Christmas Oratorio - Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)


The Christmas Oratorio was conceived as a set of six cantatas. Unlike the Passion settings and the oratorios of Bach's exact contemporary Handel, the six parts of his Christmas Oratorio were performed on separate days. Bach wrote the six cantatas to celebrate the whole period of the Christmas festivities of 1734-35, starting with Part I on Christmas Day, and ending with Part VI on Epiphany (January 6th). The performances were divided between his two churches: Parts I, II, IV and VI were given at the Thomaskirche, and Parts III and V at the Nicolaikirche.

Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio over a short period. Unusually for him, but perhaps by necessity, he recycled music from earlier compositions. At least eleven sections have been identified as coming from three earlier secular cantatas, with Bach working with his frequent collaborator Picander to alter the texts for their new use. It is thought that several more sections may be based on lost sacred works, including the documented but now lost St Mark Passion. Bach also composed new music for much of the piece, including all of the recitatives and chorales.
The cantata as a musical form had originated in Italy: it tells a story in song, whether secular or sacred. It was composed in clearly marked sections of contrasting musical character to match the narrative of the text. The sections are sung by soloists or choir, accompanied in the early years by continuo, and later on by full chamber ensembles. In Germany, the cantata was mainly used to express sacred themes, with soloists 'reciting' biblical text (recitative) and singing poetic texts (arias). The choir contributed with choruses, often of praise, and some in da capo (repeated) form. Bach's church cantatas are the pinnacle of the form, and in the Christmas Oratorio he achieved a remarkable synthesis of the cantata and the more dramatic qualities of an oratorio.
Similarly to the passion settings, the Evangelist (Tenor soloist) tells the story using familiar text from the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew. The drama is enhanced further by soloists performing the roles of the Angel (Part II) and Herod (Part VI). The chorus also contribute, singing the parts of the heavenly host in "Glory to God" (Part II), the shepherds in "Let us, even now, go to Bethlehem" (Part III) and the Wise Men in "Where is this new-born child; the King of the Jews?" (Part V).
The action of the narrative is frequently interrupted by moments of contemplation which reflect on the significance of the story. Bach sets these texts mostly as solo arias, but there is a duet in Part III and a trio in Part V. The accompaniments for these sections are often simple, with solo instruments or sparse orchestral textures. In these arias we hear Bach's matchless compositional invention, as he uses each of the voices and instruments in a seemingly endless series of combinations. These intimate passages are contrasted with the full forces of choir and orchestra in the choruses that are the corner stones of each of the cantatas. Parts I, V and VI begin with extended choruses, and Part III opens and closes with the same grand chorus.
Perhaps the most important musical element in Bach's sacred choral music, and certainly in the Christmas Oratorio is the chorale. The chorale was introduced into church services by Martin Luther to allow the congregation to take an active part in the musical worship: they have simple hymn-like melodies that were harmonised by the choir or the organ. Bach's congregation would have known and sung the chorale melodies in the Christmas Oratorio. Most of them are set simply, with the sopranos leading the congregation in the melody.
Accompanied by the orchestra, the other voice parts provide Bach's harmony. This is his own personal interpretation of the familiar melodies and texts, and would have been the element that surprised and delighted his audience. The harmony can depict child-like simplicity (for instance "Behold! Within a humble stall" in Part II and "Beside Thy cradle here I stand" in Part VI), reflect the glory of the Christ child ("Thy glorious face drives gloom away" in Part V) or it can be more devotional in character "Let me love Thee, King supernal" in Part III.
The chorale melodies are more closely woven into the fabric of the piece when Bach includes chorale prelude movements. These movements (for instance the final movement of Part I) involve a clear statement of the chorale melody sung by the choir, but with a much-expanded orchestral accompaniment. Bach concludes the entire work with one of these movements: "Now vengeance has been taken" and the Oratorio ends with the final triumphant message: "Henceforth shall Mankind revel before His heavenly throne."


Aylesbury Choral Society, March 2004

[Note to other societies: you are welcome to use the whole or parts of this text in your own programmes, but if you do please (i) let us know, and (ii) include an acknowledgement to the Aylesbury Choral Society and this website in your programme.]