Bach Christmas Oratorio
Martin Haselböck conductor, concord ensemble + 4 soloists.
Musica Angelica ushers in the holiday season with one of J.s. Bach’s most exhuberant works complete with trumpets, timpani, and joyful chroruses throughout.
The Christmas Oratorio tells the story of the Nativity as related in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Yet, while today the work is performed in one evening, Bach actually composed the work to be performed as six separate cantatas over the traditional 12 days of Christmas, popularly known as Christmastide or Twelvetide – December 25, 26 and 27, New Years Day, the Sunday after New Years and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. These six “feast days” celebrated key moments in the Christmas story, beginning with the birth of Jesus and ending with the Adoration of the Magi. Musica Angelica will present four of the six cantatas -- #1, 3, 5 and 6.
“There’s a saying, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person,’ and in Bach’s case, this was especially true,” says Musica Angelica’s Music Director and conductor, Martin Haselböck. As the Kantor of St. Thomas’s, Leipzig, Bach’s responsibilities included not only playing the organ and conducting the choir, but teaching Latin and music at the local school, composing music for the two main Lutheran churches in the city, supervising and training the musicians at two others and hiring musicians and singers as needed for church services. “Yes, he had a job to get done – the upcoming Christmas season was fast approaching as he began work on the Oratorio – but he also had a deep abiding faith in the power of music itself. A faith you can feel as you listen to the Christmas Oratorio. This is joyous music, moving and unforgettable, with glorious arias and choruses and resounding, thrilling instrumentation. From the opening chorus, accompanied so dramatically by timpani, you’re swept away. Your soul is stirred, just as Bach had hoped it would be. ‘The sole end aim of all music,’ he once claimed, ‘is the glory of God.' ”
Yet for all his faith in the power of music to transcend the realities of daily life, Bach was a realist. “He knew he could devote only so much time to composing the Christmas Oratorio,” Haselböck explains. “So what he did was borrow bits of music he had already written, both sacred and secular, and incorporate them into the new work. This was standard operating procedure for many Baroque composers, and many believe Bach did so as a way of highlighting his favorite works.”
These types of works are called ‘parody’ compositions because sections ‘parody’ others. Adds Haselböck, “Bach also used sections from Lutheran hymns in the Oratorio. And since these hymns were very well-known in Bach’s day, I can’t help but think that the parishioners in the church at that first performance sang right along, as we often do when a Christmas concert includes carols we’ve loved since we were children.”
The Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734/1735. But, despite Bach’s hopes that it would be performed annually, over a century passed before its next performance in 1857. Now it is enjoyed every Christmas in churches and concert halls the world over.