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The Quiet Meditation of Part 2 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Thomaskirche Leipzig at night
Danny Sotzny
Thomaskirche Leipzig at night

On the Bach Hour, angels bring shepherds through the night to a scene of peaceful warmth in the second of Bach's six-part narrative for the season, in a concert performance led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

On the program:

Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 769 - Anton Heiler, organ (Fisk organ, Opus 46, at Memorial Church, Harvard University)

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Part II (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

Choral Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 769 (arr. Igor Stravinsky) - Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Seiji Ozawa, conductor


This is a time of the year for festivities. For bright, colorful decorations. For loud music … and maybe loud sweaters. But it’s also a time for this:


In J.S. Bach’s astonishing cycle of cantatas we know as the Christmas Oratorio, Part 2 brings us the warm… and peaceful side of the season. The shepherds and angels make their appearances. But there’s also a deep musical meditation on the meaning of the story. Part 2 of the 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. In this time of celebration, the story behind Christmas is one that, while for a believer is festive, is also a time of quiet, and even peace. That’s the part of the story J.S. Bach told in music for the second day of the Christmas season in 1734. You can find a complete translation of Part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Part of the genius of Bach’s sacred music is the way he transforms the already familiar into powerful, new creations. At the heart of the second part of the Christmas Oratorio is Vom himmel hoch, da komm' ich her, or “I come from heaven on high,” a Christmas Eve hymn by Martin Luther.

Here is another transformation of that hymn by Bach. From a 1967 recording, Anton Heiler is the soloist at the Opus 46 Fisk organ, in its former home of Harvard’s Memorial Church, playing Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom himmel hoch.


The Canonic Variations on Vom himmel hoch were composed by Bach as a sort of demonstration of his ability when he was invited to join a society of like-minded musicians. What's surprising is that he was in his early 60's and was one of the best-known organists of his time. Bach had absolutely nothing to prove … but he did anyway!

Anton Heiller was the organist in a legendary performance of that piece, recorded just after the dedication of the Opus 46 Fisk organ at Harvard University's Memorial Church in December of 1967. That organ was removed in 2010 to make way for the new Opus 139 Fisk instrument, Opus 46 finding its new home in a Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas.

When Bach assembled his Christmas Oratorio in 1734, he didn’t plan on it being a single, evening-length work performed in the concert hall. Bach’s plan was for each of the six parts to be performed on a particular day between Christmas and Epiphany. The day after Christmas was reserved for the gentlest side of the Christmas story.


And the sound he starts with isn’t only gentle on the ears, it’s meaningful as well, with four oboes and a warm string section in a graceful, lilting rhythm. It all points to that familiar scene of shepherds in the field, whose moonlit evening is interrupted by angels.

The tenor soloist, whose role of the Evangelist is the narrator for the entire cycle of the oratorio, sings words from the Gospel of Luke, joined by the soprano soloist in the voice of the angel.

The bass soloist frames the event of Jesus's birth as a promise kept by God, and after another moment from Luke with the Evangelist, the chorus sings the chorale tune of Vom himmel hoch with the words, “Look there … Where once an ox searched for food, now the Child of the Virgin rests.”


The soprano responds with one of the loveliest, and most soothing lullabies in all of Bach’s music, followed again by the Evangelist and a short chorus of praise from the Angels.

The piece ends by returning to Vom himmel hoch. But now Bach plays with the chorale, adding the oboes from the beginning of the piece and setting it all at a higher pitch to reflect the radiance and transcendence of the angels


It’s a complete contrast with the earlier, simple setting that reflected a humble, earthly manger, where the newly human Jesus occupied the place where the ox ate its food.

If you’d like to see the words that go with this music, you can find a translation from Emmanuel Music by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Part 2 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 second of the six cantatas that make up J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in a concert performance recorded at the Musikverein in Vienna. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna, with soprano soloist Christine Schäfer, alto Bernarda Fink, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Gerald Finley.

Those Canonic Variations on Vom himmel hoch you heard earlier inspired another composer just a little over 200 years after Bach wrote them. In 1955, Igor Stravinsky applied his own sense of orchestral and choral texture to the set. Here is a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.


Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom himmel hoch. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

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.