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 Messiah comes — Ramler’s libretto merges the adoration of the shepherds with the hope of generations of prophets.

Below the embedded performance, I’ve summarized the movements of the work and presented portions of the remarkable text.

The Michaelstein Chamber Choir & the Telemann Chamber Orchestra of Michaelstein, Ludger Rémy, conductor

Telemann’s opening chorale (to the tune IN DULCI JUBILO, to which we sing “Good Christian men, rejoice”) addresses the baby Jesus as the Prince of Glory, the one who redeems us from our crimes and sins.

Then (at 1:34) an alto/tenor duet describes the sleeping baby as “the child of the house of David.”

Here he sleeps on soft clover, on freshly mown meadow flowers of the God of shepherds. Yes, Yes, the God of shepherds! Soon we shall see it: milk flowing over all the meadows, where lambs go with their mothers. The cliffs stream with oil. Unplowed ground brings forth golden harvests. Honey flows from rolling pastures into the streams. Tabor and Hermon are covered with new flowers, and Carmel’s head is heavy with fruit. The donkey boy ties his foals to a grape tree and dips his robe’s seam in blood-dark wine.

A bass aria (at 3:53) calls the shepherds to respond to this epochal event in joyful song: “sound your flutes and stringed instruments!” Then another chorale (at 9:39) continues the injunction to music: “Finger the cithara strings and let the sweet music be heard in all its great joy.” The chorale melody is the tune to which during Advent we sang “How bright appears the Morning Star.”

An alto/bass duet follows (at 10:38), continuing the Old Testament imagery of cosmic transformation: “The lion lulls the little lamb in his claws. . . . The chariots are dashed to pieces, they are burned, the swords are beat into plowshares, the warrior’s lance takes root in the ground, rises up to the skies, and turns into the olive tree it was before: for Shiloh is their shepherd, and his staff is mild, and the girdle of his loins is peace.”

To conclude the first half of the oratorio, the alto and bass soloists are joined by the chorus (at 12:13) with a strong affirmation of the restorative significance of the birth of this baby: “Return, dear peace! Make creation what it was in Eden: it is weary of discord. Return, dear peace! Earth and heaven, be as you were before, a song, a choir, in the Most High’s ear.”

The second half of the work opens (15:49) with a chorale in which “All Christendom thanks him for such great goodness and begs him for mercy . . .”

Next, a brief bass accompagnato (an elaborate recitative, at 17:34) affirms that “Pestilence no longer lurks in the darkness . . . .” Then a tenor aria (at 19:16) addresses the sleeping child: “Most beautiful child of Judah’s seed, grow soon, that it may soon be a heaven this broad globe of the earth, your blessed land.”

A brief chorale follows (25:26): “We Christian people now have our joy, for God’s sin in human form has redeemed us. . . .” Then the alto and bass (26:30) offer another dramatic accompagnato, with a text unlike any other I know in the Christmas repertoire:

Oh, look! The child is awake, and divinity radiates from his eyes. Oh, what a God! He treads on Magog’s belly; blood sticks to his heel. They fall into the abyss, the spirits of the old night, and the abyss closes behind them. The world is pure; creation laughs. Eloah, the highest of the seraphim, has proclaimed to us in this midnight no mere son of earth but the firstborn Son of God. We lay shuddering on the ground, and then suddenly it was light. A whole host of transfigured sons of heaven stood in the air and sang.

This leads to the final chorus (29:24), with the angelic Gloria sung with fugues, trumpets, and timpani.

Creation laughs! The earth is a choir, a song in the Most High’s ear!