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The Sound of Light, in Part 5 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Nikolaikirche Leipzig ceiling
Tine van Voorst
Nikolaikirche Leipzig ceiling

On The Bach Hour, the fifth of the composer's six-part narrative for the season reveals a fearsome terror and the calm radiance that counters that threat.

On the program:

Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541 - Hans Fagius, organ (Nils-Olof Berg organ of the Mission Church Uppsala, Sweden)

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

Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068 - Ensemble Sonnerie, Monica Huggett, director

Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her BWV 606 (trans. Max Reger) - Markus Becker, piano



What is the sound of light?


Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. These rays of musical light, bouncing off each other in all directions to fill that darkness, were written by J.S. Bach to begin Part Five of his Christmas Oratorio, and its brilliance 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 six parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio tell a story, something that comes to us in the form of events and actions. But the story is also told through symbolism, deepening the experience of those events. Part Five of the oratorio has a unique blend of symbolism and action, and you can find the words Bach set in that piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org. That’s where you’ll find a translation from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, as well as the opportunity to hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Part Five of the Christmas Oratorio is infused not just with light, reflecting a sense of excitement and joy. But Bach didn’t need a story to generate excitement and joy. Here’s a piece that pulls it off using just the raw building block of music itself, one that Bach wrote roughly two and half decades before the Christmas Oratorio. This is organist Hans Fagius with a Prelude and Fugue in G major.


That’s the Prelude and Fugue in G major by Bach, with organist Hans Fagius. He was performing on the 1985 Nils-Olof Bergman instrument at the Mission Church in Uppsala, Sweden.

Around 25 years after Bach wrote that Prelude and Fugue he fashioned his Christmas Oratorio, telling the story of Christ’s birth in six chapters, meant to be performed on six specific days of the Christmas season. In the first four of those chapters, the story moves through the birth of Jesus, the angels and shepherds arriving at the manger, and the naming of Jesus. For the fifth chapter, Bach takes on two parts of the story: the frightful actions of King Herod, and the symbolism of light piercing the darkness.

The opening chorus embodies that light through a syncopated rhythm that generates excitement and anticipation without the use of the trumpets and drums of the earlier cantatas in the series.


Then the Evangelist steps in to tell us about three sages, or wise men, who come looking for Jesus. The chorus gives voice to those sages, asking, "Where is the new born King of the Jews?"

The alto soloist answers, not pointing to a physical place, like the manger in Bethlehem, but rather directing the focus inwardly, saying, "Seek Him within my breast, He lives here, to His and my delight!" The birth of Jesus, then, is both a physical and an inner, spiritual reality. That’s reinforced by the chorus, returning to the symbolism of light with the words, "Your radiance destroys all darkness, the troubled night is transfigured with light."

Later, the Evangelist brings in the fearsome side of the story, describing the desperation of King Herod upon hearing about a newborn King of the Jews.

The action that Herod takes – the massacre of the innocents – is not depicted by Bach, but he didn't need to. His audience would have known the next part of the story: that Herod ordered all the newborn boys in Bethlehem to be killed, in an attempt to snuff out the life of Jesus. And by dispensing with the actual events, Bach is free to express what all of it means in personal terms. The terror that would have been going through the minds of Mary and Joseph comes to us in a trio for the soprano, alto, and tenor soloists. According to the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music, we might hear this trio as the voices of, first, Mary and Joseph, singing, "when will the time appear; when will the comfort come," and then of Jesus himself, who sings, "Hush, he's already here!" Other interpreters hear the first two voices as anonymous believers, with Mary being the one who answers. Either way, the insistence of the answer in trying to calm the anxiety is what’s important, which you can hear in the word "Schweigt."


A recitative confirms the comfort that Jesus brings to the world, and the final chorale compares the believer’s heart to a “dark pit,” which “beams of grace [fill with] sunshine.”

You can see those words for yourself in a translation from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Part Five 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.


The Part Five from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in a performance recorded in concert 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.

The origins of Bach’s Orchestral Suites are somewhat mysterious. He may have written them during his years at the royal court in Anhalt-Cöthen, when his focus was directed almost exclusively towards instrumental music, rather than the sacred works that would form the foundation of his later work in Leipzig. And using that time period as a starting point, Monica Huggett constructed an edition of the suites that takes into account the instruments that would have been available to Bach. The result is a lighter, more intimate sound, which you can hear as Monica Huggett directs Ensemble Sonnerie in Bach’s Orchestral Suite Number Three.


That’s Ensemble Sonnerie, in a performance of Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite. Monica Huggett was the director, and she also constructed this edition, one based on the instrumentation Bach had at his disposal early in his career.

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.