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8.554508 - BACH, J.S.: Christmas Oratorio (Highlights)
Johann Sebastian Bach
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the city. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702. At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music he was able, among other things, to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas, the first of which was first performed at Christmas in 1734 at the town church of Leipzig, the Nikolaikirche, in the morning, with an afternoon performance at the Tomaskirche. The second part was performed on 26th December, in the morning at the Tomaskirche and in the afternoon at the Nikolaikirche, while the third was performed only at the Nikolaikirche on 27th December. The fourth part was performed first on 1st January 1735, the Feast of the Circumcision, at the Tomaskirche and in the afternoon at the Nikolaikirche, while the fifth for the first Sunday of the New Year, 2nd January, was only performed in the morning at the Nikolaikirche. The sixth part was given two performances on 6th January, the Feast of the Epiphany, first at the Tomaskirche and then at the larger Nikolaikirche. Although the work makes considerable use of music originally composed for other purposes, the cycle was clearly conceived as a unified work, to which the elaboration of the first chorale at the end of the sixth part bears witness. The impression is enforced by choice of keys and formal structure, in spite of the original intention of performance of each part on a different day during the twelve days of Christmas. The first three parts deal with Christmas itself, the birth of Christ and the message to the shepherds at Bethlehem. The Evangelist intervenes only once in the fourth part to mention the circumcision and naming of Jesus. In the fifth are the reactions of the Wise Men to Bethlehem, their departure ending the Evangelist's account. The instruments used in the Christmas Oratorio include the ubiquitous four part string orchestra, with a keyboard continuo part for organ, the bass line doubled by cello and bassoon. Transverse flutes, rather than recorders, are used in some movements while the oboes used include pairs of ordinary oboes as well as pairs of the alto and tenor of the family, the oboe d'amore and the oboe da caccia. Brass instruments include three natural trumpets, their melodic parts restricted by their nature to the brilliant upper clarino register. Timpani make their due appearance with the trumpets. Two natural horns, corni da caccia, make a brief appearance in two numbers in the fourth part. There are four vocal soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
The oratorio opens with a joyful chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket (‘Christians, be joyful’) from an earlier secular cantata. The alto aria Bereite dich, Zion (‘Make Ready, Zion’) is accompanied by violin and oboe d'amore and is also taken from an earlier secular work. It is followed by the chorale Wie soll ich dich empfangen (‘How should I receive you’), using a melody by Hassler. The bass aria Großer Herr und starker König (‘Great Lord, mighty King, beloved Saviour’) is accompanied by trumpet, flute and strings and also has a secular origin. The first part ends with the chorale Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein (‘Ah, my heart's beloved, little Jesus’), to the well known Christmas melody Vom Himmel hoch (‘From Heaven above’).
The pastoral Sinfonia that opens the second part depicts the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem. The chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht (‘Break now, O beautiful light of morning’) is here followed by the alto aria Schlafe, mein Liebster (‘Sleep, my beloved’), contemplating the sleeping child and a final chorale, Wir singen dir in deinem Heer (‘We sing to you in your hast’).
From the third part of the oratorio comes the rousing chorus Herrscher des Himmels (‘Ruler of Heaven’) and the duet for soprano and bass Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen (‘Lord, your compassion, your mercy’) is a meditation drawn from a secular cantata and accompanied by two oboi d'amore.
The fourth part, to be performed on the Feast of the Circumcision, includes the soprano echo aria Flößt mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen (‘Does your name, my Saviour’), with solo oboe and continuo. This follows convention in allowing a second soprano to offer monosyllabic agreement with the propositions of the first. The last aria, for tenor, is Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (‘I will now live only for your honour’). This too is from a secular cantata.
Intended for the first Sunday of the New Year, the fifth part includes the chorale Dein Glanz all' Finsternis verzehrt (‘Your splendour banishes all darkness’), as the wise men make their way to Bethlehem. Later follows the terzetto for soprano, alto and tenor, Ach wann wird die Zeit erscheinen? (‘Ah when will the time come?’), with solo violin obbligato.
The chorales Ich steh’ an deiner Krippen hier (‘I stand here by your crib’) and the final Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen an eurer Feinde Schar (‘Now are you avenged on the host of your enemies’) are taken from the sixth part, for performance on the Feast of the Epiphany.
English Texts by Keith Anderson
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