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The Intimacy of the Miraculous in Part 3 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Nikolaikirche Leipzig ceiling
Tine van Voorst
Nikolaikirche Leipzig ceiling

On the Bach Hour, the unprecedented, world-changing events of the Christmas story are filtered through one central character in the third of the composer's six-part narrative for the season.

On the program:

Piece d'Orgue, BWV 572 - Wolfgang Rübsam, organ (Metzler organ at St. Michael's Church in Eutin, Germany)

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Part III (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

Partita No. 1 in B-flat, BWV 825 - András Schiff, piano



The Christmas story is one of dramatic and miraculous events. And it’s also a story about people, and human nature. The third part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio starts, as you can hear, with utter joy. But it also takes us into the soul of one of the central characters of the story, illuminating , through the brilliance of the music, the power of those events for a believer.


Part 3 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.

The Christmas Oratorio, made up of six separate cantatas, is one of Bach’s most remarkable creations. Each of the six was intended for a particular day in the Christmas season, telling the story of Jesus’s birth and the days immediately following in musical chapters. The chapter designated for the second day after Christmas takes us inside the experience of Mary, Jesus’s mother.

To see the words Bach set to music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

The Christmas Oratorio comes from the prime of Bach’s life. He was well past the years of challenging himself by writing a new individual cantata for each week of the year. Those challenges had shifted to a larger canvass as he built a body of work consisting of the most brilliant and lasting music he could create.

That need to challenge himself, though, began much earlier, as he learned the craft of composition, both through studying his predecessors, and by trying out his own experiments. Here is something from the second category. This is organist Wolfgang Rübsam, with Bach’s Pièce d’Orgue in G major.

[MUSIC – BWV 572]

The Pièce d’Orgue by Bach is sometimes called the Fantasy in G major. Its origins are mysterious. It seems clear that Bach wrote it during his 20’s, but beyond that, we don't know much. Whatever its story, and whatever we choose to call it, it’s unique among Bach’s organ compositions. It also gives us a picture of the very highly skilled composer and performer trying out new ideas and techniques. Wolfgang Rübsam was the organist in this performance, on the 1987 Metzler instrument at St. Michael’s Church in Eutin [OY-teen], Germany.

Unlike the piece we just heard, the building blocks of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio aren’t unique at all. They come from a series of earlier secular cantatas. It wasn’t the only time Bach crossed that divide between the secular and the sacred. In fact, Bach didn’t consider it a “divide” at all. For him, there really was no meaningful separation between the secular and the sacred.

After the pastoral quiet of Part Two of the oratorio, Part Three brings back the trumpets and drums that began the series on Christmas morning, punching out a triplet-based rhythm that praises the divine for the birth of Jesus.


The Evangelist takes up his role as narrator of the story, picking up where we left off in Part 2 by introducing the shepherds who’ve just heard the news about the birth of Jesus. The chorus plays out the words of those shepherds, who, as the story goes, decide to make their way to Bethlehem to see for themselves what’s happened.

Bach then fills in the scene with songs of praise for the bass soloist, the chorus, and a soprano – bass duet.

Then the Evangelist describes the arrival of the shepherds and their description of the angels, ending with the words, “Mary, however, kept all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

What follows is one of the most intimate parts of the oratorio, as the alto gives voice to Mary’s thoughts. She’s accompanied by a solo violin, weaving its way around the words, “Enclose, my heart, these blessed miracles fast within your faith!”


And if you hear a tinge of sadness in the music, it’s a reflection of the words, “Let these wonders … forever be the reinforcement of your weak faith!” The thoughts are, on the surface, those of Mary, but they’re also meant to be those of a believer, always hoping to bolster an inherently weak faith.

A comforting chorale follows, and the Evangelist describes the departure of the Shepherds. Part Three concludes with a return of that extroverted, joyful opening chorus.

You can see all of the words Bach set to music at our website, Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll find a translation from Boston’s Emmanuel Music.

Here is Part 3 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.

[MUSIC – BWV 248-3]

Part Three of 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.

Pianist Andras Schiff has been known for many years as one of the most elegant of Bach performers. He recorded the Partita No. 1 in 1983, but he felt compelled to revisit the work after his experiences conducting the St. Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass, which shed new light on keyboard work. As he wrote, “We try our entire lives to unveil the secrets of great music and to convey its unique message. Even if we never quite meet the imaginary goal, our many performances give us experience and knowledge that was hidden from us years ago … Horizons broaden before our eyes.”

Here is Andras Schiff with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat.

[MUSIC – BWV 825]

The Partita No. 1 in B-flat by Bach, in a 2007 performance by pianist Andras Schiff.

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.