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The Spirit of the Season, in Bach's Musical Etching

Czech metal Christmas decoration in the shape of a bell within a star, hanging on evergreen branches
Honza Groh
Wikimedia Commons
Czech Christmas decoration

On The Bach Hour, Philippe Herreweghe conducts the composer's Cantata No. 63, "Christians, etch this day in metal and marble," written for Christmas Day.

On the program:

English Suite No. 4 in F, BWV 809 - Angela Hewitt, piano

Cantata BWV 63 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (translation) - Carolyn Sampson, soprano;  Ingeborg Danz, alto;  Mark Padmore, tenor,;  Sebastien Noack, bass;  Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Chorale preludes: Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605, and Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, BWV 607 - Simon Preston, organ (Klosterkirke, Soro)



Brian McCreath (BM): The explosion of sound that opens J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 63 is impressive in any setting. But now imagine the impact of this sound early on a cold Sunday morning after four weeks of hearing almost no music …

After the quiet and meditative weeks of Advent, this music captures the joy and celebration of Christmas through the flash of trumpets and drums, but also through a gentle sincerity of expression. Bach’s Cantata 63 is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath, and welcome to The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. J.S. Bach wrote many, many works to celebrate the Christmas season, among them pieces that are still performed on a regular basis, like the multi-part Christmas Oratorio and the Magnificat. There are many more that we don’t encounter as often, though, including the Cantata No. 63. It’s coming up in just a bit, and you can find a translation of the text for that piece at our web site Classical WCRB dot org.

The modern piano was still many decades in the future when Bach was writing his works for solo keyboard, which were conceived with the sound of the harpsichord in the composer’s ear. But he did live long enough to experiment with the first iterations of the fort-piano. We’ll never know what Bach would have done with the instruments of our day, but we do have an amazing variety of interpreters performing his music. Here is one of the most distinctive. This is pianist Angela Hewitt with the fourth in a series of piano works we now know as Bach’s English Suites.


BM: A combination of clarity and lyricism defines Angela Hewitt’s interpretations of Bach’s music, and it’s made her one of today’s most popular performers of Bach’s music. You heard her play the English Suite No. 4, one of a set of works that come from pretty early on in Bach’s career when he worked for the royal court in Weimar.

The major church festivals of the year always brought out the best in Bach’s genius. Christmas, with its series of feast days, offered the composer especially rich opportunities.

What we know as the Cantata No. 63 is where Bach began exploring some of those opportunities as a young composer in Weimar. The words Bach set to music were written by a poet named Salomo Franck, who also happened to be the head of the mint in Weimar. That probably has a lot to do with the opening text of the cantata: “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble!”

Musically, the opening chorus is a brilliant outburst, with three oboes, four trumpets, and drums, along with a string ensemble, expressing a communal feeling of joy.

Immediately, though, Bach turns to a more personal perspective through a recitative for the alto soloist and a duet for the soprano and bass soloists that ponders the mystery of a transformative experience through the words, “God, you have well accomplished what has now happened to us.”


BM: Then another duet, this time for the alto and tenor soloists, celebrates that transformative experience through the words “come to dance, you should rejoice over this which God has done today”:


BM: An interjection from the bass soloist inspires the audience to, as the text says, “Climb joyfully heavenwards and thank God for this, that He has done!” before an elaborate closing chorus that brings the Christmas experience back to the community level.

Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 63, Christen ätzet diesen Tag, or “Christians, etch this day,” with soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooy. Philippe Herreweghe conducts Collegium Vocale of Ghent, here on The Bach Hour..


BM: J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 63, Christen ätzet diesen Tag, or “Christians, etch this day,” was first performed in 1714, but if you could dial up a date in the time machine and choose one day to hear it, you decide on Leipzig, Christmas Day, 1723. That’s when Bach and his musicians performed this piece in the 7am service at St. Thomas Church, then again at 9am at St. Paul’s, the University Church, and once again at 1:30 in the afternoon at St. Nicholas Church, during the same service when the composer’s setting of Magnificat was heard for the first time.

This performance of the Cantata No. 63 was given by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists included soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooy.

We have just a bit of time for more music of the season by Bach. Here are three chorale preludes, including Puer natus in Bethlehem, or “A child is born in Bethlehem,” Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, or “From heaven came the host of angels,” and In dulci jubilo, a tune we know as “Good Christian men rejoice,” with organist Simon Preston.


BM: Organist Simon Preston, with three preludes on Christmas chorales by Bach. You heard preludes on Puer natus in Bethlehem, Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, and In dulci jubilo.

Remember, you can hear this program and others on-demand at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll also find many more resources to explore and learn about Bach and his music. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

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, on The Bach Hour.