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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 6

    The first line sung in the opening chorus of Part 6 reminds us that the character of Christmas is far from that of a Hallmark greeting card. “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” can be translated “Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort with rage.” In his book, Bach’s Oratorios, which includes a complete English translation of the texts to all of Bach’s oratorios and Passions, Michael Marissen comments in a footnote about the adjective stolzen: While Stolz primarily means “proud” in a more dignified sense, it is also an archaic synonym for übermutig, in the sense of “insolent” or “cocky.” In this way the word Stolz has the same double…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 5

    The fifth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written to be sung on the Sunday following New Year’s Day. It opens with a rousing chorus: Let honour to you, God, be sungFor you let praise and thanks be prepared.All the world exalts youBecause our welfare is pleasing to you,Because todayAll our wishes have been achieved,Because your blessing delights us so gloriously. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists,John Eliot Gardiner, director A tenor soloist (Evangelist) then sings a recitative with the biblical account of the arrival of the Magi: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the land of the Jews at the time of King Herod, see, there…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 4

    The Church’s year began on the first Sunday in Advent. On the first day of January, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, as well as the beginning of a new “secular” year. The Collect for this day explains some of the theological significance of the Circumcision: Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. In…

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    Georg Philipp Telemann
    Der Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem
    “The Shepherds at the Crib of Bethlehem”

    Perhaps because Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel were his contemporaries, Telemann’s Christmas music is pretty much neglected. So almost no one knows this remarkable Christmas oratorio. Composed in 1759, Telemann’s music presents a libretto by poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-1798). To an extent uncommon in Christmas texts set to music, Der Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem stresses the eschatological fulfillment promised by the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph aren’t mentioned, nor are the usual trappings of conventional manger tableaux. Rather — using imagery from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation which promises the redemption and transformation of the whole earth when…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 3

    Many of the arias, recitatives, and choruses in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are reworkings of movements from two earlier cantatas which Bach composed for civic commemorations. The conventional term for such re-purposing is “parody,” although the word doesn’t suggest sarcasm or lampooning, simply imitation, and often for the best of intentions. The opening chorus of Part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio, written for performance on December 27th, the third Day of Christmas, is one of the most dramatic instances of such parody. The music is lifted from Cantata #214, which Bach composed to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony. The text for the opening…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 2

    The second part of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium focuses on the experience of the shepherds in the Nativity story, so it is fitting that it opens with an instrumental Sinfonia that is decidedly “pastoral,” with its three-quarter time and prominent woodwind parts. That instrumental introduction is followed by a tenor recitative about shepherds and flocks-by-night and a frightening angel with shining glory. The following movement is the chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht, which we sing as the hymn “Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly Light.” Below are images from Bach’s handwritten score for this chorale, as it is performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 1

    Although it is a single work in six related parts, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio could be regarded as a compilation of six separate cantatas. Recognizing the fact that Christmas is not a day, but a twelve-day season, the scheme of the Oratorio appoints Part 1 to be sung on Christmas Day, Part 2 on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th), Part 3 on St. John’s Day (December 27th), Part 4 on the 1st of January to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision (coinciding with New Year), Part 5 sung on the first Sunday after New Year, and Part 6 on January 6 for the Feast of Epiphany. Officially designated Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248, the…

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    Christmas with Ralph Vaughan Williams

    The choral repertoire of Christmas music owes a debt to Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). In our own parish, we often sing “O little town of Bethlehem” to the tune FOREST GREEN, one of many folk tunes that Vaughan Williams adapted for use in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal (read the whole story of that project here). Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford; Owen Rees, conductor In 1912, after Vaughan Williams had completed a period of research for the Folk-Song Society and the editing of The English Hymnal, he composed his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a work for baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra. His engagement with traditional tunes and…

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    Marc-Antoine Charpentier
    Messe de Minuit

    Composed in 1694, the Midnight Mass for Christmas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704) includes tunes from eleven French carols. Conductor John Bawden explains: In England carols were more often sung than played, but in France noëls figured prominently in the substantial French organ repertoire. The liturgy of Midnight Mass permitted the singing and playing of these Christmas folksongs, and by Charpentier’s time quite complex instrumental arrangements were commonplace. However, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole mass on these songs was completely original. Altogether there are eleven noëls, most of which are dance-like in character, reflecting the carol’s secular origins. In addition to the carol melodies that he adapted to fit various parts of the…

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    Arvo Pärt
    Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen (1988)

    For the past week, I’ve been parcelling out the pieces of a work that should be experienced whole, although in performance and on recordings, some of the movements of Arvo Pärt’s Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen are sometimes extracted and presented without the full context. Before Christmas arrives, I thought I should make easily available on these pages a performance of the entire work. From the Arvo Pärt Centre’s website, here is the “official” summary of the work: Arvo Pärt has assembled these prayers into one comprehensive concert piece based on the German text of the antiphons. The work is composed in rigorous tintinnabulistyle, but each part has its own complete form and…