Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachtsoratorium), BWV 248

In 1733-34, Bach composed the “Christmas Oratorio” BWV 248, which contains 6 movements. Each of them is a cantata in form of its own right and the composer led performances of them on festive days in Leipzig’s two great churches. They were performed both at the morning service and in the afternoon. On December 25th , 1734, at St. Nicholas’ Church was the premiere of the first, repeated then in St. Thomas. On  December 26th the second was presented at St. Thomas’, in the afternoon at St. Nicholas”. On December 27th  the third was performed twice at St. Nicholas”. On 1 January, on New Year’s Day 1735, the fourth, respectively, at St. Thomas” and in “St. Nicholas”. On 2 January the fifth – again twice in St. Nicholas”. And on January 6, the Epiphany – the sixth at St. Thomas” and then in “St. Nicholas”. Bach then repeated them several times partly at the appropriate analogous festal time and entirely in late 1745 and early 1746. They were performed by soloists: tenor and bass, the boys of the church choir at St. Thomas’s, which he directed (the more vocal ones were entrusted with the soprano and alto solo parts), and the musicians of the Collegium Musicum, the student orchestra with which he gave concerts in Leipzig.

The plot of the Christmas Oratorio is taken from the Gospels of Luke (2:1,3-14) and Matthew (2:1-14). The setting was probably composed by the composer himself. It has been suggested that the author of the verse texts was Bach’s constant collaborator in Leipzig, Christian Friedrich Henrici, aka Picander.  The texts of the chorales used are mainly by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhard and Johann Rist (and one each by Christoph Runge, Georg Weissel and Georg Werner).

As in the Passions, the Christmas Oratorio also has a narrator. His part, according to tradition, was entrusted to a tenor. Here, briefly, is the plot line: a census is announced in Galilee. Joseph and his wife Mary, who carries the Divine Infant in her womb, leave Nazareth for the ancestral birthplace of Bethlehem. In the crowded city, they are unable to find room in the inn and are forced to spend the night in a barn where Jesus was born. Angels announce the good news to the shepherds and they rush to worship the baby. Learning of his birth, three wise men from the East (the Magi) set out by the light of the Star of Bethlehem to see with their own eyes the miracle incarnate. When Herod, the ruler of Judea, hears the news, he becomes worried and orders the Magi to tell him if they have found the extraordinary child. The wise men offer Jesus their precious gifts, but, urged on by the angels, do not return to the ruler; they go another way to their homeland. In the six movements of the oratorio, the narrative is divided according to these events: cantata I – The Nativity, cantata II – The Good News, cantata III – The Shepherds at the Child’s Manger, cantata IV – The Child called Jesus, cantata V – The Magi at Herod’s, cantata VI – The Adoration of the Magi.

Although they are disconnected in the author’s performance, the cantatas are connected to the narrative plot. To some extent they are also united by musical motifs as well as by common musical sources. With the exception of the Evangelist parts, the chorales, the orchestral introduction to the second movement (Sinfonia), several choruses and one aria, all 64 oratorio numbers are parodies. During the Baroque period, the so-called parody technique was common: existing music was adapted for new purposes. Bach often used self-parodies – that is, his own earlier compositions that he remade into others. Sometimes this was dictated by the tight deadlines within which he had to present new compositions for church services. At other times he liked some of his own ideas so much that he decided to reconstruct them in another angle, in another creation. Thus he transformed bits of some secular cantatas (arias and choruses) with new text into spiritual cantatas.

For the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ he drew material mainly from two secular welcome cantatas performed about a year before – Hercules at the Crossroads BWV 213 (written for the birthday of the new King’s son Augustus III) and Sound the drums and trumpets  BWV 214 (for the Queen’s birthday). With these works, as well as the conception of the grandiose “Christmas Oratorio”, Bach courted the King’s favour in order to be awarded the title of “Composer of the Polish-Saxon Royal Chapel” (at that time August III, who eventually signed the decree awarding it, was King of Saxony and Poland). Johann Sebastian thus hoped to gain a powerful patron in his argument with the Leipzig authorities and to raise his social status.

The performance of the oratorio was an event in the life of the city. Bach masterfully succeeded in translating the Christmas theme to evoke different states of mind – jubilation, mortification, prayerfulness and glorification. The first three movements are welded together more firmly by the unity of these states, by the relationships of the tonalities (Cantatas I and III are in D major, II in the subdominant solo major), by the correspondence of the opening choruses (in Cantatas I and III), by the abundance of dance-like rhythmic figures that are associated with joy… This is why in concerts these three cantatas are often performed as a unified whole. Bach’s music, with its beautiful arias, noble chorales, and sweeping exuberant choruses, interwoven with the Evangelist’s artful narration, wonderfully embodies the miracle of the Nativity that brought the world the new covenant of Love and Light.

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