Christmas Oratorio

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.

  1. Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (Shout with glory, rise up, glorify the day). Birth and Announcement to the Shepherds.
  2. Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (And there were shepherds in the same region). The Annunciation to the Shepherds.
  3. Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (Ruler of Heaven, hear the murmur). Adoration of the Shepherds.
  4. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (Prostrate yourself with thanks, with praise). Circumcision and Naming of Jesus.
  5. Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Praise be to Thee, God). The Journey of the Magi.
  6. Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben (Lord, if Thy proud enemies rage). The Adoration of the Magi.
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Bach Window at St. Thomas Church

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!

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St. Nicholas Church

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.

Sentimental Objects

wallyPerhaps you have a battered sentimental object that comes out only at Christmastime. Maybe it’s something that family members gently ridicule, or urge you to toss away?

Mine is a wooden toy soldier whose name, for some reason, is Wally. He’s about two feet tall, with hinged arms and legs. His paint is nicked and he no longer stands up well by himself. But I place him at the hearth every year for Christmas.

Wally holds the title of the most sentimental Christmas object in my house. That title used to belong to another object until last spring when we moved: a beloved snowman made by my mother using1950s-era foam balls and tissue paper. The snowman’s felt black hat, eyes, nose, and wry smile were gone. His tissue “snow” had yellowed to the point where even I had to admit it was just plain awful.

So rightly or wrongly, I succumbed to everyone’s begging and let him go. But Wally? He’s still with us. And he has an even a better story.

In 1985, at the end of my first semester of teaching at Southern Methodist University, I was driving home from turning in my grade sheets (think triplicate forms, carbon paper). Instead of being relieved, I felt profoundly sad. Never again would I be engaged with this particular group of talented students, studying together as we had been for sixteen weeks. I remember nearly crying.

Then, I drove past a garden shop advertising Christmas decor at 90% off. Well, who can resist that? The merchandise inside was gorgeous. Five bags of ornaments later, I was almost out the door when a wooden soldier tucked behind a flocked tree caught my eye. Ordinarily such a decoration would be too costly, but at 90% off?

Well, that’s how I acquired Wally, whose now-loose joints cause him to spend more time collapsing than standing at attention. He emerges at the end of Advent, signaling that it’s time to erect the tree. He is, if you will, our Christmas sentry.

We treasure objects like Wally because of the qualities they symbolize. Wally reminds me of a specific day when I understood just how much that first semester had meant. Years spent in libraries and practice rooms had allowed me a chance to engage in something I cherished. But Wally also symbolizes God’s ongoing grace, since those joys—teaching and learning—would be extended to me across many more decades, even unto today.

Some sentimental objects bespeak God’s grace. Other’s bespeak God’s mercy. Some objects may tell a different story—maybe one not as joyful, recalling painful memories. But they still hold a place in our hearts. We keep these objects because we still learn from them, grow with them. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

So unpack your seasonal treasures with pleasure. Take a minute and tell your children and grandchildren about them. Write something sweet about them on social media, or post them to Instagram, if you enjoy doing that. Or simply relish them over a cup of tea.

God works in mysterious ways during the season of Advent. And one path to our hearts may be through just the precious object you cradle in your hands.

A Clear Black Line

The chance to write about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) rarely comes my way. All the more reason to take advantage of his musings on Advent.

chestertonEven a sample of his copious writings on the season could fill our entire Calendar. Christmas was his favorite season, and he found that it grew more important to him as he aged. He liked to point out that, unlike blockbuster biblical events referenced year around, such as the Exodus or the Resurrection, the Nativity has the spotlight thrown on it primarily during Christmas. And he was very clear that Christmas begins on Christmas Eve. Whether you view Christmas as festive or symbolic, he says,

. . . it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before.

But if you’re not used to this idea of keeping Advent and Christmas separate, it can be confusing. I remember attending my first Anglican service during the middle of December, years ago. In this beautiful, historic church near downtown Dallas, I expected to find a glittering Christmas tree, a lavish spread of poinsettias, and twinkly garland all in place (just as it was already in so many churches, including the one where I served as organist).

Instead, I entered an undecorated church where the stern readings focused on the Fall of Man and the prophecies of John the Baptist. We didn’t sing a single Christmas Carol. What was going on here?

Of course, I quickly found out. But I also wish I’d known more about Chesterton’s writings back then, particularly those available in a little book called The Spirit of Christmas, published in 1985 by a literary admirer, Marie Smith, who bemoaned the lack of availability of Chesterton’s writings at that time.

Chesterton, as always, minces no words . . . about anything! In an essay called “Christmas That is Coming,” he begins:

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article.

“Dangerous.” “Disgusting.” Who else dares to write like that and still makes you smile?

I like the phrase “a quite clear black line.” Think of the instant when a thin stripe of rising sunlight spreads like a ribbon of electricity across the heavily clouded sky, pushing the dark away. Or, think of that moment of piercing relief when a lingering dread is lifted upon receipt of positive news.

The drama of demarcation at this season brings so much beauty. To take it to the extreme, consider the wonderful scene described in so many classic stories when the children return from church late on Christmas Eve. The parlor doors are flung open and they gasp at the tree, ablaze with candles and garland.

I so wished to have this experience as a child. I wanted the drama of Christmas to appear suddenly, and transform our simple house into a glittering land. I wanted there to be no process, but rather an instant unveiling of everything I hoped Christmas to be.

I didn’t understand quite how much work that takes, of course. And I also didn’t understand that the gift of Advent, to whatever degree we are able to observe it, does bring that fulfillment.

My first real observation of Advent happened not the year I entered the undecorated church, but a few years later, when my husband and I sang in a Christmas Eve Vigil of a different church. The moment came when the opening darkness was exploded by brilliant light and the clang of bells, as shouts of Gloria filled the sanctuary. And, to be fair, I also remember fondly the parish hall afterwards. It was lit by hundreds of candles and filled with tables of sweets and cocoa (many in that parish fasted during Advent). I kept thinking, “My goodness, we’ve just sung that beautiful service, and now it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and we’re having a party!”  I knew that Christmas had, indeed, come!

Explore and explain to your children the rewards of the “clear black line”—both in liturgy and life. It will help them understand why you (as a family) may be minimizing or delaying the Christmasy décor or Santa-style activities during the weeks of Advent. It will help them understand why Christmas Eve services are so important: they are not an interruption of Christmas fun, but rather a moment for the brilliant light of Christmas to spread across the sky. From dark to light. From anticipation to awe.

Advent II – Repetition

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Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we return to our wreath and repeat the basics of our candle-lighting ceremony. So much of today’s culture celebrates the new, the spontaneous, the unexpected. Repetition sounds dull, almost a consequence of having failed at our first attempt to do something.

Yet repetition is a key ingredient of art, life, and worship. In galleries across the world, serious students of art set up their easels and spend days copying paintings, gleaning the techniques of the masters. Music students learn to identify musical form by analyzing the patterns of repetition, variation, and contrast. The repetitions of a poem’s rhyme scheme delight the ear. For that matter, one of the early milestones for children comes when they learn to play matching games—games that depend on patterns of repetition.

More fundamentally, our lives in worship are lived in a series of repetitions. We honor God’s commandment with the seven-day week and a repeated observance of the Sabbath. We rejoice each year at Christmas to repeat those traditions that we find most meaningful, to tell the same story, to place the same Nativity Scene in its honored spot, to prepare the same holiday menus.

And so we repeat the ceremony of the Advent wreath by lighting of the second candle, traditionally performed by the oldest child. He or she first lights the purple candle that was lit on week one, and then lights a second, purple candle. It is a repetition of last week with a new variation. Liturgical cycles have specific readings associated with this Sunday. If you do not follow a set Lectionary, you might read Isaiah 40:1-11.

And yes, there are prayers designed for this occasion, such as this one:

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Encourage all of your children to participate in this ceremony through the readings or adding their own prayers. Look through the section of Advent hymns in your hymnal and explore one new to you. If you’re not confident with the singing, there are many resources now on line that will play the hymn tune for you. Or treat the hymn for what it is (a poetic text) and have members of the family read it as a poem.

Emphasize that, in observing the second Sunday in Advent, you unite with millions of Christians going back centuries. It is a repetition, but also something new. Why? Because it is being done by you. You are repeating not just a series of action, but rejoicing in an act of substance and beauty. Your children will mark this well and remember those things you honor by repetition.

Image: Second Sunday in Advent, onnola (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Adam Lay Ybounden

Feeling smothered by Holly, Jolly, Christmas and Santa Baby? Here’s a composition that offers a different take on the season. The words come from an early 15th-century manuscript, although they likely are older. Such a text could have been sung by wandering minstrels in Norman England:

Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter thought he not too long;

And all was for an apple, and apple that he took,
As clerkes finden, written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne had never Oure Ladie abeen heav’ne Queen.

Blessed be the time that apple taken was:
Therefore we mown singen. Deo Gratias.

It’s hard to find words like these in modern hymnody. So let’s unwrap them and dwell on their meaning.

The first couplet (two lines) reflects an early Christian concept that Adam lay in bonds, waiting for four thousand years for the Crucifixion of Christ and His descent into hell (Nicene Creed). We see this scene depicted in an Eastern Christian icon of Christ rescuing the dead, including Adam and Eve, from their graves.

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Jesus pulls Adam and Eve out of their graves

That’s a lot of meaning to pack into two short lines, yes?

Well, the next two lines are just as intense. They speak of the Fall of Man, expressing astonishment that the Fall was, ostensibly, over an apple! “Clerkes finden” adds an element of authority: the historical record of biblical texts and the scribes that handed them down.

Now the words, like Advent, move closer to The Nativity. The third couplet bespeaks of the redemption of man by virtue of Christ’s birth through Mary, Queen of Heaven.

The poem concludes by referring to what theologically can be called felix culpa—the Blessed Fault, or Blessed Fall. Why blessed? Because it resulted in our redemption. We see this same idea in a beautiful line from the Easter Vigil:

O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem,
O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.

So, if you are choosing this powerful text, how do you set it musically?

We don’t know how the early minstrels would have sung it. There are many fine settings, including recent works by Peter Warlock, Giles Swayne, and Benjamin Britten (in his Ceremony of Carols).

But my favorite setting was composed by Boris Ord (1897-1961), a man who spent most of his life serving as organist and choirmaster at Kings College, Cambridge. With the exception of World War II when he served in the Royal Air Force, he dedicated his days to glorious music-making at that illustrious institution. Surprisingly, his Adam Lay Ybounden was his only published choral work.

Now let me tell you why I’m so fond of it.

Most people first hear Ord’s Adam Lay Ybounden within a formal service of Lessons and Carols, such as in a BBC broadcast at King’s College on Christmas Eve, where it may follow the initial lesson read from Genesis.

But I learned it out in Cowboy land. Yes, while living on ranch in Bowie, Texas, Hank and I decided we should start a madrigal group to read through repertoire together. We put out the word, scouring the county to find singers.

We found them, too. Our motley crew consisted of our local optometrist, a computer guru, the county attorney, an administrator from Texas Workforce, two cattle ranchers, two veterinarians, a high-school band director and his wife, and of course, Hank and me. We named ourselves the O.K. Corral (because we were a chorale and we were pretty ok!).

To be honest, we were better than OK. We decided to inaugurate a formal Lessons and Carols service involving the whole community. We had such fun starting this beautiful tradition.

But that day we first rehearsed Adam Lay Ybounden wasn’t fun. The harmonies in Ord’s setting are not intuitive. Significant repetition was required until we could hear the flow of each other’s lines (despite it sounding breezily simple on a recording). Beyond that, we needed to sing it well enough to sell it to the crowd: people in a “Christmas Mood” don’t expect to be hit by the Fall of Man.

Ultimately, Adam Lay Ybounden became one of our favorites. It energized us and our audience each time we sang it.

Listen to it several times. It may appeal immediately, but if not, give it a chance to spin its magic. See if its austere text and rich harmonies find a way into your ear and deep into your heart. You may even find yourself heartily joining in on Deo gracias. 

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