CHRISTMAS ORATORIO by J.S. Bach: Program Notes from Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro Music Director The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Mark Shapiro
Music Director
The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, one of the composer’s most lavish musical achievements, comprises six cantatas that were written to be performed on consecutive feast-day mornings from the Nativity through Epiphany. Although each cantata stands alone effortlessly, in the aggregate they constitute, by evident design, a magnificently cohesive whole. 

Ever the practical visionary, Bach, probably in cahoots with his trusted librettist-collaborator, the lawyer-by-day/poet-by-night Picander, seems to have anticipated multipart audience-pleasing extravaganzas such as Wagner’s Ring, or for that matter the service-music equivalent of the Netflix series. Those of us who have happily binge-watched [insert favorite show here] might have no difficulty imagining ourselves cozily settling in for a half dozen back-to-back episodes of Bach. 

The Christmas Oratorio is one of three late-career blockbusters Bach wrote for high feast days in the Christian church (the other two are his oratorios for Easter and Ascension). In addition to composing from scratch, Bach recycled music he had previously written for secular tributes to royal members of the House of Saxony. One such work bears the emphatically not biblical (and for this reason not strictly kosher) title Hercules at the Crossroads.

Though the economic and quasi-environmental benefits of Bach’s recycling practice are self-evident – nor was he at all unique in adopting this procedure; Handel, among others, did it too – scholars of music history have long fretted over its philosophical implications, especially when the recycling repurposes the secular as sacred. Many years ago, when researching this practice, whose technical name is “parody,” for a college assignment, I read an essay by the 20th-century Yale-based scholar Leo Schrade. Schrade’s luminous argument was that for a soul like Bach’s, there was no functional demarcation between the secular and the sacred. All experience was sacred, all the time. Not a bad way to live.

The six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio were first heard in Leipzig in December/January 1733-4, and then – astonishingly – not again until 1857, having lain fallow for five generations. Since 1955, Bach’s oratorio has been recorded at least thirty times, sometimes twice by the same conductor. A takeaway here may be that, while some music catches the popular imagination immediately, other music might have to wait, ever so patiently, for its historical moment and the happenstance of a timely and convincing revival. Destiny counts on passionate cadres of committed musical excavators to ensure that worthy artifacts do not vanish forever in the silences of eternity. (In this vein, we proudly draw your attention to our May 2018 New York premiere, a mere four-score years after she wrote it, of English composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s amazing oratorio The Prison that dates from 1934.)

Perversely enough, the conscientious conductor comes face to face with the transcendent beauty of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio when reluctantly choosing what to leave out. (Clocking in at nearly three hours of music, it’s just a bit too long for a single concert sitting.) Our version tonight has been discreetly Feng-shui’ed to privilege the evening’s dramatic flow and tension. That is, we’ve done a bit of streamlining so as to maximize the oratorio’s narrative effectiveness in a concert hall as opposed to a worship context, while nonetheless preserving the intervals for deep contemplation that are so integral to Bach’s poetic and spiritual sensibility. For the sweet loss of what we have omitted we console ourselves with the promise that on a next occasion we may do things differently. (If your favorite moment has gone missing, do let us know, and perhaps we can restore it in a future performance!)

Bach’s (and Picander’s?) narrative structure lucidly delineates the Nativity story, which is further supported by the key sequences of Bach’s large-scale harmonic design. (The involvement of Picander – the nom de plume of the part-time writer Christian Friedrich Henrici – is in some doubt because his personal compendium of his complete works omits the Christmas Oratorio libretto, which otherwise incorporates verses from Luke and Matthew, Martin Luther, and a handful of lesser-known contributors.) Successively, the six panels of the double triptych that comprises the Christmas Oratorio trace a cogent narrative arc through the Birth, Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds, Naming, Journey of the Magi, and Adoration of the Magi.

Demonstrating how a skillful, busy composer exploits opportunities afforded by circumstance – in this case, the possibility to engage different players for different days – Bach’s instrumentarium for Christmas Oratorio is exceptionally variegated. To give just one example: corni da caccia” (“hunting horns”) appear in the fourth cantata, wrought in the warmly pastoral key of F major.

Throughout human history, the dark winter solstice has been a time to turn on the lights (or light the bonfires) and, with the harvest completed and the next round of planting still in the offing, to feast unabashedly and in large numbers on perishables and preserved meats. Though there is, to be sure, a legitimate musicological basis for advocating on behalf of Bach performances by small musical cohorts, there is also something important to be said in favor of turning out the whole community to celebrate, as we do this evening. Sometimes it does take a village. 

The winter solstice is equally a moment for stillness and peaceful reflection. The firework brilliance of Bach’s concerted choruses (to name two: “Jauchzet, frohlocket”; and “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen”) magnificently offsets the oratorio’s contemplative passages, such as the ineffably tender lullaby “Schlafe, mein Liebe.”

You may have noticed our promotional artwork for tonight’s performance, a rainbow display of macaroons. Meaning no irreverence, we nonetheless wanted to evoke a happy mood of color and abundance. May this evening be a feast for each of you – as it is for us.

— ©Mark Shapiro 2017