The joyous festivity of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is too rarely heard in America. Celebrate the holiday season with a collection of North America’s best period instrumentalists and vocal soloists in this festive performance of three of Bach’s six Christmas Oratorio Cantatas. An exciting new regional collaboration featuring multiple presenters in the Pacific Northwest, and co-produced with Early Music Vancouver.
Soprano, Tess Wakim
Mezzo Soprano, Krisztina Szabó
Tenor, Zachary Finkelstein
Baritone, Sumner Thompson
Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tage, BWV 248/1
Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen, BWV 248/3
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben, BWV 248/6
Stephen Stubbs, music director, lute, harpsichord
Teresa Wakim, soprano
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano
Zachary Finkelstein, tenor
Sumner Thompson, baritone
Jane Long, soprano
Catherine Webster, soprano
Joshua Haberman, alto
Sarra Sharif, alto
Orrin Doyle, tenor
David Hendrix, tenor
Ryan Bede, bass
Thomas Thompson, bass
Tekla Cunningham, concertmaster
Christi Meyers, violin I
Linda Melsted, violin I
Paul Luchkow, violin I
Chloe Meyers, principal violin II
Brandon Vance, violin II
Arthur Neele, violin II
Elly Winer, principal cello
Juliana Soltis, cello
Natalie Mackie, violone
Stephen Swanson, double bass
Janet See, flute
Soile Stratkauskas, flute
Debra Nagy, oboe
Curtis Foster, oboe
Katrina Russell, bassoon
Kris Kwapis, trumpet
Bruno Lourensetto, trumpet
Tom Pfotenhauer, trumpet
Mark Goodenberger, timpani
Michael Jarvis, organ
JoAnn Taricani, University of Washington
“Jauchzet! frohlocket!” (“Shout for joy! exult!”) The center of Leipzig hummed with anticipation in the third week of December 1734, with the sounds of Christmas rehearsals seeping out of the two Lutheran churches where Johann Sebastian Bach was preparing to launch a new, ambitious composition that would premiere over thirteen days, structured so that the congregations of his churches would return day after day to hear each next installment of this massive work: The Christmas Oratorio, a magnificent festival of six cantatas, composed for six feast days across the two weeks of Christmas liturgy, starting on Christmas Day and concluding on Epiphany, January 6.
The anticipation of new music for Christmas in 1734 was heightened by the annual disappearance of cantata performances in Bach’s churches during the four Sundays of Advent, a musical silence that emphasized the quiet, reflective nature of the penitential season leading to the Christmas liturgy, similar to the season of Lent prior to Easter. The Christmas Oratorio would be a particularly rich feast after this musical fast, with an emphasis on the bright instrumentation Bach associated with festivals – and in fact, Bach based the Christmas Oratorio on celebratory cantatas he had written for the royal family of Dresden the preceding year.
Indeed, the instrumentation of those 1733 royal cantatas, reinvented with sacred texts as the Christmas Oratorio, was typical of the festive orchestration associated with pieces such as Bach’s earlier Brandenburg Concertos – along with flutes and oboes, adding trumpets and timpani for a brilliant sound. This Christmas Oratorio gives us a window into Bach’s other major position in Leipzig, as the director of the city’s Collegium Musicum, for which he prepared weekly Friday evening concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse, just north of his two churches. There, he had access to virtuoso instrumentalists from the university; the music that eventually became the Christmas Oratorio initially was presented with those instrumentalists in the coffeehouse in Autumn 1733.
You will hear the clear reference to the earlier royal cantatas in the opening measures of the Christmas Oratorio: the original 1733 text had ordered: “Tönet, ihr Pauken!” (“Sound, you drums!”), and was echoed immediately by a timpani solo that indeed answered the command by playing the melody back to the singers. For the 1734 Christmas Oratorio, Bach changed the words to “Jauchzet! frohlocket!” (“Shout for joy! exult!”), and the same echo emanates from the timpani, a reference his musicians and any keenly observant audience member would recognize. It is a dramatic yet charming statement and dialogue that highlights the importance of the elaborate instrumentation Bach has chosen for these secular and sacred celebrations.
By commingling six cantatas to create an oratorio, Bach was stretching the German adaptation of the Italian oratorio, which had evolved over the past century in Italy as a non-staged musical drama based on Biblical stories, using the aria, recitative, and ensemble styles of Baroque opera to create sacred works that were primarily performed during Lent, when operas were not presented. In Protestant Germany, the concept of a musical Biblical drama often found expression as a Historia, a musical narrative, particularly about the Passion of Christ, and less frequently, about Christmas and Easter. But the Italian and German oratorios were intended to be performed in a single evening, whereas Bach reconceived the idea of an oratorio to stretch through the entire Christmas season.
To fully appreciate the Christmas Oratorio, we need to explore the context in which it was presented: morning and afternoon in the two churches where Bach served as music director, the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) and the Nicolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church). He was in his eleventh year at Leipzig by 1734, and had written three annual cycles of cantatas for performance in his churches during his first three years at Leipzig, between 1723 and 1725, so his cantata cycles had been in circulation for almost a decade. Composing a major new cycle for the 1734 Christmas season led him to the multi-day musical event, revealing Biblical stories over six Christmas feast days: the first three days of Christmas on December 25, 26, 27; the Sunday before the New Year; then the liturgies for January 1 and 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio musically depict these stories, across two weeks: 1. The birth of Christ; 2. The annunciation to the shepherds; 3. The shepherds marveling at Mary and the child; 4. The circumcision of Christ; 5. The realization by Herod that a new King had been born; and 6. Herod sending the three wise men to find this child.
Bach even had a libretto printed for the thousands of congregants, so they could read along with the performances and arrive at a deeper appreciation of the Nativity panorama. Bach himself peppered the opening of his libretto with excited punctuation for the holiday, opening with “Jauchzet! frohlocket! auf!” While Bach’s congregations heard the musical drama progress over time, in this concert we will hear the three parts (1, 3, and 6) that anchor the entire oratorio, the cantatas for December 25, 27, and January 6. Bach did not just connect the cantatas via the narrative; he also connected them musically, with an overarching key scheme and recurring music; the chorale you hear early in the first cantata recurs as the final movement of the entire oratorio.
The three cantatas you will hear this evening are the three cantatas within the oratorio that are centered in the key of D major, with the internal movements progressing through related keys. Each of these three cantatas provides a sense of arrival by beginning and ending in D major. For Bach’s congregations, hearing the key structure throughout two weeks was probably not a focus, but in terms of the architecture of the piece, Bach provides a superb overall musical structure by stating the key on December 25 and closing with it on January 6.
Each of the three cantatas you will hear this evening have a structure typical of Bach’s church cantatas: chorale movements for the choir, solo arias reflecting on the religious themes, and recitative sections, with nine to thirteen movements within each cantata. What distinguishes this Christmas Oratorio is the use of a narrator, named the Evangelist by Bach, who narrates the Christmas story by singing the Nativity sections of the New Testament books of Luke and Matthew. In the first cantata you will hear, for December 25, the first movement surges forward with the timpani, trumpets, and chorus, but the second and sixth movements austerely proceed with solo recitative that presents Luke 2:1-7, the same text the congregation would hear read as the Gospel following the cantata performance. In the final cantata, Bach gave the Evangelist the text of Matthew 2:7-12, the Gospel for Epiphany, telling the story of Herod sending the wise men to find Jesus, who are warned in a dream not to report back to Herod, thus concluding the Christmas story on January 6 by assuring the safety of the holy family.
The surrounding aria and chorale movements provide reflection and reinforcement of the narrative, offering exquisite counterpoint and depth to the Christmas story. In the next few years, Bach would also write oratorios for Easter and the Ascension of Christ, but neither of those are on the scale of this complex Christmas Oratorio, which stands apart as one of his most ambitious compositions. Anyone interested in further exploring the complexity of Bach’s life, works, and recent discoveries might want to explore the Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebatian Bach: A Learned Musician (2001), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 2001 and is an approachable yet intensive exploration of Bach.