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CHAPTER 48: BWV 248, THE CHRISTMAS ORATORIO.
Bach lovers will be aware that the Christmas Oratorio, unlike those for Easter and the Ascension, is not a single composition but a collection of six cantatas composed for December 25th and festive days thereafter. It was first performed over the Christmas/New Year period of 1734/5 although many of the movements are paraphrases from earlier secular works. Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. By the time he came to put the oratorio together he had already amassed cantatas for each of these six days, typically three but, in some cases, as many as four or five. If he saw the oratorio simply as a convenient way of classifying a half a dozen cantatas to be performed as a set over this period, why did he not make it up from works already composed for those days? Why go to the trouble of selecting and paraphrasing a number of secular movements and composing the additional ones he required in order to make up the sixty-four movements of the oratorio as it eventually took shape? Might it have simply have been an ambition to produce music of a superior quality to that which he had already provided for these days? Bach was, indeed, intensely critical of his own work which his revisions often reveal.
His decision may indicate that he viewed the work as a coherent whole, not just the sum of its individual parts. Much has been made of the unifying aspect of the same chorale used in the first and last cantatas but an equally compelling piece of internal evidence comes from the fact that five of the opening choruses are in three-time, an accepted symbol of the Holy Trinity. The exception is C 248/2 which begins with the sinfonia; nevertheless, 12/8 time is a compendium of notes in groups of three.
It does appear that in the mid to late 1730s Bach was putting together a number of major compositions which included the three oratorios and the four short masses. Grouped with the already composed Magnificat and Passions, this forms a substantial body of religious music capable of servicing significant events of the Lutheran church year.
Having said that, 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 uniformity in their presentation, ranging from the plain four-part setting of the fifth to the flamboyant, chorale/fantasia of the sixth. The number of movements varies from seven to fourteen, with only the last two works more equally balanced with eleven. And in any case it was not, by its very nature, intended to be heard at the one sitting or even within a single week.
In fact, Bach had composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble this work, which some might view as the epitome of his religious output. Nevertheless, the number of movements paraphrased from earlier works places the oratorio in a different position from the majority of his cantatas, particularly those following the first Leipzig cycle.
This examination of the oratorio will take much the same form of those of the rest of the cantata canon but perhaps in slightly less detail because it is so well known. Furthermore, the sheer bulk of much of the recitative text makes it impractical to paraphrase it fully.
NB Many of the movements of the oratorio are paraphrased from Cs 213 and 214. Essays on these secular cantatas may be found in vol 1, chapters 94 and 95.
BWV 248/1 Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
Shout for joy, arise and praise this day.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–arioso (alto)–aria (alto)–chorale–recit (tenor)–chorale/recit (sop/bass)–aria (bass)–chorale.
For Christmas Day.
The other cantatas composed for this day are Cs 63, 91, 110, the incomplete 197a and, possibly, Bach’s only Latin text C 191. All of them begin with massive choruses of praise to God or Jesus, all are in major keys; in fact all but one in D major. That from C 110 is a revision of the French Overture from the Fourth Orchestral Suite and C 191 is comprised of a trio of three movements adapted from the Gloria of the Bm Mass.
The opening chorus of C 248/1 is a paraphrase taken from the secular birthday cantata C 214 from which Bach subsequently plundered a number of movements for the oratorio (Dürr p 829). The text for the original chorus called upon ‘drums, trumpets and strings to fill the air’ in order to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. This accounts for the unique beginning, timpani, woodwind, trumpets and strings announcing themselves in turn before the beginning of the ritornello theme proper (bar 9). Much has been written in speculation as to why Bach did not seek similar mention of these instruments in the paraphrased version of rejoicing and worshipping the Lord. The answer is, probably, that had he compiled the oratorio two decades previously, he would almost certainly have done so.
An overview of the cantata canon clearly demonstrates that as he matured as a composer Bach became less interested in painting specific musical images at the expense of the overall picture. As a fully experienced composer he saw no reason to labour the fact that various specific instruments were brought together in the service of homage to the Lord. What had obviously been enthralling music of entreaty for a mere Queen to thrive and blossom was perfectly acceptable as a vehicle of respect for the Lord without dotting the ‘I-s’ and crossing the ‘T-s’.
But what an exhilarating movement it is, with sweeping wind and string scale passages surging above an often pugnaciously obstinate continuo line. It is a formal da capo structure of massive proportions consisting of nearly 350 bars in 3/8 time. The internal divisions of the two outer sections are aurally extremely clear and do not need to be described in detail. The feeling one is left with, however, is the sheer breathless excitement of music which heralds the most significant event of the Christian calendar.
We can view this chorus as an introduction both to this first cantata and to the work as a whole. The remaining eight movements divide neatly into two groups of four describing the period of Advent and thence the Christmas event itself.
The tenor is the traditional voice of the narrator (or in this case an Evangelist), a device Bach declined in the Easter Oratorio. His sets the well known biblical scene of Joseph and Mary in a secco recitative which is direct and engaging but uncolourful. Readers may wish to turn to chapter 50 of this volume and note the comments about Bach’s refinements of the Agnus Dei of the Bm Mass. Bach’s ability to pare away inessential detail in order to reveal the emotional core of his music as outlined in that essay is equally apparent in the recitatives of this oratorio.
The matter-of-fact provision of information is followed by a more personal musing in the alto arioso. Surrounded, one might almost say enclosed or even sheltered by two oboes d’amore, the singer expresses contentment with the impending birth—-Jacob’s star already shines and Zion should awake and forego sorrows. Apart from the suggestion of weeping (which we are advised to abandon) Bach paints no specific pictures; it is enough to create the atmosphere of restrained expectation.
The first aria is for alto, another paraphrase but this time taken from C 213, a cantata originally composed for the House of Saxony. In this later version Bach adds an oboe d’amore to double the violin obbligato theme in what is a conventionally structured da capo movement. The original text, a denunciation of lust and the serpents of sin, now becomes a call to action—-prepare yourself Zion, to behold the fairest—-your cheeks must be radiant as with burning love you rush to greet your bridegroom.
The metaphor of the wedding couple is a constantly recurring one in the religious tracts of the time and needs no explanation.
Two points, however, are of particular interest. Firstly, one should note the energy of the original stanza, the casting away of lustful influence, which Bach set to music of some vigour. When he came to assemble the oratorio he must have viewed the call to Zion to awake and prepare as similarly potent. This is, one assumes, a narrative of dramatic forces and not a reflection upon events as a too slow tempo and ‘romantic’ caressing of the phrases sometimes implies.
Secondly, note the interaction of the vocal and obbligato lines. Although not conceived with the religious text in mind, their perfect entwined union makes a strong metaphorical point about the alliance of Christ and Soul.
The chorale which draws the first part of this cantata to a close is one which we now tend to associate with Easter although for Bach’s congregations that would not have been necessarily so. It was used on several occasions in the cantata cycles, most notably as the basis of the fantasia for C 135 (vol 2, chapter 5). Here it expresses the individual Christian’s somewhat tentative view of the impending Christmas event—-how shall I receive You, jewel of my Soul? —-set Your lamp beside me so that I may understand that which pleases You.
Keen students could do worse than to track down Bach’s various arrangements of this melody and compare them.
The tenor returns to provide us with an admirable summary of the Christmas story—-Mary has a Son whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. An unexpected minor chord on Krippen—-the manger—-signifies its lowliness (bar 4). Otherwise, this recitative is even more succinct than before, a half a dozen chords and a cadence which takes us, without break, into the chorale duet.
Scored for soprano, bass and two oboes d’ amore, it is the apotheosis of the various experiments that Bach had made with hybrid structures, particularly in the second Leipzig cycle. There he tried out every conceivable combination of recitative, arioso, ritornello and chorale, initially as a means of setting long slabs of text but latterly discovering new and exciting vehicles of artistic expression. In this case he gives the soprano four chorale phrases, each in a different key (A, E and D minors and G major). Each is preceded and followed by the instrumental ritornello which frames the entire movement.
Furthermore, the chorale statements are extended by the bass’s additional explanatory comment. Thus there are four clear blocks of ritornello/chorale/recitative concluded by a final statement of the complete instrumental theme which includes one soprano Kyrieleis.
It is not necessary to paraphrase the text as it can be followed perfectly well from any translation. Suffice it to note that, in accordance with the practice Bach had established in the second cycle, the chorale lines are clear annunciations of fact, dogma or principle: e.g.—-He came in poverty to enrich us in heaven—-whilst the recitative sections elucidate and expound e.g.—-who can comprehend how man’s distress has so moved Him?
The penultimate aria is a powerful paean to Christ—-how little You respect earthly grandeur that, though You preserved the whole world You must now sleep in a lowly manger. There is a beautiful irony in that the original version of this aria was a song of homage to the Queen, a glorious crowned lady who presumably represented all that seems rejected in the paraphrased version! Many might find that the powerful musical declamation of the original version went far beyond the vanities of a provincial noblewoman and that this commanding trumpet-driven aria is more appropriate in the extolling of divine virtue.
It certainly is an arresting piece despite its predictable formal da capo structure. The trumpet fanfare theme is constantly uplifted by syncopated string figures and rolling semi-quaver counter-subject lines on the first violins and flute. On hearing the oratorio without knowing anything of its history, most listeners would surely be happy to assume that the command and energy of the trumpet was originally conceived as an expression of the potency of the Saviour.
Is it disappointing to discover that this was not the case? In point of fact it is an irrelevance. Bach may, from their very inception, have kept movements such as this in mind for better things. In any case, we know from the few of his surviving letters that any approach to royalty was expected to be couched in the most inflated of terms.
The cantata ends with another chorale enlivened by short brass interludes, particularly appropriate after such a rousing aria. The text is personal—-Ah dear Jesus, make a clean soft bed within my heart so that I shall always remember You. The hymn tune is plainly harmonised in the manner that ends many a conventional cantata but the trumpets and drums punctuate each cadence with a figure based on repeated notes reminiscent of the main theme of the opening chorus. Christ may, at this time, appear weak and lowly; but we know his divine nature and ultimate potential to be immensely powerful.
This is surely the message Bach wished to convey to the parishioners on that Christmas Day of 1734.
BWV 248/2 Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
And there were shepherds in that place.
Sinfonia–recit (tenor)–chorale–recit (tenor/sop)–recit (bass)–aria (tenor)–recit (tenor)–chorale–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–chorus–recit (bass)–chorale.
For the second day of Christmas.
This is the only one of the six cantatas not to begin with a celebratory chorus but with a sinfonia. The other cantatas for this day are Cs 40, 121 and 57. The first of these begins with a strongly orchestrated chorus of horns, oboes, strings and choir asserting the purpose of Christ’s manifestation as the destruction of the devil’s works. The bass aria is one of the most compelling and aggressive musical pictures ever painted of the crushing of the serpent.
C 121 begins with a chorale/fantasia motet of praise to Jesus. C 57 is the least lively of the three, beginning with a bass aria about resisting temptation. It includes no choruses apart from the concluding chorale.
Thus it transpires that by commencing C 248/2 with a sinfonia Bach has sought to commence each of the cantatas for this day differently.
This movement has virtually attained iconic status in the literature of Christian music embodying, as it does, notions of rustic innocence and perhaps even that of the ‘noble savage,’ later to be popularised by Rousseau. The musical means by which this is achieved are gently undulating dotted rhythms set within a 12/8 time signature and predominant major modes, realised through an extraordinary instrumentation of strings, flutes, oboes d’amore and oboes da caccia.
It is an exceptionally expansive movement likely to last six or seven minutes in performance. It is also, despite some of the archaic instrumentation, extremely lush, sometimes almost evoking a late romantic, Brahmsian richness. The numerous suspensions produce an effect of sadness and weeping
The structure, however, looks forward to the foremost principle of the later eighteenth century, that of sonata form moving, as it does, to the dominant and thence to related keys before reprising the original material.
Tenor recitative and chorale.
The evangelist’s first recitative paints the picture of the shepherds going about their business of tending their flocks when the Angel of the Lord appears. The two continuo scale passages suggest their alarm as the Lord’s light shines around them. This is good reason to introduce a chorale early in the cantata, a contemplation of the Lord’s radiance, allied to a call to be unafraid at the news of the Saviour’s arrival. It is an unsophisticated melody of regular two-bar phrases which Bach harmonises sturdily as a robust response to the naturally tremulous shepherds.
Tenor and bass recitatives.
Two short recitatives act as a bridge to the first aria of the cantata, the first accompanied by strings and the second by the oboe choir. In the first the angel, encompassed by a halo of sustained strings, announces the ‘tidings of great joy’ the birth of the Saviour. The bass is backed by emphasising woodwind chords. He brings a reminder of the ancient promise which was originally made to a shepherd which has now come to pass in being revealed to the gathered shepherds.
This is the cue for the tenor’s aria, a call for them to gather, hasten and see for themselves the Child who can refresh both body and spirit.
Also paraphrased from C 213, this was originally for alto and oboe d’amore. For the oratorio Bach recasts it for tenor and flute. He retains the essential structure of the movement but makes several minor alterations e.g. the addition of ornaments to the flute part and the enriching of the tenor line prior to the return of the ritornello theme (bar 56).
The original text was a questioning of the echo becoming, in the oratorio, the shepherds’ rallying call. A number of brief moments of imitation betray the original scenario (see, for example, the imitations in bars 36-43), but Bach was probably more interested in the sweeping scale passages in the latter half of the aria as depictions of the spiritual refreshment of mind and soul.
Tenor recitative and chorale.
The short tenor recitative that follows merely points the shepherds towards the Baby in the manger. The chorale, although in a major mode, paints a darkish picture of the Child in the gloomy stable where oxen once fed.
Bass recitative and Alto aria.
The scene has been set for a baby’s lullaby, something which children and adults in the congregations should both relate to. Before this, the bass has an accompanied recitative in which he further exhorts the shepherds to witness the miracle of the Son of God and to sing to Him in His cradle. Initially the oboe choir simply punctuates the vocal line but as the enjoiner to sing is voiced, it strokes the melody with repeated notes above a series of flowing arpeggios in the continuo line. The resultant sound is less that of the airy nursery and more of a darker place with slightly ominous overtones.
The alto’s lullaby aria is the true focus of this cantata, albeit not centrally placed. It will typically last for nearly ten minutes in performance, approximately a third of the length of the complete work. It is a movement of extended tranquillity and stillness, somehow touching that which is inexpressible but lying at the core of deeply held belief; that of peaceful acceptance of true faith and its implications of true moral ‘goodness’. This music does not need to be analysed in detail; even the most cursory of listeners must surely attune to it.
This recitative is essentially gestural, pointing us towards the multitude of angels who provide the only chorus of the cantata, a familiar refrain of eulogy—-glory to God in the highest—-peace on earth—-good will towards men.
This is a most substantial movement considering that it neither opens nor closes a cantata.
Two things about it immediately strike the ear; and, if you follow a score, the eye. Firstly there is no instrumental introduction, coda nor are there any episodes. Secondly, all sections of the choir and orchestra continue together without rest from the first to the last bars. Instrumental contrast is effected through a combination of on and off-beat wind and string chords (from the beginning), sustained notes (oboes from bar 25) and a three-note quaver figure (first introduced by strings and flutes also, from bar 25). There are two hushed moments when ‘peace on earth’ is called; the tempo slows, and the largely quaver-driven continuo line temporarily abates.
From the evidence of this movement there is no doubt of the force and potency of the angel choir. It may seem ironic that it has considerably more energy than that of the concluding chorus of combined shepherds and angels! It would seem that our pastoral human representatives have a somewhat moderating influence upon God’s ambassadors!
Bass recitative and chorale.
The final recitative sets the bass in the role of the voice of Man—-as the angels sing so well, we shall join with you. One could hardly end the cantata with a plain four-part chorale after that; shepherds and angels now combine, a symbol, perhaps, of united earthly and heavenly forces. Bach had clearly planned to end most of the six works with a chorale of some kind so the question was how to present it.
In this case he reverts to the hymn he had used in the centre of the cantata and sets it to another verse, a fifth higher, with short instrumental interpolations between the phrases. These are played by the flutes and oboe choir and they reprise the main woodwind theme of the sinfonia. The continuo line is similarly constructed around the pastoral rhythm and can be heard using it to underpin each of the four choral phrases.
The text is conventional and unexceptional—-We sing praise and honour to Thee with all our might—-the long awaited guest has now arrived. The pastoral backdrop to this momentous event has permeated the entire cantata.
But the attitude of the earthly participants has changed. The congregations should now be prepared for the cantata of the third day which moves the focus more upon the Christ Child Himself.
BWV 248/3 Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Lord of Heaven, hear our murmers.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–chorus/recit (bass)–chorale–duet (bass/sop)–recit (tenor)–aria (alto)–recit (alto)–chorale–recit (tenor)–chorale–chorus.
For the third day of Christmas.
The other cantatas for this day are Cs 64, 133 and 151. The first of these begins with an imposing motet and, like C 248/3, contains three plain chorales. The second is a chorale cantata from the second cycle opening with an impressive fantasia. The third is a chamber work with no choruses, beginning with a translucent soprano aria encompassed by a virtuosic flute obbligato. None of them achieve the vigour and splendour of the opening chorus of C 248/3 with its trio of trumpets, drums, oboes, flute, strings and continuo. This cantata completes the narrative whereby the shepherds, and others, hasten to the manger extolling His powers.
Returning to the celebratory key of D major, the chorus is festively scored as befits outpourings of celebratory homage. It is much shorter and less complex in its construction than that which began the first cantata, a possible factor in Bach’s decision to repeat it at the end, after the third chorale. Some critics have used this statement of finality to suggest that Bach viewed the oratorio in two sections, each consisting of three cantatas. But apart from the fact that the first group was performed on consecutive days, there is little to support this contention.
The structure of the movement is simplicity itself:
Instrumental rit—-imitative choir—-tutti choir—-instrumental rit—-imitative choir—-tutti choir.
Each of the sections is sixteen bars long making ninety-six in all. Its bare symmetrical proportions are somewhat surprising but then it must be remembered that these expressions of homage are of an entirely conventional nature—-hear our paltry songs and praises offered to You—-now our welfare is assured.
The chorus is appropriately rousing and the contrasted nature of the vocal writing may well have implied both individual and communal offerings of praise. Nevertheless, its very brevity prevents it from being one of Bach’s most imposing choruses.
Tenor recitative, chorus and bass recitative.
The tenor’s role is again gestural; in his short (three bars!) recitative he informs us that, the angels having returned to heaven, the shepherds speak. They resolve to journey to Bethlehem to see for themselves the events of which they have been informed. These words are encapsulated in the following chorus, less fully orchestrated and even shorter than the first. One of Bach’s typically energised quaver bass lines suggests determination whilst the flowing flute and violin melody intimates a flurry of activity. The four vocal lines are imitative, constructed around a simple scale-figure and its inversion; the shepherds have been prompted into action and the music conveys this image vigorously.
The movement ends with a short recitative for the bass, supported by the pair of flutes, reminding the shepherds of the Lord’s triumphs.
The first of the trio of plain chorale harmonisations is a summation of that which the shepherds have been told—-all this, in love, has He done for us—-let us thank Him and pray for mercy. It is a contemplative melody although Bach’s underpinning of it with persistent quavers creates an impression of purpose and resolution. The last extended phrase, following the three shorter ones, conveys an implication of something which is ongoing and unfinished.
Soprano/bass aria and tenor recitative.
The two most substantial movements of this cantata are this following duet and the later alto aria; between them they are likely to take up over half the performance time of the entire work. Nor are they unrelated. They are separated by a tenor recitative which lays emphasis upon Mary—the shepherds spoke widely of the wondrous things they had seen, but Mary took the words into her heart. The duet then, is addressed to the Lord, thanking Him for His love and compassion that sets us truly free, a direct entreaty to the Father. The aria is a mother’s private and touching acceptance of the miracle of childbirth and, in this particular case, its role in strengthening the faith of Mankind.
The soprano and bass duet calls upon the continuo and two oboes d’amore as obbligato instruments. Its character is complex and difficult to define; it has, on the one hand the simple pastoral quality of a rustic dance, the 3/8 time and the repeated continuo figures creating an impression of jaunty abandonment. On the other, it has a hushed sense of tranquility, fully appropriate to the reverence of the occasion. The climbing oboe figures (from bar 5) suggest a seeking or a looking for something beyond. It is a da capo movement in which the middle section, placing much emphasis upon His love and devotion, makes continued use of the importunate repeated-note motives now absorbed into the continuo line.
The mode of the duet is major and the mood, though gentle, outgoing and gregarious. That of the minor-mode alto solo is, by contrast, deeply personal and introvert.
A solo violin provides the obbligato line, announcing the initial bars on its lowest strings. But deeply reserved and emotional though this music is, it is neither tragic nor depressing. The violin moves to the major mode of D even before the voice enters and the latter part of its melody becomes a flowing sequence of semi-quavers. Thus we may perceive in this music both the tender maternal joy of the miracle of motherhood and the realisation that this is a birth which has far reaching implications. An examination of the first vocal phrases suggests the encapsulation of the former within the alto’s line and the latter in the violin, ever stretching upwards and suggestive of the spreading influence and impact that this birth will inspire.
Alto/tenor paired recitatives and chorales.
Prior to the reprise of the opening chorus Bach presents two paired recitative/chorales. In the first the alto, traditional voice of the spirit or soul, accepts that the heart will guard and secure the evidence it has observed and the chorale simply confirms it—-I will hold and live for You on earth, eventually to depart and take wing with You in the next joyful life. The shepherds then retreat, praising God for what they have witnessed.
The final chorale, the only one in a minor mode, is in the dark key of F#m. Its short, repetitive initial injunctions and the last extended phrase combine to make a simple but telling point—-be glad that your salvation has been born here both as God and Man, One chosen from the city of David. This is, perhaps, the most potent of the hymn tunes used in the oratorio so far. It is serious, direct and authoritative. Bach underlines the message with a forceful bass line pointed with an initial semi-quaver scale (bar 1) and an assertive rising harmonic progression under the last phrase. This is a message of significance.
Yet it is, perhaps, best to leave both God and Man in a positive and refreshed state of mind, hence the reprise of the opening chorus; indeed, its very brevity invites repetition. It cheers us up whilst it praises God. Perhaps our eulogies are all the more sincere and genuine now that we have been reminded of the fundamental significance of the Christmas story.
BWV 248/4 Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
Fall with gratitude and with worship.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–recit/chorale (bass/sop)–aria (sop)–recit/chorale (bass/sop)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
For New Year/feast of the Circumcision.
The other cantatas for this day are Cs 190, 41, 16 and 171 and 143, the last of which can be virtually discounted in any contextual analysis (see vol 1, chapter 65) Three of the remaining works begin with rousing choruses although, regrettably, that for C 190 (from cycle 1) has been transmitted incomplete and requires some reconstruction. C 41 commences with a fully orchestrated chorale/fantasia and C 171 with a rousing fugal motet. C 16 has a more muted opening but its first three movements show some interesting experiments with tonal relationships and conjoined structures.
All four cantatas are united in that they honour God, give thanks for the year that is drawing to a close and offer prayers seeking continuing divine support in that which will shortly arrive.
C 248/4 is a work with a developing focus which may, in part, explain why Bach chose to turn to new texts. It does, of course, offer fulsome praise but it is now directed more towards Jesus than to God. In fact this cantata is wholly focussed on the naming of the Saviour; the conventional prayers for protection and happiness in the New Year are absent. It is for this reason that it should rightly be thought of more as a cantata for the Circumcision and it also explains why Bach took several steps to differentiate it from the rest of the oratorio.
For one thing, Bach dispenses with the flutes and the trio of trumpets and introduces the softer sound of a pair of horns. For another, he moves away from bright, celebratory sharp keys into the ‘flat’ tonalities of F major and Dm. Finally, this is the most precise and concentrated of the six cantatas comprising a mere seven movements, only half the number of C 248/2.
The chorus is a paraphrase of the opening movement of the secular work C 213, Hercules at the Crossroads. It may well be that its softer instrumentation was a defining factor in Bach’s choosing to use it in this particular cantata. Furthermore the original text, centred upon care for a young aristocratic prince and his brilliant future, is not so far removed from that of the later setting, thus ensuring appropriateness of the music.
The chorus, in 3/8 time and in a major key, lacks the brilliance of flutes and the stridency of trumpets. Its quietly assertive character has more in common with the sinfonia of the second cantata with certain implications of the pastoral, the lullaby and a gentle rustic dance. Following the eight-bar tutti statement of the ritornello theme there is some delicate interplay between horns, oboes and strings and the movement is structured around four instrumental statements at the beginning and the end as well as forming two episodes.
This leaves the choir with three blocks, the emphasis here being upon simplicity through homophonic (chordal) writing rather than the use of more complex fugal devices. The text declares—-prostrate yourselves with gratitude and praise before God’s throne of mercy—- (bars 25-80 and 165-224) and—-God’s Son will become the Saviour of Mankind and subdue the raging of the enemy (97-160). Bach contrives to emphasise key words by placing them on sustained notes e.g. Danken—-thanks (basses from bar 26 and sopranos from bar 174) and Loben—-praise (tenors from bar 64 and altos from bar 210).
Tenor recitative and soprano/bass recitative.
The evangelist’s recitative simply informs us that His name, chosen by the angel, shall be Jesus. The third movement is also recitative, now for bass with a soprano chorale centrally inserted. Dürr (p 159) ventures the view that Bach may well have composed the chorale melody himself. In a sense it is imposed upon the bass recitative; he sings before, after and through it. Bach’s practice in the second cycle of underpinning hymn tunes inserted within recitatives with a continuo line of enhanced activity is clearly apparent here.
The text is conceived in two balanced halves, the former giving assertions of commitment to Jesus and the latter asserting both the importance of His support at times of distress and recognition of the transient nature of death. Somehow Bach manages to imbue each recitative section with a different feeling, the force of the final phrases suggesting not so much the fear of death as the resolve to overcome it.
The soprano aria is another paraphrase from C 213, retaining the ‘echo’ effect of the original. It is transposed a third higher and the darker oboe d’amore is replaced with an oboe proper. In the secular text the soprano requests the echo (alto) to respond to the questions—-should I be led astray by flattering words?—-and —-should this warning make my way easier? In the oratorio they become—-should Thy Name instil the slightest fear? [of death]—-and—-shall I rejoice in death? The alto echo responds ‘no’, and ‘yes’ respectively but Bach is not simply resorting to a cheap theatrical trick. He builds the very notion of the ‘echoing’ into the structure of the ritornello melody which is laden with opportunities for the softer repetition of phrases and motives. Furthermore, similar interplay exists throughout the movement between oboe and voice.
Thus Bach makes the declamations universal. The echo is that of Mankind, responding here musically just as conventional responses might be made within a church service. One further point of paraphrasing technique may be noticed in the way that Bach seeks to retain melismas for key words in the added text. For example bahnen—-making the way easier—-becomes the vehicle for erfreuen—-to rejoice (see bars 75-77 and 105-111 in both scores). The charming pizzicato continuo line bounces along merrily in both versions.
The second combined chorale/recitative is again for bass and soprano, the latter completing the chorale, the first lines of which had formed the centrepiece of the third movement. The underpinning continuo line is constructed much as before. The text of both the recitative and the chorale is an unequivocal affirmation of commitment to and love for Jesus, Shepherd, King, sanctuary and salvation. The sopranos suggest the ethereal quality of angels hovering above Mankind and the mood is one of simple adoration, dedication and allegiance.
Commitment is one thing, passion is another. Besides, this cantata has been consistently restrained and subdued in its veneration of the new-born Saviour and it is possibly time to rouse the congregation. For this Bach needed to look no further than the aria for oboe, violin and tenor from C 213, a stirring combination of ritornello and fugal techniques. He transposes it down a tone to Dm, more in line with the tonal plan of this cantata, and replaces the oboe with a second violin. That apart, there is nothing lost from the vigour and elan of the original.
In the secular work, the text spoke of the young ‘hero’ soaring to the stars and achieving great distinction. The oratorio version follows a slightly different line—-I live to pay Your honour—- strengthen me only that I might give You thanks and worship You. The powerful theme, somewhat reminiscent of the opening of the double violin concerto, and now in the same key, is announced as a three-part fugato in the order violin 2, violin 1 and continuo.
The aria is in the form of a conventional da capo and we hear the vigorous ritornello melody in full four times, and in part when it forms additional episodes. The writing for the violins is endlessly inventive, particularly in the middle section, moving between caressing strokes, spiky interjections and flowing counterpoint. This splendid movement, although purportedly calling upon the Saviour to provide strength and support, it nevertheless conveys a forceful and spirited conviction and determination to honour Him.
The closing chorale may seem a trifle ponderous in comparison with other concluding movements. The horns return to dominate the orchestral sound with a short ritornello figure separating the vocal phrases, very much like that which completed the second cantata. The chorale has six phrases, all but two (second and fourth) of which are five bars long and it is presented conventionally in four parts, doubled by the strings and oboes. Each line is a simple entreaty e.g. Jesus guide me, Jesus always be with me. This, and the chorale concluding the following cantata, form the most thoughtful and introspective endings of the six works.
And although this is a moment for personal contemplation, the insistency of the horn interventions remind us that, as we learnt from the previous aria, faith is not a matter of passivity. It requires a degree of effort and resolve as well as thought and reflection.
BWV 248/5 Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
Glory to You, Oh God.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–chorus/recit (alto)–chorale–aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–recit (alto)recit (tenor)–trio (sop/alto/tenor)–recit (alto)–chorale.
For the Sunday after New Year.
The other cantatas for this day are Cs 153 and 58. The earlier one, from the first cycle, is uniquely constructed with the first five movements set out thus: chorale, secco recitative, arioso, secco recitative, chorale (vol 1, chapter 34). In many ways it is the most benign of cantatas, containing three plain chorale settings and just one movement of tempestuous energy, an aria for tenor.
C 58 (vol 3, chapter 35) is one of the late dialogue cantatas requiring only soprano and bass voices. It even dispenses with the conventional four-part chorale, incorporating a hymn tune with the final duet. Of the three works for this day there is no doubt that C 248/5 is the largest in scale and its opening movement is the only chorus proper to be found in any of the works for this day. Furthermore it is, despite the modest scoring of just strings and two oboes, one of the most joyous and ebullient choruses of the entire oratorio.
It is said of some twentieth century Hollywood directors that they planned their movies by selecting the main scenes, ascribing to each of them a degree of emotional intensity and plotting their expressive gradients. Bach might well have done something similar in many of the cantatas, although the texts he was given occasionally set him enormous aesthetic challenges (see, for example C 109 vol 1, chapter 23). The shape of C 248/5 is wholly determined by the emotional impact of the narrative.
It begins with the most unabandoned and cheerful chorus and is the only one of the six cantatas to end with a plain chorale. It moves from the sheer ecstasy of the Saviour’s arrival to His personal and private adoption within the human heart. En route it reminds us of Herod’s disquiet, with implications of his ominous edict to massacre the innocents.
But there are no shadows in the opening chorus. It begins with the bounciest of one-bar figures on the oboes immediately answered by a chattering of the upper strings. Both ideas are used as the basis of the initial choral entries, the antiphonal nature of the responses enhancing the rhythmic ‘spring’ as well as creating impressions of large crowds freely proclaiming the glory of the Saviour.
A short fugal passage follows (led by the tenors from bar 32) before a return to the initial themes, again on instruments followed by voices (from bar 54). A second exposition of the same fugal theme now led by basses (from bar 76) takes us to the middle section of what transpires to be a da capo chorus.
It is less than a third of the length of the outer segments and both the musical material and the sentiments expressed are continuations of that which has already been heard—-the world praises You, and our most joyful of aspirations has been fulfilled. Despite the tonal contrasts created by movement through the three related minor keys of F#, C# and B, the energy and ecstasy of the music is undiminished.
Tenor recitative, chorus and alto recitative.
The secco tenor recitative informs us that when Jesus was born there came three Wise Men. What they have to say is articulated by the choir in the following movement, separated by recitative responses from the alto representing the human Soul. The Wise Men enquire as to where they might find the King of the Jews whose star they have followed and the Soul, sheathed in the glow of sustained string harmonies, responds—-seek Him in my breast for He is the light. His radiance is so bright that even those who do not know Him wish to worship Him.
The first part of the cantata concludes with a simple chorale setting, oboes and strings doubling the vocal lines. The text of the verse is based upon a single image, the brightness of the Saviour’s visage which turns night into day and leads us along the right pathways. Although it is firmly in the key of A major, Bach harmonises the first note with an F# minor chord thus, even within the first phrase, creating the impression of emerging from darkness into light.
The dissonances and chromatic harmony of the fourth bar paint a brief picture of ‘dismal night’ which similarly resolves onto a bright E major chord. The last phrase, telling that we may eternally gaze upon His Face, is three bars long, the concept of continuance encapsulated within its extended musical structure.
It is a perfectly chosen and well placed chorale picturing the untarnished adoration of the Saviour before inevitable human sinful thoughts and actions manifest themselves.
It is to the aria and trio that we must turn in order to penetrate to the core of this cantata. Both are in minor keys and assumed to be paraphrases, that for bass assuredly so as the original model survives as part of the secular C 215. There it was pitched in the higher key of Bm and scored for obbligato flute, oboe d’amore, voice and upper strings. Unusually, though not uniquely, there is no bass continuo line, combined violins and violas performing that function. Such scoring often denotes an innocence or a spiritual dimension which was, in the original version, attributed to Augustus of Saxony, a man apparently capable of ‘repaying evil with good’, an echo, perhaps, of ‘turning the other cheek’. The oboe doubles the voice throughout, suggesting that the original soloist may have had little time in which to perfect the aria with a consequent lack of confidence in its delivery.
In the oratorio Bach retained the inventive flute obbligato melody but allotted it to the oboe d’amore above a conventional continuo line, now placed in the lower registers where we would normally expect it. The image of the radiant divine light continues but a new, and typically Lutheran image is now introduced, that of entrenched sin—-Your word must be the light that keeps my soul from sin. This allusion is deliberately placed just prior to implications of extreme human felony gained from the tenor’s subsequent reference to Herod.
It is suitable that the darker, slightly more ominous sounds of the oboe d’amore now predominate as the principle counterpoint against the bass’s voice of mankind. Despite not having been originally composed to these words, the tonal movement of the ritornello theme, moving as it does into the more hopeful major but inevitably sinking back to the minor, forms an appropriate metaphor of the seeking of divine light as a shield against sin. Bach also manages to give key words, such as ‘illumination’, emphasis through extended melismas. The insistent downward arpeggio and repeated notes of the oboe theme (from bar 12) are particularly evocative and memorable.
Tenor, alto and tenor recitatives.
The tenor’s recitative simply informs us of the disquiet of both Herod and the city of Jerusalem at the news of the birth; Bach calls attention to the word erschrak—-to startle—-by means of its high pitch and rhythmic pointing. The Soul (alto) responds, again supported by the upper strings but this time providing not comforting, sustained chords but flickering figures of tremor and apprehension. Human unease about Christ’s Divinity is now a reality although the committed Soul neither recognises nor accepts it—-why does His presence arouse fear in you?—-You should rejoice since He has come to save the world.
The tenor returns to his narrative and Herod’s demands to know the Child’s birthplace; he is told that it is Bethlehem from whence a Ruler will arise. Notable is the change from secco recitative to warmly affectionate arioso at the mention of Bethlehem, the melody assuming a character, that is loving and assured, stroked by an affirmative quaver continuo line.
Bach’s vocal trios are always worthy of attention, original in concept and emotionally deeply moving. He produced them sparingly; there are only three in the entire second Leipzig cycle. Occurring in Cs 38, 122 and 116, each is for a different combination of voices i.e. S, A, B (C 38), S, A, T (C 122) and S, T, B (C 116).
There is no doubt that the trio for C 248/5 is most closely modelled upon that from C 122. Both are in minor modes and are concerned with the presence of, and protection offered by, the Baby Jesus. Both make minimal use of the alto voice; in C 122 it is doubled by the upper strings (until the coda) whilst articulating a chorale, in C 248/5 it is the voice of the Soul reminding all that Jesus is already with us.
The later movement is enlivened by a solo violin obbligato theme, beginning modestly enough but ranging over two and a half octaves as the revelation of His pervading presence becomes all-encompassing. The soprano and tenor engage in a dialogue of uncertainty, forever questioning—-when shall the time come?—-when shall His people be comforted? The long melismas on—-kömmt—- communicate the sense of waiting for His arrival.
Interventions of the alto are spare but potent—-be still, in truth He is already with us. Note the skill with which Bach ensures that the command schweigt—-be silent—-is allowed to penetrate through the musical texture. If Bach did paraphrase this movement, he made a superb job of adapting it to its new text.
Alto recitative and chorale.
The alto has the final word in a brief secco recitative supported by two sustaining oboes d’amore—-my Dearest reigns now—-and—-a heart given over to Him becomes His throne.
The concluding chorale is one of the shortest and simplest in the repertoire. Its phrases are plain and symmetrical, almost rustic in character and its message somewhat stark—-the humble home of the heart is a dark dungeon but it becomes as if bathed in sunlight when illuminated by Your Mercy. Even here implications of sinful flesh cannot be resisted, although Bach makes little of them in the setting.
Despite the splendidly jovial opening chorus, it is the profundity of the aria and trio that remains to haunt us. Bach did not ask for the recall of the chorus as he had done to end the third cantata; the joy of Christ’s coming must now be moderated by an acceptance of our own limitations.
BWV 248/6 Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben
Lord, when impertinent foes rant.
Chorus–recit (tenor/bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–chorale–recit (tenor)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (s/a/t/b)–chorus/chorale.
The important festival of Epiphany, the traditional twelfth day of Christmas, completes the narrative of the Three Wise men and the revelation of the arrival of the Saviour to the world. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that it is celebrated with the maximum of musical ceremony. Consequently Bach recalls the trumpets and drums (but not the flutes) to join with oboes and strings for the two choruses enfolding this final cantata.
The other extant works for this day are Cs 65 and 123. The former (vol 1, chapter 35) begins with a gloriously festive chorus with pairs of horns, flutes and oboes in addition to the strings, and it focuses upon the gifts brought to the Saviour which, as we shall discover, are no match for the offering of the human heart. C 123 (vol 2, chapter 33) is a more enigmatic work lacking brass and drums, the delicate interplay between woodwind and strings evoking impressions of the divine protection which the new-born Child can offer mankind. The tenor aria stands out as a movement of deeply emotional and personal commitment.
Much of this concluding cantata of the oratorio is thought to have been paraphrased from a work that has been lost, so points of comparison of the settings cannot be made. We might, however, pause for a moment to consider the fortunate legacy of Bach’s constant recycling of his compositions, providing access to a number of works which otherwise would have been denied us.
The opening chorus of C 248/6 has much more the quality of a dance a sturdy, perhaps even slightly ponderous minuet, led and dominated by the first trumpet. The textual theme is not unlike that of C 123—-let enemies rage, grant us Your help and support—-only through You can we escape their sharp claws. There is a degree of ‘raging’ suggested by the semi-quaver activity in both choir and orchestra but it has none of the intensity of, for example, the fantasia from C 178 (vol 2, chapter 9). These enemies already seem to have been subdued by the divine power of the Saviour, the mood at this time being very much one of exultation rather than trepidation. But, of course, the full story of Herod’s infamy has yet to be told.
The opening instrumental section provides most of the musical material, though virtually nothing in the way of episodes; once begun, the choir has virtually no respite until the end. Its sheer length, just short of fifty bars, bespeaks the scale and significance of the overall work. And despite its essentially positive character, it does have a moment of introspection. Just prior to the tenors’ first entry an unexpected cadence, a diminished seventh chord and a semi-quaver throbbing bass line all combine to bring about a temporary but significant change of mood. Is it a suggestion of our own puniness? Or the apparent innocence and vulnerability of the Baby Jesus? We cannot be sure but we are reminded, by its repetitions throughout the chorus, that it is a significant moment .
The structure of the movement is predicated around a series of fugal expositions, from bar 48 (T, A, S, B), from bar 69 (in the same order), from bar 121 (B, T, A, S), from bar 165 (S, A, T, B) and finally from bar 185 (B, T, A, S). The movement ends on a blaze of wind, strings, choir and organ, confidently looking to the might and support of the Saviour and acclaimed by all Christendom.
Tenor and soprano recitatives.
The following recitative is for the tenor (evangelist) introducing Herod who then speaks—-search for the Child and tell me when you have found Him so that I too might worship Him. A second recitative follows in which the soprano, supported by sustained string chords, offers a warning and discloses the plot—-you use deception to entrap the Lord but He will be safe—-He already knows your false heart.
This aria is accompanied by strings and an oboe d’amore, mostly doubling the first violins but given odd moments of independence. The text is an affirmation of the Lord’s power—-one gesture of His hand topples Man, one word shatters His enemies’ pride—-mortal man must change his way of thinking.
The ritornello theme is deceptive in that it gives the strong impression of being constructed from phrases of unequal lengths. In fact this is not the case; three balanced four-bar phrases (the second a repetition of the first) make up its twelve bars. The trick is achieved by a compositional sleight of hand whereby the rhythms of each of the first four bars are all different and complex, as indeed, are those of bars nine, ten and eleven.
We have no way of knowing how this peculiar structure might have been initially conceived with a different text in mind but one cannot help noticing how well it fits this one.
The two crotchets in all parts of the first and fifth bars imply an imperious divine gesture and the sheer complexity of the melodic structure feels entirely in tune with an image of the hand of Christ raised amongst milling enemies. The rhythmic invention throughout is extravagant and the aria has one more oddity before it ends; the closing statement of the ritornello theme is not the original twelve bar melody but is extended to twenty-four bars by means of a combination of the opening theme and first episode!
It is fairly common for Bach to curtail these final statements of his themes or even to omit them altogether as in the opening chorus. It is, however, rare for him to extend them in this way. Perhaps the reason is that, although the aria seems to have a clearly defined and contrasting middle section, there is no proper reprise. Bach obviously felt that it was sufficient merely to expand the ritornello.
Tenor recitative and chorale.
The tenor recitative is entirely functional in pursuing the narrative of the Wise Men following the star to the manger and offering their renowned gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It also takes us to the key of the central chorale which follows immediately—-Here I stand at Your manger and offer You my all—-mind, spirit, heart and soul in the hope that this might please You. Once again the hymn tune is unsophisticatedly bucolic with just the barest suggestions of chromatic harmony in the fifth and sixth phrases; but these moments are well placed, underlining the sincerity of the proffered gifts.
A treading quaver bass line seems, at first, to be at odds with the picture of standing motionless before the crib. But here its function is emotive rather than imagic. It represents not movement but an assured certainty of purpose.
But if the bass did not depict physical action in the chorale, it does, albeit briefly, suggest it at the end of the tenor recitative—-being warned by God not to return to Herod—-the Wise Men departed for their own country.
Bach was obviously aware of the problems of ensuring continuing interest in the many, and often long, recitatives that the Christmas narrative makes necessary. One of his solutions was that of the ‘hybrid’, perfected in the second cycle. Another was to vary the accompaniment and it is this course that he takes in the following movement for tenor, two oboes d’amore sustaining for the most part but also commenting discreetly on occasions.
The text is one of total commitment to the Divine Child—-go then, and I shall remain with Him—-I will dedicate myself to Him and in return He shall protect me. Dramatically, musically and in terms of the unfolding narrative, this sets us up for the final aria of the work.
Two oboes d’amore and continuo support the tenor in an aria that reveals itself to be one of the most forceful and muscular of the oratorio. The opening theme is forthrightly announced by the oboes in sixths before they proceed to a brief moment of imitation. Once again the music, whether by original design or not, fits the text perfectly, the opening theme proud and defiant and the imitative idea more suggestive of trepidation—-though enemies attempt to alarm me, my refuge is here—-you may look on me sternly and threaten to destroy me but here is where my Saviour lives.
There are several moments where the music pauses, perhaps to allow the enormity of this notion to sink in. The form is clear ternary although Bach has slightly redrafted both the reprise and the concluding ritornello theme.
The last short recitative is an affirmation of faith by the entire community of Christians which explains the unusual employment of all four voices in under ten bars.—-what terror has hell for us?—-what harm can the world and sin do when we are in the hands of Jesus? The voices, entering in the order S, T, A and B, come together as one for the final statement—-since we rest in His hands. The textural layout of this simple movement encapsulates messages of both collective and individual faith and universal acceptance. The rhetorical nature of the vocal phrases proclaims the force and strength of their articulation.
The very first hymn to be used in the oratorio is now reprised to become the core of the final, rousing chorale/fantasia. Bach alters the harmonisation sufficiently to enable it to sit comfortably amidst the rolling semi-quaver countermelodies which are shared amongst strings, continuo, oboes and the triumphant first trumpet. The ending is also altered; not now the enigmatic Phrygian minor-mode conclusion of the harmonisation in the first cantata where the story was yet to be told. Now it has been narrated and, since it is a chronicle of triumph on all levels, physical as well as spiritual, it needs to be celebrated as such. (Further comments upon the tonal characteristics of this melody, which allow it to be conceived largely in either major or minor modes, may be found in vol 2, chapter 5 where it forms the backbone of the opening minor-mode fantasia).
Here the mood is one of success and achievement, resulting in jubilation and celebration; for Christians, the greatest story told! This chorus is festive and commemorative, affirmative and positive—-now you are properly avenged, for Christ has destroyed death and sin, Satan and Hell and Man’s place is truly by God’s side. The largely chordal writing for the choir depicts Man speaking with one voice amidst trails of glory, the majestic trumpet, a symbol of Divine power, rising above all else.
One can only assume that the Leipzig congregations were as moved in 1734/5 by Bach’s account of the Christian story as many generations have been since.
Copyright J. Mincham 2010, revised 2014, 2014, 2017, 2020.