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Saturday 20 January 2018

Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the true soundtrack to the season

Bach: wrote 'Christmas Oratorio'
Bach: wrote 'Christmas Oratorio'

George Hamilton

It was the Germans who gave us the Christmas tree, and they also gave us the music we most associate with this season of the year. Handel's Messiah may be what springs immediately to mind, but it's only as the years have rolled by that it has ended up a Yuletide staple.

The Messiah was conceived as an oratorio -- a kind of sacred opera -- telling the Christian story from start to finish, not simply focussing on the birth of Christ. It got its first outing not long after Easter, in 1742.

It was Bach who gave us the piece that is really season-specific. His Christmas Oratorio dates from just over seven years previously. Though we would know it as a single work, it was never a stand-alone production in his lifetime. Bach wrote it as six separate parts for six specific services over the festive period, starting on Christmas Day and finishing up on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

There's no questioning the coherence of the Oratorio as a whole, for it tells the story chronologically. It begins with the birth of Jesus, then there are the Shepherds and, finally, the Wise Men.

Nonetheless, it was a revolutionary concept. Congregations were well used to being led musically through their devotions, but this was something very different. Not a cantata for any given Sunday, but a sequence.

There were two major churches in the city of Leipzig -- St Thomas's, the Thomaskirche, and the larger Nikolaikirche, St Nicholas's -- where Bach was in charge of the music. They'd both play host to performances.

Much of the music Bach used had already been heard in different guises, mostly in secular cantatas for special occasions. But there's also some bright, dazzling, original content which shows that the composer -- by now just about to turn 50 -- was still at the height of his powers.

The opening is stunning. Trumpets, drums and strings set the scene before a chorus of celebration rings out: Jauchzet, frohlocket -- rejoice, be glad! It's upbeat throughout the opening cantata. This is music and song to celebrate the Christmas Day message.

Twenty-four hours later (in the original performance), a more reflective mood takes over as the angels announce Christ's birth to the shepherds.

The third part of the Oratorio sees the shepherds reach Bethlehem. In part four, it's New Year's Day -- the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.

Next, for the first Sunday after New Year, the Evangelist -- the tenor who narrates the story -- tells of the arrival of the Wise Men.

In the concluding section, first performed on the Feast of the Epiphany, despite the news of Herod's plans and schemes, the conclusion is positive, both in its message and its music. The trumpets are back to celebrate.

It's all unmistakably Bach. Beautiful music to complement the season.


Irish Independent

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