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Bach's Easter Oratorio

Matthew Halls
Stephen Page
Matthew Halls

On the program:

Preludes and Fugues from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier:  No. 10 in E minor, BWV 879, and No. 15 in G major, BWV 884 - Angela Hewitt, piano

Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 (translation) - Carolyn Sampson, soprano;  Iestyn Davies, countertenor;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Retrospect Ensemble, Matthew Halls, conductor


It’s hard to imagine music that paints a brighter picture than this, with trumpets, drums, and an addictive dance rhythm…


This is an invitation to see the world in a new way. For J.S. Bach, Easter morning is both a resolution to the heart-wrenching experience of Holy Week and a springboard into the coming months.


The Easter Oratorio is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath.  Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston.  It was in 1724 that Bach wrote the first version of the St. John Passion for Good Friday services in Leipzig.  And in the following year, when a revised version of that narrative of Jesus’s execution was performed again, Bach followed it two days later, on Easter Sunday, with a work that told the next part of the story.  It was what later became the Easter Oratorio, and if you’d like to see a translation of that piece, just head to our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

One of the most compelling interpreters of Bach’s keyboard music these days is Angela Hewitt.  Her approach is one rooted in clarity, but with a sense of lyricism that I think is uncommon in this music.  Here is pianist Angela Hewitt with the Preludes and Fugues in E minor and G major, from Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

[MUSIC – BWV 879 & BWV 884]

That’s pianist Angela Hewitt, with the Preludes and Fugues in E minor and G major from Book Two of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Coming up, the brilliance of Easter morning comes to us through Bach’s music.

You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB, online at Classical WCRB dot org.


Welcome back to The Bach Hour;  I’m Brian McCreath.

For Easter Sunday in 1725, Bach went to his files, found a terrifically brilliant, celebratory cantata he wrote for a Duke’s birthday about a month before, and fashioned an Easter cantata.  Several years later, he re-named it the Easter Oratorio and continued refining it over the years, even up to the year before his death.

It opens with a festive movement featuring trumpets and drums, piercing the dark mood of the end of Holy Week to signify the resurrection of Jesus.  The instrumentalists eventually move into a pensive and thoughtful tone, reflective of the mood of Jesus’s followers in the hours and days after his crucifixion.

The trumpets and drums return to begin telling the story of the discovery of Jesus’s resurrection with four vocal soloists, each of whom are assigned to particular characters. The soprano sings the role of Mary Jacobi, with the alto as Mary Magdalene, the tenor as Peter, and the bass as John. 

The four characters begin with a recitative lamenting the loss of Jesus, followed by a lonely aria of longing for the soprano. 

Peter and John then arrive to find Jesus’s grave empty, and Mary Magdalene explains that an angel has told her of Jesus’s resurrection.

That brings us to the emotional centerpiece of the oratorio:  an aria for the tenor that goes right to the heart of what the resurrection means for an individual believer.  The words translate as, “Gentle shall my death-throes be, only a slumber, Jesus, because of your shroud.”  Peter, with a fragment of Jesus’s garment as evidence of resurrection, realizes that his own death will be nothing more than a slumber, the fragment symbolically refreshing by away tears of pain.


That embrace of the afterlife as unification with the divine leads to another aria of searching from the alto, but now in an optimistic, hopeful tone, followed by a recitative and chorus, bringing the celebration back into the community voice.

Remember, a translation of the text of this piece is available at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

This performance of Bach’s Easter Oratorio features soprano soloist Carolyn Sampson, alto Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.  They’re joined by the Retrospect Ensemble, all conducted by Matthew Halls.

[MUSIC - BWV 249]

The Easter Oratorio, by Johann Sebastian Bach, in a performance by the Retrospect Ensemble and conductor Matthew Halls.  The soloists included soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

Remember, you can hear this program again at our web site, 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 here on The Bach Hour.