Monday, December 25, 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Cantata 1

Until only very recently Christmas Day was just day one of a twelve-day celebration which lasted until Epiphany on January 6 (also known as Twelfth Night). Within that period were six feast days especially for celebration and worship, and Bach wrote cantatas for all six of those days. The most famous of those is his monumental Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio, Leipzig, 1734). It has become my holiday custom to post those six cantatas on the days they were intended for. For me, it isn't Christmas without Bach's greatest work!

The first cantata of the set, for Christmas Day, is Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (Rejoice, be glad, come, praise the days). This is Bach at his most triumphant and joyful, full of flourishing trumpets and tympani! Here's Simon Crouch talking about this cantata:
Bach clearly designed the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio to be a unified cycle but it seems fair to include them in this survey on two grounds: As far as original performance is concerned it was presented as six separate cantatas, one each on the festival days at Christmas and the New Year; Also, the vast majority of the musical material was parodied from cantatas. One may present a further argument, of course: These are very fine works and it gives me the excuse to write about them!

This first cantata of the cycle opens with suitable magnificence. A glorious piece with trumpets and drums adapted from BWV 214/1, it has a surprisingly subdued drum and flute opening which soon gives way to the rejoicing of Jauchet, frohlocket. The first recitative, sung by the tenor, introduces the well known narrative from the Gospel: Mary and Joseph brought to Jerusalem for the census. The alto interrupts with a recitative introducing the Christ-as-Bridegroom idea and this leads into the gentle alto aria, parodied from BWV 213/9, that calls on Zion to prepare itself for that Bridegroom. A chorale follows, to the tune of the passion chorale and the evangelist follows relating the story of Christ's birth. The following movement intertwines lines of a chorale with recitative contemplating the meaning of Christ's appearence on earth. This leads into the glorious bass aria Großer Herr, parodied from BWV 214/7. The trumpet features prominently and in the middle introduces a fanfare theme frequently heard in Bach's works. The cantata concludes with a straightforward chorale setting with the wonderful interlinear trumpet tune.

The Christmas Days of 1734, 1739, 1744 and 1745 were something really rather special.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
This year I've found a collection of the oratorio in six videos from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Norwegian Soloists Choir under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. Enjoy!


Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

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