flocks by night on the plains of Bethlehem. At its conclusion the Evangelist resumes his narrative, followed by the chorale ("Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly Light"), preluding the announcement of the angel ("Behold, I bring you good tidings"). It is followed by the bass recitative ("What God to Abraham revealed, He to the Sheperds doth accord to see fulfilled"), and a brillant aria for tenor ("Haste, ye Sheperds, haste to meet him"). The Evangelist gives them the sign, followed by the chorale which closed the first part, in another form ("Within yon gloomy Manger lies"). The bass recitative ("O haste ye then") preludes the exquisite cradle-song for alto ("Sleep, my Beloved, and take thy Repose"). This lovely song brings us to the close, which is an exultant shout from the multitude of the heavenly host singing "Glory to God in the highest."