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8.554508 - BACH, J.S.: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (Highlights)

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

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.

Keith Anderson

Erster Teil





Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!

rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!

lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,

stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!

Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören!

Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!




Rejoice and be joyful, come, praise these days!

Extol what today the Most High has done!

Leave fear aside, banish sorrow,

sing forth in joy and rejoicing!

Serve the Most High with cheerful choruses!

Let us honour the name of the Lord!



Aria (Alt)


Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben,

den Schönsten, den Liebsten bald bei dir zu sehn.

Deine Wangen müssen heut viel schöner prangen,

eile den Bräutigam sehnlichst zu lieben.


Aria (alto)


Make ready, Zion, with tenderness,

to see soon with you the fairest, the dearest.

Your cheeks must today take on a fairer colour,

hurry eagerly to love the bridegroom.





Wie soll ich dich empfangen,

und wie begegn' ich dir?

O aller Welt Verlangen,

O meiner Seele Zier!

O Jesu, Jesu! setze mir

selbst die Fackel bei,

damit, was dich ergötze,

mir kund und wissend sei.




How shall I receive you,

and how meet you?

O all the world's desire,

O my soul's adornment!

O Jesus, Jesus! Set by me

yourself your light,

that therewith I may discover

and know what delights you.



Aria (Bass)


Großer Herr und starker König,

liebster Heiland, o wie wenig ,

achtest du der Erden Pracht!

Der die ganze Welt erhält,

ihre Pracht und Zier erschaffen,

muß in harren Krippen schlafen.


Aria (Bass)


Great Lord and mighty King,

dearest Saviour, O how little

you cared for the earth's magnificence!

He who holds the whole world,

creator of magnificence and splendour,

must sleep in a hard crib.





Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein!

mach dir ein rein sanft Bettelein,

zu ruhn in meines Herzens Schrein,

daß ich nimmer vergesse dein




Ah, my beloved little Jesus!

make a pure, soft little bed

to rest in my heart's shrine

that I never target you.



Zweiter Teil


Part 2









Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht,

und laß den Himmel tagen!

Du Hirtenvolk, erschrecke nicht,

weil dir die Engel sagen:

daß dieses schwache Knäbelein

soll unser Trost und Freude sein,

dazu den Satan zwingen.

und letztlich Frieden bringen




Break forth, fair light of morning,

and let the heaven become day!

Shepherd people, do not fear,

for the angel tells you

that this weak little boy

shall be our comfort and joy,

conquering Satan

and in the end bringing peace.



Aria (Alt)


Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh,

wache nach diesem für aller Gedeihen!

Labe die Brust, empfinde die Lust,

wo wir unser Herz erfreuen!


Aria (Alto)


Sleep, my beloved, enjoy your rest,

wake after this for the well-being of all!

Refresh my heal1, feel the pleasure.





Wir singen dir in deinem Heer

aus aller Kraft: Preis und Ehr;

daß du, o lang' gewünschter Gast,

dich nunmehr eingestellet hast.




We sing to you in your hast

with all our strength, laud, praise and glary,

In that you, O long desired guest,

have at last come to us



Dritter Teil


Part 3




Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen

laß dir die matten Gesänge gefallen,

wenn dich dein Zion mit Psalmen erhöht.

Höre der Herzen frohlockendes Preisen,

wenn wir dir jetzo die Ehrfurcht erweisen,

weil unsre Wohlfahrt befestiget stehc.




Lord of Heaven, hear our faltering speech,

let our feeble songs please you

since your Zion exalts you with psalms.

Hear our hearts' joyful praises,

since now we pay homage to you,

for our well-being is now assured.



Aria Duetto (Sopran und Bass)


Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen

tröstet uns und macht uns frei.

Deine holde Gunst und Liebe,

deine wundersamen Triebe

machen deine Vatertreu

wieder neu.


Duet (Soprano and Bass)


Lord, your compassion, your mercy

comfort us and make us free.

Your kind favour and love,

your wonderful intentions

make new again

the Father's faithfulness.



Vierter Teil


Part 4


Aria (Sopran mit Echo)


Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen

auch den allerkleinsten Samen

jenes strengen Schreckens ein?

nein, du sagst ja selber nein!


Sollt ich nun das Sterben scheuen?

nein, dein süßes Wort ist da!

oder sollt ich mich erfreuen?

ja. du Heiland, sprichst selbst ja!


Aria (Soprano with echo)


My Saviour, does your name

inspire in me the smallest seed

of that strong fear?

No, Saviour, you yourself say no!


Should I now fear death?

No, your sweet word is there!

Or should I rejoice?

Yes, Saviour, you yourself say yes!



Aria (Tenor)


Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben,

mein Heiland, gib mir Kraft und Mut,

daß es mein Herz recht eifrig tut.

Stärke mich, deine Gnade würdiglich

und mit Danken zu erheben!


Aria (Tenor)


I will only live for your honour,

my Saviour, give me strength and courage,

that my heart may do so eagerly.

Strengthen me, that worthily your grace

and thankfully I may extol!



Fünfter Teil


Part 5




Dein Glanz all' Finsternis verzehrt,

die trübe Nacht in Licht verkehrt.

Leit uns auf deinen Wegen,

daß dein Gesicht und herrlichs Licht

wir ewig schauen mögen!




Your splendour banishes all darkness,

changes the dark night into light.

Lead us in your ways

that your face and glorious light

we may see for ever!



Terzetto (Sopran, Alt und Tenor)


Ach, wann wird die Zeit erscheinen!

Ach, wann kommt der Trost der Seinen?

Schweigt, er ist schon wirklich hier!

Jesu, ach! so komm zu mir.


Terzetto (Soprano, Alto and Tenor)


Ah, when will the time come?

Ah, when comes comfort to his own?

Be silent, he is already really here!

Jesus, ah, so come to me.



Sechster Teil


Part 6




Ich steh' an deiner Krippen hier,

o Jesulein, mein Leben;

ich komme, bring und schenke dir,

was du mir hast gegeben.

Nimm hin! Es ist mein Geist und Sinn,

Herz, Seel und Mut, nimm alles hin,

und laß dirs wohlgefallen!




I stand here by your crib,

O little Jesus, my life;

I come and bring, present to you

what you have given me.

Take it! It is my spirit and mind,

heart, soul and courage, take it all,

and may it please you well!





Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen

an eurer Feinde Schar,

denn Christus hat zerbrochen,

was euch zuwider war

Tod, Teufel, Sünd und Hölle

sind ganz und gar geschwächt;

bei Gott hat seine Stelle

das menschliche Geschlecht.




Now are you well avenged

Upon your enemies,

since Christ has broken asunder

All might of adversaries.

Death, Devil, Sin and Hell

are all wholly weakened;

In its place, by God's side

Now stands mankind.


English Texts by Keith Anderson

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