Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Radiant Hope of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Part 6

altar piece from Paulinerkirche at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig
altar piece from Paulinerkirche at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

On The Bach Hour, in the final chapter of the composer's narrative for the season, a clever deception heads off a potential disaster, laying the groundwork for a promising future.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048 - American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Preludes and Fugues from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier:  No. 1 in C major, BWV 846;  No. 2 in C minor, BWV 847;  No. 7 in E-flat major, BWV 852;  No.21 in B-flat major, BWV 866 - Andras Schiff, piano

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Part VI (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


The culmination of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio begins with all the joy and brilliance you could hope for.


But a funny thing happened on the way to the manger. Just ask the Three Wise Men.


The magic of Christmas runs into the danger and cruelty of earthly life.


It all happens through the music of Part Six of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and it’s 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 first five chapters of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio tell the story of the birth of Jesus through depictions of angels and shepherds, as well as the symbolism of light entering a dark world.

In the sixth and final chapter, that darkness rears its head. But it leads to a transformation, as only Bach can depict it. You’ll hear how he does it later in the hour. In the meantime, you can find the words Bach set to music 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.

Before we get to the Christmas Oratorio, here is a piece that - even though it has no explicit sacred reference - captures the joy of the season. This is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, performed by the American Bach Soloists and their music director, Jeffrey Thomas, here on The Bach Hour.


That’s the American Bach Soloists, directed by Jeffrey Thomas, with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

I’m Brian McCreath, and this is The Bach Hour, from WCRB in Boston. Pianist Andras Schiff has for decades been one of the most thoughtful - and lyrical - interpreters of Bach’s keyboard music. In the program notes for Schiff’s 2012 recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Paul Griffiths writes that “Prelude and fugue are gate and path … Gate, because a prelude generally has a consistency of substance … so that there is a sense of … watching one object in changing light. Path, because in a fugue we follow the subject as it travels from one voice to another … from clarity to entrammelment to renewed and reinforced clarity.”

Here is Andras Schiff with the Preludes and Fugues in C major, C minor, E-flat major, and B-flat major, from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier.


That sense of lyricism that infuses the Bach interpretations of pianist Andras Schiff is unlike any other pianist. And it’s especially remarkable when you find that he doesn’t use the pedals on the piano pedals at all. These selections from Book One of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are part of Andras Schiff’s 2012 recording of of that collection and included the Preludes and Fugues in C major, C minor, E-flat major, and B-flat major.

On Jan. 6th, 1735, Bach unveiled Part Six of his Christmas Oratorio in celebration of Epiphany, the day that commemorates the visitation of the Three Wise Men in the Christmas narrative.

Exuberance and confidence dominate the opening chorus, but then the Evangelist tells of King Herod’s attempted manipulation of the Three Wise Men. As the story goes, Herod tells them to report back on the whereabouts of Jesus so he can pay tribute as well. Of course, he’s lying.

The Wise Men move on, following the star to find Jesus, and they present their gifts to him. The chorus mirrors the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with an offering of the community’s “spirit and mind, heart [and] soul.”


When the Wise Men leave Bethlehem, they take a different route on their way back to the East. It’s a change of direction that defeats Herod’s plot, but one that also symbolizes the permanent change that’s taken place in the heart of the believer.

The tenor soloist embodies that change, transforming from Evangelist to individual believer. He’s joined by the other soloists for a short group recitative that starts as a set of individuals, but gradually comes together to form a unified group, leading to the final chorale.

It adds up to a progression: The Evangelist quotes the Gospel of Matthew for the narrative, offers the prayers of an individual, is joined by a gathering of several individuals, and eventually by the community of believers.

You can see that progression in words when you visit us online, where you’ll find a translation from Boston’s Emmanuel Music. That’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Part Six 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.


As the sixth and final part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio ends, the chorus sings an exuberant setting of what’s known as the Passion Chorale. It’s Bach’s way of celebrating the birth of Jesus, even while evoking the pre-ordained suffering and death of Christ. This concert performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was recorded at the Musikverein in Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, and Concentus Musicus of Vienna, along with soprano Christine Schäfer, alto Bernarda Fink, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Christian Gerhaher. The conductor was Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

It was in 2015 that Nikolaus Harnoncourt announced his retirement from the stage. Aside from being something of a godfather to just about every conductor working in the field of historically informed performance, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is, in a particular way, responsible for The Bach Hour. It was the Bach cantata recording series he and Gustav Leonhardt undertook in the early 1970’s that sparked the imagination of Robert J. Lurtsema at WGBH. Cantatas from that series became a fixture on the radio in Boston every Sunday morning, which led, eventually, to the creation of The Bach Hour when WCRB became a WGBH station.

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.