Quick: what blockbuster Baroque Christmas work begins with a volley of kettledrums and a jubilant outburst of winds and strings, all to set up a rousing choral melody that proclaims “Shout for Joy, Exult”?
If an answer doesn’t pop immediately into your mind, you’re not alone. The answer is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, despite its significance, it’s not often performed. Unlike Handel’s Messiah, it does not rise to the status of a pop classic. It boasts no eye-catching stories of a British King George II suddenly rising up for a chorus (“Hallelujah”); nor are you likely to find notices in your area of a “Bach Christmas-Oratorio Sing.”
Yet Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) presents an extraordinary and rewarding musical journey through the Christmas season. And I do mean journey through the season. Cast in six individual parts, each section is actually a separate cantata designed to complement a liturgical service (Mass) across the Twelve Days of Christmas: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day (the 26th), January 1, January 2, and January 6 (Epiphany).
A cantata can be defined as a relatively short work (usually 15 to 30 minutes) for chorus, soloists, and instruments that presents a specific theme. Cantatas (Latin, cantare, to sing), like oratorios, feature narrative and reflective text, and sometimes have individual characters. Texts can be secular (to celebrate a royal wedding or birthday, or a victory in battle). But the vast majority in Bach’s time had sacred words and were interwoven within the liturgy in a Sunday or festal worship service. They would support and express the theme of that service.
Thus, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a series of six cantatas that took the listener from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.
- Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (Shout with glory, rise up, glorify the day). Birth and Announcement to the Shepherds.
- Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (And there were shepherds in the same region). The Annunciation to the Shepherds.
- Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (Ruler of Heaven, hear the murmur). Adoration of the Shepherds.
- Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (Prostrate yourself with thanks, with praise). Circumcision and Naming of Jesus.
- Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Praise be to Thee, God). The Journey of the Magi.
- Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben (Lord, if Thy proud enemies rage). The Adoration of the Magi.
Most of the six cantatas were performed at both of the Leipzig churches over which Bach presided as music director: St. Thomas Church (Thomanerkirche) and St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche). So all six parts sounded amid the rich, dark wood and stained glass of St. Thomas—some in a morning service, some in an afternoon mass. But four of the parts (I, II, IV, VI) also were presented in a second service in the radiantly light, airy St. Nicholas Church.
Does this sound complicated? It probably was, especially logistically, although Bach was used to overseeing complex music at both churches. He fulfilled this responsibility through the longest professional span of his career: a tenure of 27 years between 1723 and 1750.
It’s hard to separate Bach’s music from the locations in which he served (“The Stations of Bach”). For example, much of his greatest organ music stems from his period as Court Organist in Weimar (1708-1717). His next job at the small royal court of Köthen inspired a series of wonderful chamber music (including the Brandenburg Concerti). Why? Because his boss, the duke, adored the trendiest instrumental styles coming from Italy and France.
But when Bach came to Leipzig in 1723, his focus shifted back to sacred music. He was expected regularly to produce new cantatas for most Sunday services—a requirement that weighed more heavily on him as the years went on.
Still, a job is a job. So what would you do if you had Bach’s duties? You’d do what Bach and his contemporaries did: recycle! Pull movements from older works and rework them as needed. Today we might frown on the practice, but in Bach’s time, it was usual, necessary, and lauded when particularly successful.
And, in fact, that’s part of the brilliance of the Christmas Oratorio. He reused a lot of material while creating a coherent overall design for the total work, based around selected chorale (hymn) tunes, including one strongly featured that is better known by its Lenten words O Sacred Head Now Wounded. In fact, 14 of the more than 60 numbers of Christmas Oratorio are settings based on chorales.
You’ll discover a wealth of wonderful choral and solo numbers within each cantata, including the beautiful siciliano (Sinfonia) that opens Part II. (I’ll return to it later in the Advent Calendar.) But for me, the opening chorus of Part I shines as one of Bach’s absolute grandest compositions. Every year, on Christmas morning, I hit the “play” button for this track so often, my family finally begs me to play something else—anything else.
I hope you too will be drawn into the grandeur of Jauchzet, frohlocket, and, particularly in this clip, enjoy hearing and seeing the instruments of Bach’s period: kettle drums played by small wooden mallets (as opposed to the big poofy mallets of today’s timpani); trumpets without the modern valves (called the “Baroque trumpet”); oboes and wooden flutes without the complex series of keypads on today’s modern instruments. And, I hope people in your family will dance, dance, dance in joy to its musical proclamation: Rejoice, exalt!
A Final Note
St. Thomas Church today is renown today as “Bach’s Church.” Since 1950, Bach’s remains have been buried there directly in front of the choir. But St. Thomas Church has witnessed countless other events since the 12th century, including Martin Luther preaching in 1539 and Wagner’s baptism in 1813. World-famous too is the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir (Knabenchor), the same institution Bach long ago directed and, at times, complained about. But directing a boys’ choir never has been an easy job!
The St. Nicholas Church holds a different place in the heart of Leipzigers (and history). Built in the Romanesque style in the mid 12th century, it dazzles today with its white Neoclassical interior, including the green palm fronds that splay out from the tops of the glistening white & pink columns. Leipzig’s largest church, St. Nicholas was the site of the politically charged weekly “prayer services” (Friedensgebet) that helped usher in the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of Communism.