The fanfare of drums, trumpets and winds that opens Bach’s Christmas Oratorio must have made quite an impact on the congregations of the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Christmas Day, 1734. The practicalities of modern life mean that we end up pre-loading our Christmas music, with carol services and concerts superimposed over the church’s preparatory period of Advent, a quiet time for contemplating the reasons why Christ was born, and his mission of salvation. During Advent, churches are decked in sombre purple, the Gloria drops out of the Mass, some people fast, and in the Lutheran churches of eighteenth-century Leipzig, Bach’s great cycles of cantatas that ran through the year fell silent for a couple of weeks. For those first listeners – who hadn’t been assaulted with background Christmas music every time they stepped out of their doors in December – that first joyful chorus, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage” (Sing out, rejoice, praise these days … abandon despair, banish laments) must have come as a blaze of light in the darkness of winter.

Altar triptych from the Propsteikirche in Dortmund by Derick Baegert © Wikipedia - Public Domain
Altar triptych from the Propsteikirche in Dortmund by Derick Baegert
© Wikipedia - Public Domain

The Christmas Oratorio is a curious hybrid: it consists of six separate cantatas, which would have been sung individually during services spread across the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany, but Bach conceived it as a single unified work, with a clear structure of keys, and he deviates a bit from the set Bible texts for some of the services to create a more coherent narrative. It’s also a classic example of baroque recycling: some twenty movements came from other works, mostly secular cantatas written for royal events, providing some handy music for the regal themes in the Oratorio.

Bach brings the familiar Christmas story vividly to life across the six cantatas. After the opening chorus of praise, Cantata 1 recounts the birth of Jesus, and ends with a bass aria followed by a chorale, linked by the sound of trumpets, that brilliantly contrast the majesty and humility of the King who becomes a helpless baby born in a stable. The aria, “Großer Herr”, is accompanied by a solo trumpet playing a rising syncopated theme and effervescent semiquaver runs that always make me smile. In the following chorale, a prayer that the Christ-child should make his bed in our hearts, two more trumpets join in with a quietly radiant motif in parallel thirds between each line of the chorale, made even more moving by the way it contrasts with the brilliance of the solo.

 

Cantatas 2 and 3 cover the shepherds, who Bach introduces with a piece of baroque musical shorthand, the lilting siciliano dance (think of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, or the Pastorale movement in Handel’s Messiah), played here on soft flutes, oboes da caccia and oboe d’amore, and immediately evoking the peaceful midnight hillside. In Cantatas 5 and 6 the Three Kings make their appearance in another blaze of trumpets, searching for the baby at King Herod’s court, finding him in Bethlehem and kneeling before him in worship. These five out of the six cantatas more or less follow the same story as you’d see acted out in any primary school nativity play, albeit with better music.

 

Halfway through the festivities though, on New Year’s Day, Bach gives us a moment in Cantata 4, for the feast of the naming and circumcision of Christ, to pause and reflect on the story, and perhaps also to prepare quietly for the year ahead. The bright trumpets step aside for a pair of natural horns to set the mood in the gentle dance of the opening chorus “Fallt mit Danken” (Kneel with thanks), and then Bach leads us through a lovely set of arias, recitatives and chorales that meditate on Jesus’s name with a surprising intensity that seems to owe more to Roman Catholic mysticism than to solid Lutheran piety, particularly in the echo aria, “Flößt, mein Heiland”, with an off-stage soprano answering “no” and “yes” to the soloist’s fervent questions.

Just as he does in the Passions, Bach builds up the Christmas Oratorio with a mixture of narrative, drama and detached reflection. A tenor Evangelist sings the familiar Gospel words, and the chorus and soloists take on the roles of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the Kings and of course the heavenly host of angels – when I hear Cantata 2, with its luminous chorale “Brich an o schönes Morgenlicht”; the florid tenor and flute aria “Frohe Hirten, eilt” and the chorus “Ehre sei Gott” that bubbles like champagne, it’s quite easy to imagine a heaven that is full of angels singing Bach (and probably playing Bach’s trumpet parts too).

 

For all the joy of the Christmas Oratorio, the destiny and purpose of Jesus are never far away. We get hints of this in the Christmas Gospel story, when St Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” and Bach follows this text in Cantata 3 with the sublime alto aria “Schliesse mein Herz” – which expresses Mary’s deep faith in what God is doing, but which also has about it something of the proud and protective love that a mother feels for her new child. The Three Kings know Jesus’s destiny too, and the symbolism of their gifts is present throughout the work. They bring gold for kingship, expressed so brilliantly by the trumpet and bass in Cantata 1. They bring frankincense to represent holiness and priesthood, an idea that is ever-present in the devotional chorales scattered through the oratorio, but particularly in the quiet reverence of “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier” (I stand here beside your cradle), a moment of stillness during all the glory of Cantata 6. And finally they bring myrrh, the embalming spice. This gift comes at the end of the oratorio: the final movement is presented in a gorgeous wrapping of trumpets and dancing, but under it, the tune that the choir sings is the tune that Bach used to such devastating effect in his St Matthew Passion, the tune we know as the “Passion Chorale”.