The Christmas Oratorio – J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was 38 years old when he accepted his appointment as cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. In May 1723, the Bach family moved into the apartment in a wing of the St. Thomas School. The composer's study was separated by a thin partition from the dormatory of the second year's schoolboys. Not exactly a quiet location! Bach taught the boys the basics in vocal and instrumental music. In addition to this, he was also responsible to introduce the young choristers to the secrets of the Latin language, a task detested by both teacher and pupils. As cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Bach held a prestigious position with many extracurricular responsibilities. He served as music director, composer, choirmaster, and organist of the St. Thomas Church, and was in charge of the musical requirements of the worship services in the St. John's, St. Paul's, and St. Nicholas Churches in Leipzig. A busy man!
There was ample opportunity for public worship in Leipzig. Every church conducted daily services, and special celebrations. On Sunday the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches offered three short services in addition to their principal one. The main service started at 7:00 in the morning and lasted until noon. A choir, with a minimum of twelve singers (three to each part) was directed by Bach and accompanied by a small orchestra. The players of the orchestra were recruited from the school, university, and local town band. In his instrumentation Bach usually required two flutes, two or three oboes, one or two bassoons, three trumpets, kettle drums and strings, with a continuo in the form of an organ or harpsicord. A total of 18 to 24 players.
During the service, the choir sang a motet, the kyrie and gloria parts of the Luther mass, hymns and a cantata. The cantata formed the main course.
In Bach's days the worship services were completely regulated by the event of the annual ecclesiastical cycle. Bible readings were set and could not be changed easily. These readings determined not only the contents of the sermon for a particular Sunday or church holiday, but also the contents of a cantata composed for that occasion, and the choice of the appropriate chorale to be sung by the congregation. Bach composed approximately one cantata per month, and about two hundred of them have been preserved to this day.
In the winter of 1734, Bach completed the six parts which made up the Christmas Oratorio. The title is somewhat misleading. When we speak of an oratorio, we usually think of a sacred poem which is sung by soloists and chorus and accompanied by an orchestra. It is intended for concert performance. Handel's oratorio Messiah falls into this category: It was never intended for use in the worship service, but as a fundraising event for a charitable organization.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio was never performed in its entirety, but the six individual sections form the cantata parts of several worship services.
Part I views the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and was performed during the morning service on December 25, 1734.
Part II tells us of the shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock and it was used in the morning service on December 26th. On December 27th.
Part III was heard: the shepherds travel to the stable, to glorify and worship God.
Part IV was performed on New Year's Day 1735. It speaks of the circumcision and the giving of the name Jesus.
On Sunday January 2nd, 1735, Bach used Part V which describes the Wise Men from the East, who followed the star to Bethlehem.
The last part tells us of the Wise Men who visit Christ in Bethlehem, bringing Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This section was performed during the feast of the Epiphany' on January 6th, 1735.
It may sound that the Christmas Oratorio is merely a collection of six cantatas, but that is not entirely correct either. For although the work seems to have some elements of the cantata, it also displays some characteristics of an oratorio. In addition to the Biblical narrative sung by a tenor soloist ("evangelist"), we find arias to reinforce, on a popular basis, and with strong emotional appeal, the teachings of the church for the average churchgoer. This medium of religious instruction reminds us of the use of mysteries and miracle plays during the 12th to the 16th century. Bach himself was well aware of the dangers of dramas in the church. In his letter of application for the position of cantor in Leipzig he writes:
In order to preserve the good order in the church, I promise to arrange the music so that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.
We may find many examples of this in the Christmas Oratorio. In Part IV, after the Wise Men have presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh the believer comments in a chorale sung by the entire congregation:
I stand here by Thy manger, O Jesus, my life. I come to bring and give to Thee that which Thou hast given me. Accept this, it is my mind and thought, my heart, my soul, my courage. Take it all, and may it please Thee well!
In Part IV the soprano soloist sings of the joy brought by the name of Christ. To stress this element, Bach makes use of a distant voice as a echo effect (hence the name echo aria). The joy in Christ may be echoed by every believer. The very opening of the first part of the oratorio joyfully announces the coming of Christ. The pounding kettle drums remind us of a fanfare in honor of a king!
Exalt, rejoice! Awake, praise the days! Extol what the Lord has done this day. No longer be fainthearted, banish lamentation. Lift up your voices full of gladness and rejoicing, serve the Lord in wondrous choir. Praise the name of the Lord!
A fitting opening for a work composed by a man who ended every sacred composition with the measures S, D, G, — Soli Deo Gloria!