The following program notes are courtesy of Ryan Turner and will appear as part of the program for the Bach Christmas Oratorio Concert on December 3, 2017, at the Winspear Centre. (above: Adoration of the Magi by Rogier van der Weyden)

From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it not with a single feast day, but with a “season”—six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany:

  1. the birth of Jesus (December 25)
  2. the announcement to the shepherds by a host of angels (December 26)
  3. the adoration of the baby by the shepherds (December 27)
  4. the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day)
  5. the coming of the Magi from the East to find the child “born King of the Jews” (the Sunday after New Year’s Day)
  6. the Magi’s worship with their gifts (January 6)

On each of these days, Bach’s congregation was inspired by a cantata that recounted one of these stories, commenting and reflecting upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community.

The Mystical Nativity (1501) by Sandro Botticelli

The Mystical Nativity (1501) by Sandro Botticelli

The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense. Instead the format is that of a cantata.

Similar to the Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12. In order to keep clear what is narrative and what is commentary, all the Evangelist recitatives – the Gospel texts- are secco (dry, with simple chords from the cello and organ), while the other recitatives have obbligato instruments or string accompaniment. These recitatives are unified by lyrical meditations, or arias.

The rich, imaginative harmonizations of the ten chorales reflect the voice of the people, as they were hymn tunes mostly well known to Bach’s congregation.

The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (under the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably gathered and arranged the texts.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (by E.G. Haussmann)

Bach had composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble the Christmas Oratorio. In fact, many of the movements are paraphrases from two earlier secular cantatas dating from 1733, the year before he produced the Christmas Oratorio: Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen~ Hercules at the Crossroads, BWV 213 (composed for the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony) and Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten, (written to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress).

Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. However, one might point to the unifying aspect of the same chorale used in the first and last cantatas. Equally convincing is the fact that all of the opening choruses are in three—an understood symbol of the Holy Trinity—and the oratorio commences and concludes in D major.

Yet, there is no one consistent structural pattern uniting these cantatas. Five of them begin with a rousing major-key chorus, and one with a sinfonia. All but one end with a chorale but there is no homogeneity in their presentation, ranging from the unadorned four-part setting of the fifth to the resplendent, chorale/fantasia of the sixth.

Nonetheless the Christmas Oratorio was never performed under Bach’s direction as you will hear it this afternoon, condensing these six days and six cantata performances into a single performance of the paramount events of this thrice-told tale.

Don’t miss Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on December 3 at the Winspear Centre, presented by the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Concert Choir and University Symphony Orchestra, with faculty soloists Sherry Steele, John Tessier and Elizabeth Turnbull.

December 3, 2017 at 3 PM
Winspear Centre


Leave a Reply