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A World Transformed in Part 1 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Thomaskirche Leipzig ceiling
Jaime Silva
Thomaskirche Leipzig ceiling

On The Bach Hour, the first of the composer's six-part narrative for the season expresses joy, doubt, and wonder in a concert performance led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

On the program:

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (attr. Martin Luther) - Julia Gooding, soprano

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland after BWV 659 - His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts, Timothy Roberts, director

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Part I (translation) - Christine Schäfer, soprano;  Bernarda Fink, alto;  Werner Güra, tenor (Evangelist);  Gerald Finley, bass;  Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor

Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043 - Julia Fischer and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violins;  Academy of St. Martin in the Fields


The smell of evergreen in the air … cards in the mail … a ridiculous advertisement for something overpriced and breakable … all signs of the season. And then there’s this:


Written in a time and place before greeting cards, television specials, and advertising, this music is still indispensible for Christmas in our time. Part One of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston, a part of WGBH. If you were to run into Bach on the street – or, more likely, in a really nice coffee shop – and you began talking about the “Christmas season,” you’d probably end up talking right past each other. For us, those words mean shopping, parties, lots of rich food, and … more shopping. In short, the noisiest, most frenetic time of the year, all leading up to New Year’s Day, when there’s a collective collapse on the couch.

For Bach, though, “Christmas” only began on December 25th. The Christmas “season” then continued for the next twelve days, to the beginning of Epiphany on January 6th. In 1734, Bach wrote six cantatas to track those days, and we now know them collectively as the Christmas Oratorio. You’ll hear each of them over the next six weeks here on The Bach Hour, and you can find a complete translation online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

But what about the weeks before Christmas, the ones filled with all that running around today? The weeks of Advent in Bach’s time were quiet and contemplative. Here is a short piece Bach wrote for those weeks, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, as arranged for the ancient instruments of the British ensemble Her Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornets. It’s preceded by Martin Luther’s setting of the text, “Now come, Savior of the Gentiles,” sung by soprano Julia Gooding.

[MUSIC – Nun komm, and BWV 659]

The quiet anticipation of Advent is reflected in this chorale prelude, originally for organ, and reimagined here by the ensemble Her Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornets and director Timothy Roberts. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland was preceded by the Martin Luther chorale tune, sung by Julia Gooding, itself based on an ancient chant.

In the early morning of December 25th, 1734, the quiet of Advent was decisively left behind in St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, when the first timpani strokes of Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage rang out in the tall, resonant church.

[MUSIC – BWV 248-1]

Written for Christmas Day, “Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days” is the first of the six cantatas Bach wrote for that season.

After the exhilarating, celebratory opening chorus, the tenor soloist enters as The Evangelist, narrating the course of events through all six cantatas. He starts with the circumstances of the birth of Jesus as described in the Gospel of Luke.

The alto soloist sings a recitative and aria of anticipation, which is echoed by the chorus in the text of a chorale. But Bach set those words to what’s known as the “Passion” chorale:


It’s a musical reflection of the belief that Jesus’s life and death are mapped out even at the moment of his birth.

The Evangelist returns with more from Luke, and followed by a recitative duet for the soprano and bass soloists. Then the bass continues on his own in an aria that combines the majestic and the exuberant as a welcome to the King, complete with a reinforcing solo trumpet.


The final chorale is, amazingly, a warm lullaby for the newborn baby, combined once again with the majesty of trumpets.

Through the course of the piece, there’s a pattern to the movements: Evangelist, recitative, aria, and chorale. It follows a pattern of Bible study – well known in Bach’s time – of reading, meditation, prayer, and confirmation. The Evangelist’s quotes from Luke act as a “reading”, with the following recitative a meditation on the reading. The aria takes the function of a prayer, and the chorales are the confirmations of the community.

If you’d like to see all of those words, you can find a translation from Emmanuel Music by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Part 1 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with soprano Christine Schäfer, alto Bernarda Fink, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Gerald Finley. They’re joined by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna, all directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in concert at the Musikverein in Vienna, here on The Bach Hour.


The first of the six cantatas that make up J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in a performance directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna. The soloists included soprano Christine Schäfer, alto Bernarda Fink, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Gerald Finley.

When Bach was a child his father was a town musician in Eisenach, making for a rich environment for the young Johann Sebastian’s ears. Ambrosius, Bach’s father, started teaching him the violin fairly early on, and that experience laid the groundwork for a work written a few decades later. Here are violinists Julia Fischer and Alexander Sitkovetsky, along with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins.

[MUSIC – BWV 1043]

The Concerto in D minor for two violins, the so-called “Double” Concerto,” by Bach. Julia Fischer and Alexander Sitkovetsky were the soloists, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

For all its brilliance in its original form, Bach’s music is invariably just as brilliant in arrangements for other instruments, like this one. Here is Summit Brass with the “Little” Fuge in G minor.

[MUSIC – BWV 578]

J.S. Bach’s “Little” Fugue, originally for organ, and performed here by Summit Brass.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program again on-demand, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.