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 addition to the typological meaning of circumcision, there is also a historical concern: the man Jesus lived under the Law, as a good descendant of Abraham. This status established the continuity between Israel’s life and the Church’s.

In Bach’s Leipzig, January 1st was celebrated with great festivity. In his book, Listening to Bach, Daniel Melamed observes that “three of four of Bach’s cantatas for the occasion use trumpets and drums,” a sure mark of heightened celebration. “Part IV of the Christmas Oratorio, for this day, calls for horns but not drums, making it somewhat less festive but still marked by musical opulence. The first line of the text speaks of thanks and praise, in keeping with typical New Year’s observance.”

The opening chorus (from which Part 4 takes its name) is Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, “Bow with thanksgiving, bow with lauding.” As was the case with several movements from the first three parts of the Oratorio, this opening chorus is a “parody,” copied from the opening of Cantata #213, which (as mentioned earlier) was composed to celebrate the 11th birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony. The text of the Oratorio version of this chorus reflects a spirit of reverent celebration (rather than the frenzied kind). That quiet festivity is also heard in Bach’s restrained but happy music.

Bow with thanksgiving, bow with lauding
before the Most High’s throne of Grace!
The Son of God
Is willing to become
earth’s savior and redeemer;
The Son of God
dampens the enemies’ fury and rage.

This chorus is followed by a recitative that recounts the text from St. Luke 2:21 in which both the circumcision and the naming of Jesus are narrated: “his name was called Jesus, [the name he] was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb.”

Then a bass recitative, rehearsing the connotations of the name of Jesus.

Emmanuel, O sweet word!
My Jesus is my refuge,
My Jesus is my life,
My Jesus has given himself to me,
My Jesus shall constantly
Hover before my eyes,
My Jesus is my delight,
My Jesus refreshes heart and breast. . . .

As the bass recitative continues in the vein, a soprano soloist enters singing over the bass a chorale melody with an entirely different text:

Jesus, you who are my dearest life,
My soul’s bridegroom,
Who gave himself for me
On the bitter beam of the cross!

The bass soloist then continues to express the comfort brought by Jesus, closing the recitative with a confident affirmation:

My Jesus! When I die
Then I know that I shall not perish
Your name written within the
Has driven away the fear of death.

There follows one of the most moving and tender arias in the entire Oratorio. It is an “echo” aria, in which the soprano voice is echoed on the repeated words nein (no!) and ja (yes!) by an off-stage soprano, and by an on-stage oboe. The effect is captivating (this aria begins 8:40 into the performance below). Here is a translation of the text to the aria, which explains the logic of that echo:

Does your name instil, my saviour, does it instill
Even the tiniest seed
Of that fierce terror?
No, you yourself say “No” (No!).
Shall I now be afraid of death?
No, your sweet word is there!
Or should I rejoice?
Yes, you my savior say it yourself, “Yes” (Yes!).

Following this smile-producing aria, we hear another bass recitative in which the soprano simultaneously sings a chorale text (you can see the entire text here).

Before the final chorale, a vigorous tenor aria reminds us that this celebration of an event in the life of Jesus is an incentive for us to order our own lives properly, so that (in the words of our Collect) “we may in all things obey thy blessed will.”

I shall live only to honour you,
My savior, give me strength and courage
So that my heart may do right eagerly 
Strengthen me
So that I may worthily
And thankfully extol your grace!

This festive horns return for the final chorale. Each line of the text sung here begins with the name of Jesus, reminding us again of that eighth-day ritual in which his pre-ordained name was formally established:

Jesus, guide my beginning,
Jesus, stay with me always,
Jesus, curb my inclinations,
Jesus, be my sole desire,
Jesus, be in my thoughts,
Jesus, do not let me waver!

Here is a complete performance of Part 4 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the New London Consort, conducted by Philip Pickett. The soloists are Catherine Bott, soprano; Julia Gooding, soprano (echo); Paul Agnew, tenor; (Evangelist) Andrew King, tenor (aria); and Michael George, bass.