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8.550428-30 - BACH, J.S.: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 -1750)
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

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 eider 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 eider of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. 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 unti1 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 Thomaskirche. The second part was performed on 26th December, in the morning at the Thomaskirche 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 Thomaskirche 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 Thomaskirche 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 the reactions of King Herod are described, while the final part deals with the visit 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 abrief appearance in two numbers in the fourth part. There are four vocal soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

1 - The first part of the oratorio opens with a jubilant D major chorus, accompanied by an orchestra of three trumpets and timpani, pairs of flutes and of oboes, strings and organ continuo. The chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket (Christians, be joyful) is adapted from a secular cantata for the birthday of the Princess Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland, Maria Josepha, first performed on 8th December 1733, Tönet, ihr Pauken! (Sound, ye drums!). This triumphant introduction is followed by the words of the Evangelist, taken from the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, introducing the Christmas story. These narrative tenor recitatives from the biblical text serve to link arias, meditative recitatives and choral interludes, with words probably chiefly by Picander, author of the texts of a number of Bach cantatas. The Evangelist's words, accompanied by organ continuo and bass instruments only, are followed by a recitative for alto, accompanied by two oboi d'amore, and a da capo aria, Bereite dich, Zion (Prepare thyself, Sion), for alto with violin and oboe d'amore obbligato, a form in which a repeated first section frames a contrasting central section. The aria is adapted from the secular cantata Hercules auf dem Scheidewege (Hercules at the Crossroads), written in 1733 for the eleventh birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian, son of the Elector of Saxony, whose favour Bach was anxious to court in his differences with the Leipzig city authorities, his employers. The succeeding chorale, Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How should I receive Thee), uses Hans-Leo Hassler's Herzlich tut mich verlangen, with woodwind, strings and organ doubling the voices. The Evangelist announces the birth of Christ in a brief recitative, followed by a chorale, Er ist auf Erden kommen arm (He has come to earth in poverty), to the melody of Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (Praise to Thee, Jesus Christ), sung by the soprano soloist, accompanied by two oboi d'amore, a hymn to which the bass soloist adds his own recitative comments. The succeeding da capo aria, Grosser Herr, o starker König, liebster Heiland (Great Lord, mighty King, beloved Saviour), adapted from the secular cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken, is sung by the bass, with an accompanying part for trumpet, as well as flute, strings and continuo. The first part of the oratorio ends with the chorale Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein (Ah my heart's beloved little Jesus), to the well known melody of Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (From Heaven above I come here), which appears twice again in the second part.

2 - The G major Sinfonia that opens the second part is a traditional pastorale, in the rhythm of the Siciliana, a shepherd dance that had come to be associated with Christmas. The Sinfonia employs pairs of transverse flutes, oboi d'amore and oboi da caccia, with strings and continuo. The Evangelist tells how shepherds were in the fields, watching their flocks, and his brief narrative leads to the chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht (Break now, o beautiful morning-light). The Evangelist resumes the Gospel narrative, joined by the soprano recitative of the Angel, bidding the shepherds not to fear. A bass recitative adds a meditation on the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham. An elaborately ornamented E minor tenor aria with flute obbligato, adapted from the cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken, urges the shepherds to make haste, after which the Evangelist tells them how to recognise the Holy Child. To the appropriate melody of Vom Himmel hoch, there is a further chorale, Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall, (See, there lies in dark stable) in the lower register of C major, and a meditative bass recitative accompanied by pairs of oboi d'amore and oboi da caccia, with more elaborate continuo bass. A G major da capo alto aria, Schlafe, mein Liebster, (Sleep, my beloved) precedes the Evangelist's resumption of the story, introducing the G major chorus of the heavenly host, Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Glory to God in the highest), with flutes and oboi d'amore and da caccia. A short bass recitative of comment leads to a final chorale, Wir singen dir in deinem Heer (We sing to Thee in Thy host), with a pastoral accompaniment from flutes and oboes.

3 - The third day of Christmas is celebrated in an opening D major chorus, with trumpets, timpani, flutes, oboes and strings, drawn from the cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken. The Evangelist introduces the chorus of shepherds, Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem (Let us go now even to Bethlehem). The A major chorus, possibly drawn from the lost St. Mark Passion, has an obbligato for flute and violino Bass comment in recitative leads to the chorale Dies hat er alles uns getan (All this hath He done for us), again to the melody Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ. The succeeding A major duet for soprano and bass, Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen (Lord, Thy mercy, Thy pity), in da capo form, with a pair of oboi d'amore in accompaniment, taken from the cantata Hercules auf dem Scheidewege, offers a meditation. The Evangelist tells how the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in a manger. A violin obbligato introduces the B minor alto aria, Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder (Enclose, my heart, this holy wonder), with a following brief and meditative recitative. The chorale Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will keep Thee faithfully) is linked by a short continuation of the story from the Evangelist, telling of the return of the shepherds to their fields. The third part ends with another chorale, Seid froh (Now rejoice), to the melody Wie Christenleut, after which the opening chorus of the third part is repeated.

4 - The chorus that opens the fourth part of the oratorio, to be performed on the Feast of the Circumcision, Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (Fall down in thanks, fall down in praise), is scored for pairs of corni da caccia and oboes, strings and continuo, the first appearing here for the first time in the work, to be used on I y once again, in the final chorale of this part of the work. The chorus is in the key of F major and is adapted from the secular cantata Hercules auf dem Scheidewege. The Evangelist continues the narrative of the Circumcision and naming of the Child and this is followed by a recitative and chorale in which the bass is entrusted with the meditative recitative, while the soprano sings the chorale words Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben (Jesu, Thou my dearest life) to an arioso, the chorale here serving as comment on the bass meditation. The whole is accompanied only by strings and continuo and leads to a soprano echo aria, with solo oboe and continuo, Flösst, mein Heiland, flösst dein Namen (Can Thy name, my Saviour), the second echo soprano offering monosyllabic agreement to the statements of the other singer. The echo aria is also adapted from Hercules auf dem Scheidewege. The recitative and chorale now continue, the latter again sung by the soprano to an arioso, with the words Jesu, meine Freud und Wonne (Jesu, my joy and delight), while the bass continues his recitative, the whole still accompanied only by strings and continuo. Two solo violins offer a busier accompaniment, with a bass line of complementary character, to the succeeding D minor da capo tenor aria, Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will now live only for Thy honour), still drawing on the same secular cantata. Horns and oboes reappear, with strings and continuo, for the more elaborate accompaniment of the final chorale of the fourth part, Jesus richte mein Beginnen (Jesus direct my actions).

5 - In the fifth part, for the first Sunday of the New Year, there is an immediate return to the sharp key of A major for the opening chorus, scored for a pair of oboi d'amore, strings and continuo, with the words Ehre sei dir, Gott (Honour to Thee, God). The chorus is in da capo form. The Evangelist prepares the way for the coming of the Wise Men, whose words, following again the old tradition of allocating turba (crowd) röles to a number of voices. Accompanied by strings and continuo with two oboi d'amore the chorus launches on a briefly fugal movement, interrupted by recitative, as the Wise Men seek the new-born Child to whom the star has guided them. The chorale Dein Glanz all Finsternis verzehrt (Thy spendour destroys all darkness) precedes an F sharp minor bass aria, accompanied only by solo oboe d'amore and continuo, Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen (Cast light also on my blind senses), adapted from the secular cantata Preise dein Glück, gesegnetes Sachsen, written for the anniversary of the election of August III as King of Poland on 5th October 1734. The Evangelist tells of King Herod's fear and in an ensuing accompanied recitative the alto doubts the reason for such fear. The Evangelist continues his account of Herod's search for information. There follows a B minor terzetto for soprano, alto and tenor, with solo violin obbligato, Ach wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen (Ah when will the time come). A short meditative alto recitative is followed by the final chorale, Zwar ist solche Herzensstube (Truly such a heart's dwelling).

6 - Trumpets and drums re-appear, with oboes, strings and continuo, for the first chorus of the sixth part of the oratorio, for the Feast of the Epiphany, the fugal D major Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben (Lord, when enemies snort in pride), to which the solo first trumpet adds a particular brilliance. The Evangelist recounts the action of Herod, who takes over the recitative to add his request to the Wise Men. An accompanied recitative for soprano deplores his falsehood and continues in an A major aria, with oboe d'amore, strings and continuo, Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen (Only a movement from His hands). The Evangelist continues, telling of the arrival in Bethlehem of the Wise Men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. After the chorale Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier (I stand here by Thy crib), the Evangelist goes on to tell how God warned the Wise Men in a dream and how they took another way to their own land. A tenor recitative accompanied by continuo and two oboi d'amore, So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hier (Go! Enough that my treasure goes not from here). The tenor continues in a heartfelt B minor aria, accompanied by the two oboi d'amore, Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken (Now you proud enemies can try to frighten me). The four solo voices now join in a recitative, Was will der Höllen Schrecken nun (What will the terror of Hell now). The last chorale, using again the melody of Herzlich tut mich verlangen, is elaborately accompanied, with trumpets, drums, oboes, strings and full continuo, the first trumpet with a brilliant solo line. The words of the chorale proclaim the Christian message of triumph, Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen an eurer Feinde Schar (Now are you avenged of the host of your enemies).

Hungarian Radio Choir
The Hungarian Radio Choir was established in 1950 to per1orm both unaccompanied and orchestral choral works. Since its foundation the choir has given the first performances of specially written works and has made Quest appearances at the Bayreuth, Edinburgh and Salzburg Festivals. The choir has made many recordings, some ten of unaccompanied choral music and many more of choral and orchestral repertoire.

Failoni Chamber Orchestra
The Failoni Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1981 by members of the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra. Under the leadership of the violinist Béla Nagy, the orchestra has taken part in a number of important international festivals and in Hungary only yields first place to the longer established Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra takes its name from the distinguished Italian conductor Sergio Failoni, conductor of the Hungarian State Opera from 1928 until his death twenty years later.

Geza Oberfrank
Geza Oberfrank was born in 1936 in Budapest, where he studied composition and conducting at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. From 1961 to 1974 he was conductor at the Hungarian State Opera and from 1974 to 1979 principal conductor at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In 1980 he returned to the Hungarian State Opera in a career that has also brought many engagements abroad in major opera-houses in Europe and elsewhere.

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