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The Power of a Name in Part 4 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Thomaskirche Leipzig balcony
Tine van Voorst
Thomaskirche Leipzig balcony

On The Bach Hour, the simple act of naming unlocks a transformation in the fourth of the composer's six-part narrative for the season.

On the program:

Aria Variata 'alla Maniera Italiana' BWV 989 - Angela Hewitt, piano

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Part IV (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 in D minor, BWV 1059 - Erik Bosgraaf, recorder;  Ensemble Cordevento



As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name?” Well, sometimes, quite a lot, really. If you think about it, it’s only with the act of naming that we begin to fully know something – or someone.


J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is made up of six parts. And when we arrive at the fourth of those parts, a baby has been born, angels have arrived in the fields to tell the shepherds the news, and those shepherds have spirited off to Bethlehem to see for themselves. Part Four 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. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio walks us through the story of Jesus’s birth, reflecting in musical form the most crucial, pivotal moments of that story. And to experience those moments even more fully, you can find the words for Part Four of the Christmas Oratorio, provided by Boston’s Emmanuel Music, at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

This time of year is when we think of giving gifts to our friends and loved ones. In Bach’s family, one of the greatest gifts you could receive was a book of music, something that ran deeply through the identity of the extended Bach family. And the assembly and giving of a notebook filled with short keyboard and vocal pieces by various composers was one of the ways the family told its younger members who they were.

Here is a piece included in the notebook given to Johann Sebastian’s nephew, Andreas. This is the Aria Variata ‘alla Maniera Italiana,’ an Aria and Variations in the Italian Manner, with pianist Angela Hewitt.

[MUSIC – BWV 989]

The Aria and Variations in the Italian Manner was mostly likely written by J.S. Bach when he was in his mid-twenties. It eventually found its way into a collection assembled by Bach’s oldest brother, Johann Christoph, for his son Andreas. And as an aria with several variations on its harmonic progression, you might think of it as something of a prototype for Bach’s later work of genius, the Goldberg Variations. Angela Hewitt was the pianist in this performance of Bach’s Aria Variata ‘alla Maniera Italiana.’

No matter what your faith, when you think of the Christmas story, particular scenes and images inevitably come to mind. The manger of course. Angels and shepherds in a pasture. And of course, three gentlemen on camels looking at a star in the night time sky.

One part of the story that just doesn’t get the same attention in our day is the part commemorated New Year’s Day. Blame post-Christmas Day travel. Or football games. Or maybe New Year’s Eve. Whatever it is, New Year’s Day in our time isn’t when we tend to gravitate towards more of the Christmas story.

But it was for that day that Bach wrote one of the most intimate parts of his Christmas Oratorio. After the action of the first three parts, when Jesus is born, angels appear to the shepherds, and the shepherds visit the newborn baby, Part Four tells the story of the naming of Jesus. And Bach, ever the inventive musical storyteller, leaves behind the exhilarating trumpet and drums of Parts One and Three, as well as the rustic oboes of Part Two. Instead, he starts Part Four with a warm texture of strings and horns, accompanying a graceful chorus.


It’s a signal that we’re doing something different in this part. Not so much moving the action along or painting a specific scene in the story, but rather sketching a more internal landscape for the believer.

The Evangelist drops in for his one and only statement in this part, simply to say that, eight days after he was born, the baby was circumcised and named Jesus. The rest of the cantata is a multi-dimensional response to that event from believers, both individually and in community.

The most striking of these responses comes from the soprano soloist, who sings an echo aria, representing a dialogue between the Soul of an individual believer and the Divine.


The believer asks if she should rejoice, and the Divine responds, “Yes!”

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 Four of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with soprano Christine Schäfer, alto Bernarda Fink, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Christian Gerhaher. 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 248-4]

The fourth 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 Christian Gerhaher.

Bach assembled the Christmas Oratorio by re-writing movements from early cantatas he had written for birthdays and coronations of royalty. In that same spirit of re-casting, here is the Dutch recorder virtuoso Erik Bosgraaf, with a concerto re-constructed from parts of Bach’s Cantatas 32 and 156.

[MUSIC – BWV 1059]

In yet another one of those musical mysteries, J.S. Bach wrote the first 9 measures of the piece you just heard as a concerto for harpsichord. But while that’s all we have of that piece, Bach used the same music for a cantata movement. It’s given scholars just enough to go on in re-constructing this concerto in D minor, performed here by recorder virtuoso Erik Bosgraaf and his Ensemble Cordevento.

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.