J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 6

The first line sung in the opening chorus of Part 6 reminds us that the character of Christmas is far from that of a Hallmark greeting card. “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” can be translated “Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort with rage.” In his book, Bach’s Oratorios, which includes a complete English translation of the texts to all of Bach’s oratorios and Passions, Michael Marissen comments in a footnote about the adjective stolzen:

While Stolz primarily means “proud” in a more dignified sense, it is also an archaic synonym for übermutig, in the sense of “insolent” or “cocky.” In this way the word Stolz has the same double sense as the word zed in Hebrew, which means both “presumptuous” and “insolent” (thus, e.g., Psalm 86:14 reads in the KJV, “O God, the proud are risen up against me,” but in the NRSV, “O God, the insolent rise up against me.”

And the arrogant enemies that Bach has in mind aren’t mere flesh and blood; the final chorale of Part 6 (and hence the final movement of the entire Oratorio) identifies four eschatological enemies: death, the Devil, sin, and Hell.

Meanwhile, the opening chorus affirms the fact that God’s protection will guard believers from “the sharp claws of the enemy.”

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

A recitative featuring two voices follows this chorus: a tenor sings the part of the Evangelist/narrator, and a bass sings Herod’s deceitful request to the Magi that they go to Bethlehem and report back to him once they’ve found this newborn King.

This is followed by a brisk soprano recitative which exposes Herod’s hidden claws:

You cheat, you only seek the Lord to bring him down.
You use all your false cunning
To hunt after the savior;
But he whose power no man can measure
Still remains in safe hands.
Your heart, your false heart is already —
With all your treachery, by the Son of the Highest,
Whom you seek to cast down — very well-known.

A longer, more reflective soprano aria follows, continuing to mock the arrogance of God’s enemies:

Just a wave of your hand
Casts down the powerless strength of men.
Here all might is derided.
If the Most High speaks one word
To put an end to the pride of his enemies,
Oh, then the plans of mortals
will have to be immediately cut short.

The Evangelist returns with a recitative which recounts the arrival of the gift-laden Magi in Bethlehem, and their worship of the One whom Herod wants to kill. Then a chorale speaks on behalf of all believers who realize that the posture of the Magi is theirs:

I stand here at your crib
O little Jesus, my Life;
I come to bring and give to you
What you have given to me.
Take this! It is my spirit and inclination,
Heart, soul and courage; take it all
And may it be pleasing to you!

The Evangelist offers a brief resumption of the narrative, telling us that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s court. Then comes a second and much longer recitative (sometimes sung by a different tenor soloist):

Go then! It is enough that my Treasure does not depart from here,
He stays here by me,
I will not let him leave me,
His arm out of love,
With desire full of gentleness
And with great tenderness, will embrace me;
He will remain my bridegroom,
I will entrust breast and heart to him.
I know for certain that he loves me.
My heart also loves him ardently
And will always honor him.
What sort of enemy could now
Do me harm when I am so fortunate!
You, Jesus, are and remain my friend;
And if I beg you anxiously
“Lord, help!” then let me see salvation!

A tenor aria follows, which is, except for the opening chorus, the longest movement of Part 6. The snorting, arrogant enemies introduced in that chorus are now addressed directly:

Now, you insolent enemies, may try to scare me;
What sort of fear can you arouse in me?
My treasure, my refuge, is here with me!
Though you may appear ever so fierce
And threaten to cast me down once and for all,
Yet see! My saviour lives here.

Christoph Prégardien, tenor, with the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Ton Koopman

Before the final chorale, a brief recitative featuring all four soloists poses a rhetorical question:

What will the horrors of hell intend now,
what with the World and Sin intend to do to us,
since we rest in Jesus’ hands!

Trumpets and timpani return for the conclusive, concluding chorale, sung to the “Passion Chorale” melody that we know best as “O sacred Head, now wounded,” a chorale melody used six times in the St. Matthew Passion. Bach thus concludes his Christmas Oratorio with an intimation of the suffering that purchased our safety from our ultimate enemies.

Now you all are well avenged
of your band of enemies,
for Christ has broken apart
what was against you.
Death, devil, sin, and hell
are completely diminished;
the human family
has its place by God.

Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe

Here is a complete performance of Part 6 of the Christmas Oratorio. The performers are the New London Consort, conducted by Philip Pickett, with soloists Catherine Bott (soprano), Michael Chance (countertenor), Paul Agnew (tenor, Evangelist), Andrew King (tenor), and Michael George (bass). (You may follow the text here.)

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Now that our pilgrimage through the Oratorio is complete, if you would like to listen to the entire work in a single sitting, there are many performances to choose from. My favorite, as I mentioned earlier, is the recent one conducted by John Butt. The performance excerpted in the final chorale above conducted by Philippe Herreweghe is also very good, as are those conducted by Philip Pickett, John Gardiner, Ton Koopman, and Masaaki Suzuki (my favorite Bach conductor). Each of these performances relies on traditional baroque instruments and performance styles.

The YouTube performances available include this reliable live performance by the RIAS Chamber Choir and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann. The soloists are Anna Lucia Richter, soprano; Stefanie Irányi, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; and Roderick Williams, bass.

Happy Epiphany!