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 sung
For you let praise and thanks be prepared.
All the world exalts you
Because our welfare is pleasing to you,
Because today
All 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 came wise men from the East to Jerusalem and said:”

This is followed by a chorus (playing the role of the Wise men) asking: “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” They are answered by an alto soloist who lifts us out of the historical narrative into a space of devotional reflection: “Look for him in my breast, Here he lives, to my delight and his!” The chorus continues: “We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” To which the alto solo responds:

Happy are you who have seen the light,
It has appeared for your salvation!
My saviour, you, you are the light
Which shall shine on the Gentiles also
And they, they do not know you yet,
Though they would already worship you
How bright, how clear must your radiance be,
Beloved Jesus!

A chorale follows:

Your splendour consumes all darkness,
The gloomy night is changed to light
Lead us in your ways,
So that your face
And your glorious light
We may see forever!

A bass aria continues the contemplative reflection:

Illuminate also my gloomy thoughts
Illuminate my heart
With the rays of your clear light!
Your word will be the brightest candle for me
In all my deeds;
This lets my soul begin nothing evil

A tenor recitative (the Evangelist) gets us back into the historical narrative, with a description of Herod’s fear being aroused by the rumors a a Jewish King begin born. An alto recitative (stepping out of history again) rebukes Herod for his fear:

Why are you afraid?
Can the presence of my Jesus arouse such fear in you?
Oh ! should you not rather
Rejoice over this
For he promises in this way
To restore the well-being of mankind.

The Evangelist returns with the account of Herod’s summoning his advisors who inform him about the prophecies locating the newborn King in Bethlehem.

There follows one of Bach’s rare trio arias, in which the soprano, alto, and tenor soloists sing:

Ah, When will the time appear ?
Ah, When will he who is the comfort of his people come ?
Be silent, he is really already here!
Jesus, ah, then come to me !

Regula Mühlemann, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, alto: Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; with the Gaechinger Cantorey conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann

Another brief alto recitative assures us that the newborn King who incited the anger of Herod already rules in the hearts of the faithful:

My beloved already rules.
A heart that loves his dominion
And gives itself completely to him as his own
Is the throne of my Jesus.

A final chorale continues this affirmation of the rule of King Jesus:

Indeed such a room in my heart
Is certainly no fine royal palace
But rather a dark pit;
Yet, as soon as the rays of your mercy
Only gleam within there
It will seem filled with sunlight.

At this writing, my favorite performance of the Christmas Oratorio is the one conducted by John Butt. My second favorite is the one conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (a live performance of Part 5 conducted by Gardiner is available on this page).

Neither of these recordings is available on YouTube (you should buy one!). But a very good performance from 1997 featuring the New London Consort conducted by Philip Pickett is available and is embedded below. The soloists are Catherine Bott, soprano; Michael Chance, countertenor; Paul Agnew (Evangelist), tenor; Andrew King, tenor; and Michael George, bass.