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 Gardiner.

After three recitatives and an aria detailing and commenting on the shepherds’ experience as the birth of Jesus was announced to them, another chorale is sung to the tune we know in our Hymnal as FROM HEAVEN HIGH, which we sang on Christmas Eve as the hymn “From heaven high I come to you.” This tune is better known by its German name, VON HIMMEL HOCH, but (as I’ve mentioned before) when the 1940 Hymnal was being compiled, there was some skittishness about German things, and many tune names then Anglicized have since been restored to their native tongue.

In this VON HIMMEL HOCH chorale, the choir addresses the shepherds (and us): “Look, there lies in the dark stable one who has dominion over all! Where once an ox sought food now rests the Virgin’s child.”

Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Ton Koopman

The longest movement in Part 2 of the Oratorio is the lovely alto aria, a lullaby, Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh (“Sleep, my dearest, enjoy your rest”). In it Bach’s ability to express emotional tenderness without slipping into sentimentality is on full display.

Anne Sofie von Otter, soprano; English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

After a tenor recitative announcing the sudden appearance of angels, we hear the most musically intricate movement of this day’s dose of the Oratorio, as the full chorus sings the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth and goodwill towards men.”

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists directed by John Eliot Gardiner

In the final chorale we hear the return of VON HIMMEL HOCH, embellished this time with the triple meter and the pastoral woodwinds we heard in the opening Sinfonia. The text: “We sing to thee amid thy host with all our might: ‘Praise, honor and glory,’ that thou, O long desired guest, hast now appeared.”

The Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists directed by John Eliot Gardiner

I’ve omitted commentary on many of the recitatives and arias. The entire text may be found here, and below is a complete performance of Part 2 of J. S. Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium, prepared to be performed on December 26th, the second day of Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day. The New London Consort is conducted by Philip Pickett. The soloists are Catherine Bott, soprano; Julia Gooding, soprano (Angel); Michael Chance, countertenor; Paul Agnew, tenor (Evangelist); Andrew King, tenor; and Michael George, bass.