In less than two weeks—on Saturday, December 9 at 8 p.m.—The Cecilia Chorus of New York will present a gift of exquisite confections to the Carnegie Hall audience: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Music Director Mark Shapiro:
Of the two holiday concert audience favorites, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio faces a greater narrative challenge than Handel’s Messiah. Originally intended as an Easter oratorio, Messiah includes the stories of the brutalizing and crucifixion of Jesus, which are laden with narrative tension. The six cantatas comprising the Christmas Oratorio all tell positive stories, from the birth of Christ to the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts. Christmas is a lovely, comforting celebration, but where’s the drama? Bach’s answer: in the music!
Scholars of religion write of twin strands in the Christmas holiday: the element of the Winter Solstice stretching back to prehistory, and commemoration of the birth of Christ, which was added on two thousand years ago. Bach takes both of these strands and then “does Bach” with them, delivering gorgeous, lyrical passages of pastoral peace and repose and alternating them with exuberant rejoicing in fugues that are like fireworks, as only Bach can do. He really turns on the lights.
All that diversity is a challenge for singers, by the way. I’m so proud of our chorus for mastering Bach’s elaborate counterpoint and often unexpected changes in harmony and pattern. And for our soloists, the great challenge is the enormous range of expression required, from radiant to heroic, from soothing to triumphant. But we knew they could excel in this—that’s why they were cast!
The instrumentation Bach chose differs from cantata to cantata. At a certain point, hunting horns and up to four oboes join in! Isn’t this unusual for an oratorio?
Well, the Christmas Oratorio wasn’t originally written to be performed in one go. Each cantata was to be performed on separate days, from Christmas to New Year’s Day. So Bach could hire different musicians on each day, according to the expressive and coloristic needs of the piece. In Part II, which tells of the shepherds in the fields being the first to be alerted to the birth of Jesus, oboes and flutes indicate the shepherds’ pipes. Hunting horns were actually used quite often in 18th century German compositions to represent the great outdoors; here they accompany the journey of the Wise Men.
An evening where all six cantatas are presented is like feasting on a box of confectionary, like the macaroons in our graphic image. The basic cuisine is the same but they all have different flavors and colors.
Parts of the Christmas Oratorio are actually borrowed from earlier work that Bach had written, sometimes on secular themes. Was the soothing lullaby Schlafe Mein Liebster (Sleep, My Dearest) in Part II one of those?
Yes! In fact Bach originally wrote it with an entirely different meaning in his dramma per musica, or musical drama, called Hercules at the Crossroads. The young hero Hercules arrives at a crossroads where he is confronted by two women: Pleasure and Virtue. Competing for his affections, Pleasure tries to seduce Hercules to bed with a soothing serenade. Hercules ultimately rejects her, opting for Virtue, but Bach didn’t let that lovely lullaby go to waste. He recycled it for the Oratorio, giving it to the Virgin Mary singing Jesus to sleep in the manger.
That practice of incorporating earlier work into new ones was called parody and it was quite common in Bach’s time. But here he was re-using secular—some would say profane—music in a religious cantata, and it caused quite some indignant commotion at the time! (J.W.)