Back when I was in college, I heard a selection by Johann Sebastian Bach on the radio, introduced as “a Christmas piece.” It was sublime; a lilting, pastoral musical interlude that reminded me of the peace and stillness of a dark Christmas night. The host told me it was the Sinfonia to the Christmas Oratorio. I knew right then and there that I had to hear all of it, and a few years later I bought my first CD recording of the complete work. It’s been a part of my Christmastide celebrations ever since.
Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio for Christmas festivities in and around the Leipzig churches in 1734-1735. He’d been living and working for quite a while in Leipzig by then, and as it was not the most congenial working environment, he found another creative outlet writing music for Collegium Musicum, an informal association of musicians who gathered at a local coffeehouse to hear one another’s new compositions. Bach’s own musical offerings consisted of selections he mined from his previous works, recasting them as new compositions. He did something similar for his new Christmas Oratorio, recycling music from some of his older, secular cantatas.
Although formed as a complete work, Bach’s oratorio was not originally meant to be heard all at once. Instead, each of the 6 cantatas was meant to be sung on a different feast day in the Christmas season. Part 1 was for Christmas Day; Part 2 for the Second Day of Christmas; Part 3 for the Third Day; Part 4 for New Year’s Day; Part 5 for the First Sunday after Christmas; and Part 6 for the Feast of Epiphany. Each part corresponds to the Christmas story: the birth of Jesus in Part 1, and the angels appearing to the shepherds in Part 2 – which opens with that lovely Sinfonia, setting the scene of “Shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Part 3 is the adoration of the shepherds; Part 4, the naming of Jesus; Part 5, the Journey of the Wise Men; and Part 6 concludes with the visit of the Magi.
All of which means that it can be heard as a single entity, and that is often how it is presented today. You’ll have an opportunity to hear this magnificent work yourself when The Washington Bach Consort under Dana Marsh continues their annual tradition of joy-filled performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the Music Center at Strathmore, this year presenting Parts 1, 2, 5, and 6 on Saturday, December 10 at 7pm. There’s more information here. WETA Classical presents the Christmas Oratorio every Christmas night, December 25 at 9pm, and since Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, I invite you to join me for one of my favorite recorded performances on Choral Showcase.
Make Bach’s Christmas Oratorio a part of your Christmastide celebrations, too.
Learn more about Bach's Christmas Oratorio on Classical Breakdown!
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