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 chorus of that “secular” cantata is as follows:

Sound, you drums! Ring out, you trumpets!
Resonant strings, fill the air!
Sing your songs now, you lively poets,
Long live the queen! this is our joyful shout.
Long live the queen! This is the wish of Saxony,
Long live the queen and may she flourish and prosper!

And here are the words sung to the same music (including the same prominent drums and trumpets) in the opening of Part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio:

Ruler of heaven, hear our inarticulate speech,
let our faint songs please you,
when your Zion exalts you with psalms!
Hear the exultant praise of our hearts,
as we show our reverence for you
since our welfare is made sure!

Here is what that opening chorus to Part 3 — Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen — sounds like:

Gaechinger Cantorey, conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, from a concert at St. John’s Church, Stuttgart, on December 2, 2016

Some people are made uncomfortable with Bach’s recycling music from this “secular” cantata for use in a sacred context. But we need to remember that our modern idea of the “secular” was not entrenched in the mind or Bach or his contemporaries. A secular event was a civic event, but not a God-free event, understandable in purely naturalistic terms.

Conductor and musicologist John Butt offers this comment on Bach’s recycling tactic:

Lest it may be thought that Bach was lazy or even sacrilegious in converting music originally conceived for earthly royalty to sacred purposes, it should be remembered that royalty was still often accorded a God-given authority in Bach’s age: it was seen as being a major part of the hierarchical system of authority in which God functioned as the apex. In other words, Bach’s belief in the divine right of monarchs was probably of a piece with his belief and trust in God. Indeed, when many sought to challenge the absolute authority of the monarch in Bach’s environment, Bach very clearly sided with the royalist party, his faithfulness to the royal office even overriding the fact that the electors of Saxony in his time were Catholic and not Lutheran. The three surviving secular models for the Christmas Oratorio celebrate royal birthdays or newly acquired royal authority, so Bach doubtless saw a direct analogy with the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

One of the highlights of Part 3 is a soprano/bass duet, Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen. This duet is also a parody, this time taken from Cantata #213, originally written to celebrate the 11th birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony. In that birthday cantata, there is a love duet between Hercules (superheroes are always popular with 11-year-olds) and Virtue (not always popular). The text is relatively uninspired, and may have embarrassed the boy: “I am yours. You are mine. Kiss me. I kiss you. As those betrothed are united, as the delight that they feel, faithful and tender and enthusiastic, so am I.”

The revised text is about God’s love and mercy, and the music is also considerably revised. While in the birthday cantata this was a duet for alto and tenor, in the Christmas Oratorio, the music is sung by soprano and bass, which (along with some other modifications made in the instrumental parts) changes the texture of the piece very pleasantly. Here it is sung by soprano Barbara Schlick and bass Peter Kooy, with Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent. The text is below the video.

Lord, your compassion, your mercy
console us and make us free.
Your gracious favour and love,
your wondrous desires
make the love you have for us as a father
again new.

The other longer movement in Part 3 is an alto aria, Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder, “Enclose, my heart, this blessed wonder.” This is one of the few movements that composed just for the occasion of the Christmas Oratorio, and it has an evocative devotional tenderness reminiscent of some of the arias in Bach’s Passions. It is sung following a recitative that narrates the account of the shepherds coming to find Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

Enclose, my heart, this blessed wonder
firmly in your faith!
Let this wonder, this work of God,
always serve to strengthen
your weak faith!

Catherine Wyn-Rogers, alto, with the Orchestra of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers

Here is a complete performance of Part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio, performed by the choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (where Bach served as choirmaster) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Georg Christoph Biller. The soloists are: Johannette Zomer, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, alto; Werner Güra, tenor (Evangelist); Martin Petzold, tenor; and Klaus Häger, bass. The text can be found here.