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Choose Your Path Through Bach's Christmas Oratorio

J.S. Bach
Portrait by E.G. Hausmann
Wikimedia Commons
J.S. Bach

The Leipzig composer's seasonal sacred masterpiece offers choices and challenges familiar to the modern media age.

After all, December isn't just a time of sending gifts or gaming airline web sites for the best fares. It's also a time of Best of the Year lists. And in our evolved media landscape - especially in the realms of streaming television and podcasts - most of what's on those lists come with a decision: is this show something I put my life on hold for a weekend to binge, or do I take it in episode by episode and stay connected to my everyday reality?

Bach couldn't have known what 21st-century media would look like (although one is always astounded by the depth of this guy's vision). But when he wrote the six cantatas of his Christmas Oratorio for the Christmas season of 1734, he created a piece that works as both a concert-length binge or as chapters of a narrative that unfolds episode by episode.

Those first performances were most assuredly of the latter category. Each of the six pieces was written for and performed on a specific day on the church calendar:

  • No. 1 is for Christmas Day
  • No. 2 is for St. Stephen's Day (the day after Christmas)
  • No. 3 is for St. John's Day (two days after Christmas)
  • No. 4 is for the Naming and Circumcision of Christ (which falls on New Year's Day)
  • No. 5 is for the Second Sunday after Christmas
  • No. 6 is for Epiphany

It's beyond rare to find any church or performing organization that sticks to that performance calendar these days. But with recordings on CD and streaming services (not to mention LPs!), we have the option of confronting that question: all at once or one at a time? A 2018 performance of all six cantatas on a single program by the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought two perspectives.

Composer John Harbison, who describes the oratorio as Germany's "seasonal equivalent to the English-speaking world's Messiah," says that listening to the entire piece 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, with the smallest orchestration and hottest music dealing with the harshest drama in the story."

But while Bach was clear in the function of this piece, did he envision — or perhaps hope — that the work would be performed someday as a whole?

Absolutely, says Christoph Wolff, one of the world's pre-eminent Bach scholars 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 anticpate a non-liturgical concert performance."

Wolff concludes that Bach deliberately composed the world "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 [St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches in Leipzig]."

Of course, there's no one right answer, and each of us can choose to listen to this piece in both ways, as the occasion suits us. And when it comes to which recordings you might choose, Brian McCreath, host of The Bach Hour, suggests these:

  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus of Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir - "After decades of pioneering work in historically informed performance, the late Harnoncourt ignited an incredible variety of vivid imagery and drama in Bach's masterpiece in this 2006 recording of concert performances at the Musikverein in Vienna."
  • Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Dresden Chamber Choir - "During Chailly's tenure as Leipzig's Kapellmeister, he forged what he called a 'third way' with baroque music, combining the sparkling, secure projection of modern instruments with interpretive lessons from the early music movement. This 2010 recording is perhaps the most fulfilling of the several releases of Bach's music he made during that time."
  • Jos van Veldhoven, Netherlands Bach Society - "The warm, relaxed embrace of this historically informed performance is luxurious and beautiful. Unfortunately, while the currently available re-release will offer that lovely sound, the adventurous and enterprising listener will want to wade into the vast landscapes of online auctions and used CD outlets to find a copy of the original 2003 release, complete with a hard-bound book that intersperses the notes and translation of Bach's masterpiece with a variety of visual representations of the nativity from over four centuries of art history."