Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Over the weekend, Trinity College enjoyed our Christmas Convivium. (Typically, a “convivium” is a gathering for the purpose of enjoying fine food with friends. In some circles, the term has come to include spirited theological discussion. We like the fuller meaning!) We arranged for a trip to Lexington to hear the Kentucky Bach Choir perform of selections from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a rich, devotional, and profound choir piece that celebrates the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.

At Trinity College, we expect a lot from our students, but we don’t expect them to jump into an early 18th century liturgical oratorio—in German, no less—and understand much. So I put together a short talk to help orient our students to the life and times of Johann Sebastian Bach, his Christmas Oratorio, and why we would bother to devote a night of an already busy Christmas season to an 18th century choral work, in German.

THE JOHANN OF JOHANNS

First, it might help to understand something about who Johann Sebastian Bach was. Bach is closer to us in time than you might realize, although not that close. If we go back about one fourth of the way to Jesus, we arrive at the start of the Reformation: in 1517 (505 years ago), Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. Now, let’s think in terms of lifetimes to get to Bach: 

John Calvin was born in 1509 and died in 1564. One lifetime.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Two lifetimes.
John Owen was born in 1616 and died in 1683. Three lifetimes. 

Two years after John Owen died, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, in 1685. (Fun fact: George Frederick Handel, composer of The Messiah, was born the same year.) So Bach was separated from the start of the Reformation by three complete lifetimes. And he died squarely in the middle of the 18th century, in 1750, in Leipzig, which puts him at roughly the halfway point between the beginning of the Reformation and today.

What else was going on at this time? According to one account: 

Georg Ludwig, Prince-Elector of Hannover, is King George the First of Britain. He speaks no English.

Louis XV reaches maturity (age 13) and becomes King of France.

Prince Frederick—the future King Frederick the Great of Prussia—is 12.

Handel’s opera Ottone premieres in London.

Mozart’s father is 5.

There are thousands of coffeehouses in the cities of Europe—at least 1,000 in London alone.

In the colonies of the New World, more than 70,000 African slaves till the fields.

Benjamin Franklin, age 17, runs away from home and settles in Philadelphia to become a printer.

New Orleans becomes the capitol of Louisiana, a French colony claiming the middle third of the North American continent.

All these things were happening as Bach and his family arrived in Leipzig. What North Americans refer to as the “Colonial Era” is also the “Baroque Era” when referring to events in Europe. Communication and travel were slower, but then as now all things were interrelated and connected. [1]

Against this backdrop, there are other aspects of Bach’s life that are very interesting. James Gaines explains,

J. S. Bach was the fifteenth person to be named Johann in his family. Seven of his uncles were Johanns, his father was Johann, and his great-grandfather was Johann. Four of his five brothers were Johanns, the other was for some reason named Johannes, and there was a sister Johanna. As his parents must have done, if only for their sanity, we will call him Sebastian. [2]

Bach himself was married twice and fathered twenty children—although only ten of those children lived beyond the age of five. Of his twenty children, five of them were named Johann! And music was as common in this family as their shared surname.

The first Bach to make music his profession had learned his trade from the town piper of Gotha a hundred years before this (though he had kept his day job running his father’s bakery as well). Since then there had been Bachs in nearly all the courts, organ lofts, and town bands of Thuringia… We do not know whether or not there was music at Sebastian’s christening, but given that it took place on a Saturday, when church musicians were off, it could have been supplied by all sorts of people…

Professional musicians were brethren in the late seventeenth century, banded together in part by their campaign against the “beer-fiddlers” (i.e., “will play for beer”) who were forever trying to undercut their prices for playing funerals and weddings, fees that were more than incidental to their salaries. The guild worked as well to protect its members’ ability to bring sons into the business, as Ambrosius Bach managed to do with all of his Johanns, eventually including Sebastian. Even at St. George’s baptismal fount, Johann Sebastian Bach was being held in the arms of his future. [3]

Music might have been as pervasive in Bach’s life, even without streaming digital options, as it is today: 

What Eisenach had in great abundance, the solace and balm of its six thousand souls, was music. In the villages of Thuringia, by an account that dates from the year of Bach’s birth, “farmers… know their instruments [and] make all sorts of string music in the villages with violins, violas, viola da gambas, harpsichords, spinets and small zithers, and often we also find in the most modest church music some works for the organ with arrangements and variations that are astonishing.” Among the Bachs especially, music was a powerful tonic, and it helped to keep the extended family together. 

Every day of Sebastian’s childhood was filled with music. His father, as director of town music and the town band, was chief dispenser of all the instrumental music in town, and his house was as busy with it as a conservatory’s practice rooms. Every morning at ten and afternoon at five, looking over the marketplace from the balcony of the town hall, Ambrosius Bach’s band played dances and folk tunes and the chorales that Luther and Lutheranism had made the most cherished of popular songs.” [4]

There is so much more to Bach’s life and music, more than I can possibly dive into here. If you’d like to learn more about him, the standard biography of his life is Christoph’s Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Book: The Learned Musician. Wolff’s biography is comprehensive (and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist!) but at 599 pages, it might be a bit much for an introduction to Bach. For an easier place to start, I loved James Gaines’s Evening the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. Gaines tells the story of Bach’s life through the lens of an encounter on one night, late in Bach’s life, with Frederick the Great. It is well-researched and riveting. And David Gordon’s The Little Bach Book is as informative as it is entertaining.

BACH’S GIFT TO US ALL: THE ORATORIO

But what about the Christmas Oratorio? That’s what this whole evening was about. The Oratorio is actually made up of six separate cantatas; each cantata contains 7–14 minor movements, such as arias, chorales, and recitatives, that are each a few minutes long. There are a number of great recordings of the Oratorio on Apple Music; my favorite (this week) is this recording by the English Baroque Soloists and the great John Eliot Gardiner. I found a really helpful article on Classical.org that explains this piece: 

Listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is a holiday experience like no other.

Consider this text from part one (written in reverence to a new religious or secular prince) instead referencing the work itself:

How shall I embrace you?
 and how encounter You?

How should we embrace this 18th century German masterpiece: as six separate cantatas or as a single-setting whole?

First, listen to each cantata individually, as it was originally performed.

Bach composed the six-part “Christmas Oratorio” (“Weihnachts Oratorium”) in 1734 for two Leipzig churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, for which he served as music director.

Each part is a cantata for 1 of 6 feast days within the 12 days of the Christmas season:

The story begins with the birth of Jesus (for Christmas Day). The second and third parts feature the shepherds (for December 26 and 27). The fourth part describes the naming and circumcision of Jesus (for New Year’s Day). The fifth and sixth parts describe the Three Kings, or Magi (for the first Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany).

John Harbison, who describes Bach’s Christmas masterpiece as Germany’s “seasonal equivalent to the English-speaking world’s Messiah,” says that listening to “all six cantatas” in one evening is tough: “each of the six cantatas has its own piece of the story and its own sound, although one, three, and six — however nuanced their D major trumpet-drum celebrations — can seem close cousins on first hearing.”

Harbison recommends listening to each cantata separately: “Having first experienced them one a week, I feel fortunate to retain distinct, independent impressions of the pastoral, truly angelic Cantata two, the tonally-fresh horn-colored world of four, the adrenaline shot of five, smallest orchestration and hottest music dealing with the harshest drama in the story.”

Did Bach envision — or perhaps hope — that the work would be performed someday as a whole?

Absolutely, says Christoph Wolff, Bach scholar and Harvard professor emeritus: “It almost seems as if Bach had meant to override given conditions [the separation of six parts over twelve days] and anticipate a non-liturgical concert performance.”

Wolff, award-winning biographer of Bach, concludes Bach deliberately composed the work “as a self contained whole”:

only an unabridged presentation of all six parts… makes it possible fully to realize how ingeniously the composer managed to create a work of such gripping intensity, with a structure so remarkably unified, despite considerable odds: a liturgical calendar and local conventions dictating partition and performance at alternating locations. [5]

The article includes links to translations, notes, and recordings of the Oratorio. What is probably clear by now is that listening to the Oratorio requires some effort, but richly rewards those who are willing to try. This is because classical music in general—and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the massive list of his other works in particular—are “high art.” 

ELEVATING OUR GAME: APPRECIATING HIGH ART

In All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers explains the differences between high art, folk art, and popular art (as well as the cultures that produce each). He distinguishes between high art and pop art (which he summarizes as “entertainment”): 

Entertainment [most pop art] reaches out to us where we are, puts on its show, and then leaves us essentially unchanged, if a bit poorer in time and money. It does not (and usually does not claim to) offer us any new perspective on our lives or on other matters in creation. Later in his essay Kaplan remarks that “a taste for popular art is a device for remaining in the same old world and assuring ourselves that we like it.”

Good art [which includes but is not limited to high art], on the other hand, takes us to a world we wouldn’t have imagined ourselves. It does not leave us where it found us. “In a fully aesthetic experience, feeling is deepened, given new content and meaning. Till then, we did not know what it was we felt; one could say that the feeling was not truly ours.” Great music, literature, painting, or architecture imprints itself in our lives and becomes a reference point for our most subtle and profound experiences. [6]

On a later page, Myers lays out the differences between popular culture and popular art. To highlight just a few of the differences: 

POPULAR CULTURE HIGH CULTURE [7]
Focuses on the new Focuses on the timeless
Discourages reflection Encourages reflection
Pursued casually to “kill time” Pursued with deliberation
Gives us what we want; tells us what we already know Offers us what we could not have imagined
Relies on instance accessibility Requires training; encourages patience
Emphasizes information and trivia Emphasizes knowledge and wisdom

Myers does not argue that all pop culture is bad or that Christians should confine themselves only to high culture and expressions of high art. Instead, he appeals for Christian wisdom through Biblical discernment: 

The call to escape the bondage to the sensibility of popular culture is not a call to asceticism. It is an invitation to expect more from our cultural lives, not less—at least more that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. Having resisted the idolatry encouraged by popular culture (the self-centered obsession with the new, the immediate, the sensuous, and the spectacular), we can enjoy all cultural activities more fully, at least those capable of being enjoyed. Books, plays, films, painting, television, music, and sports can all be better appreciated once we approach them as we ought. [8]

So that is why I took Trinity College students to listen to a performance—in German—of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I hope you will find a translation and give it a listen. Bach’s music is timeliness perfection, “classical” in all the deepest senses of the word. I’ll finish with this little anecdote, in which one author praises the cosmic proportions of Bach’s brilliance: 

A wide variety of earthly music, including some by Bach, was recorded onto a solid gold LP record and sent into the far reaches of outer space on the two Voyager Spacecraft in the 1970s. During the selection period, when the distinguished biologist and author Lewis Thomas was asked what music he would want sent into outer space to represent Earth, he replied, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. But that would be boasting.” [9]


NOTES

[1] David Gordon, The Little Bach Book, 4.

[2] James Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason, 13.

[3] Ibid., 13–14.

[4] Ibid., 40–41.

[5] Classical.org, “Christmas Oratorio: Bach’s Six-Part Classical Masterpiece”

[6] Ken Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, 81–82.

[7] Ibid., 120.

[8] Ibid., 183.

[9] Gordon, 131.