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December 26, 2015

Bach Cantatas (60): Christmas Day

The Christmas season in Leipzig was celebrated from Christmas Day through Epiphany. Christmas itself was observed on three consecutive days, not two, with a Christmas cantata performed every day. Although also containing some exuberant music, in Bach's day Christmas was not as "oppressively cheery" as it is today - in fact, much of the music written by Bach for Advent and Christmas looks profoundly inward.

For the Christmas season of 1734 Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio in six parts, to be performed consecutively on the three days of Christmas, on New Year, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. We will discuss the six parts on their respective days.

There are 3 extant cantatas for Christmas Day, plus the first part of the Christmas Oratorio. One more cantata, BWV 197a from 1728, is lost apart from the text; although the music of some of its movements can be reconstructed as it was parodied in BWV 197, I have skipped it. I have also left out BWV 191, which is a Latin cantata written to celebrate the Peace of Dresden (which ended the 2nd Silesian war) and which was performed on Christmas day, 1745. The music of its three movements has been copied from the B Minor Mass.

The readings for Christmas Day:
Titus 2:11–14, God's mercy appeared (or Isaiah 9:2–7, Unto us a child is born)
Luke 2:1–14, Nativity, Annunciation to the shepherds and the angels' song


  • Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, 1714 or 1715
    Chorus: Christen, ätzet diesen Tag
    Recitative (alto): Oh, selger Tag! o ungemeines Heute
    Aria (soprano, bass): Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget
    Recitative (tenor): So kehret sich nun heut
    Aria (alto, tenor): Ruft und fleht den Himmel an
    Recitative (bass): Verdoppelt euch demnach
    Chorus: Höchster, schau in Gnaden an

    ("Christians, engrave this day") Bach's earliest extant cantata for Christmas, possibly composed in Weimar as early as 1714; although the cantata contains none of the usual nativity themes, such as pastoral music, it consists of bright and celebratory music. The cantata starts in an energetic mode with a festive chorus, accompanied by a large orchestra with four trumpets and timpani. Although the minting metaphor in the opening chorus ("Engrave this day in metal and marble") might lead us to believe that this is another text by Weimar Mint director Salomo Franck, that is in fact not the case as Bach seems to have received the libretto from Heineccius, pastor in Halle, in 1713. The accompanied alto recitative is more inward looking than the exuberant opening chorus. Next we find two duets separated by another recitative. The first - austere - duet is for soprano and bass with oboe obbligato, the second - dancing - one of for alto and tenor. This is a rare cantata containing no solo arias, but duets instead. A bravura bass recitative with brass and winds introduces the glorious final chorus (not a chorale), which starts with a double fugue. The central recitative, by the way (movement four) contains in midpoint the word "Gnaden," "Grace;" Bach consciously made this concept the pivot on which the whole cantata turns.

  • Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 91, 25 December 1724
    Chorale: Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
    Recitative (and chorale, soprano): Der Glanz der höchsten Herrlichkeit
    Aria (tenor): Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein
    Recitative (bass): O Christenheit! Wohlan
    Aria (soprano, alto): Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt
    Chorale: Das hat er alles uns getan

    ("Praise be to you, Jesus Christ") Chorale cantata from Bach's second Leipzig year, based on the famous Christmas hymn "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" (1524) by Martin Luther (and going back at least to the tenth century sequence Grates omnes reddamus). The text emphasizes the contrast between the majesty of Christ's heavenly state and the lowliness of his birth for the salvation of mankind. The hymn tune is brilliantly set for horns, tympani, three oboes, and strings with the sopranos singing the melody in long tones against jubilant counterpoint. The ensuing soprano recitative is contrasted with chorale phrases. The expressive tenor aria starts with a wailing chorus of three oboes. It has an interesting dotted rhythm, which was the normal symbolic representation in French Baroque music of kingly majesty. After the chromatic bass recitative has addressed the topic of "this vale of tears," the last aria, a duet between soprano and alto, sung in close imitation over a Corellian walking bass, concerns the poverty which God takes upon himself for the salvation of mankind. The horns and drums reenter for the closing chorale, restoring the jubilant tone of the opening chorus.

  • Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110, 25 December 1725
    Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (Chorus)
    Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen (Aria Tenor)
    Dir, Herr, ist niemand gleich (Recitative Bass)
    Ach Herr! was ist ein Menschenkind (Aria Alto)
    Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Duet Soprano and Tenor)
    Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder (Aria Bass)
    Alleluja! Gelobt sei Gott (Chorale)

    ("May our mouth be full of laughter") Christmas cantata composed by Bach in his third year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, on a text by Georg Christian Lehms. The text has not the usual recitatives alternating with arias, but instead features three sections with biblical quotations. The opening chorus is a very skillful arrangement of the Overture to the Fourth Orchestral suite - it fits so to speak "like a glove." This enormous movement is easily the center of gravity of the cantata. The "laughter" mentioned in the text is often graphically audible. The ensuing feathery tenor aria with two obbligato flutes is a musical jewel. The poet's invitation to his thoughts to leave earthly concerns and rise to the contemplation of higher things is depicted by rising flute figures. The second aria for alto benefits from the presence of an oboe d'amore, which graphically liberates itself from the vocalist who portrays the stubborn foolishness of mankind. The fifth movement is a duet for soprano and tenor who both play angels greeting the shepherds with the text “Glory to God in the highest.” The music is based on the "Virga Jesse floruit" from the Magnificat. It is an expression of goodwill towards mankind in pastoral style. Next comes a heroic bass aria, with trumpet and woodwind, a stirring call to wake up and join the praise of the angels. Note that, when the text refers to "devotional strings," the winds rest and the violins play long ornamental melismas. The final harmonized chorale, taken from Caspar Füger's "Wir Christenleut," is set in plain style.

  • Jauchzet, frohlocket 25 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part I) BWV 248/I
    Chorus "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage"
    Recitative (tenor) "Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit"
    Recitative (alto) "Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam"
    Aria (alto) "Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben"
    Chorale "Wie soll ich dich empfangen"
    Recitative (tenor) "Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn"
    Chorale (sopranos) & Recitative (bass) "Er ist auf Erden kommen arm" & "Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn"
    Aria (bass) "Großer Herr und starker König"
    Chorale "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein!"

    ("Rejoice, exult, up, glorify the days") The first part of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which consists of six self-contained but linked cantatas meant for performance on different days. All include music that Bach had originally written for secular cantatas (the reuse of one's own music was a common practice in the Baroque period, especially since most music was not published). But while in cantata format, the Oratorio includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story in the form of a recitative, as in the Matthew and John Passions. The backbone of the text is provided by the biblical narrative, from the nativity up to the coming of the three wise men. Most texts are from St. Luke and St. Mathew and the emphasis is on narration and contemplation rather than dialogue or action. The first cantata opens in magnificent style, with trumpets and drums, adapted from BWV 214/1. It is a truly glorious piece of music. The first recitative introduces the well known narrative of Mary and Joseph going to Jerusalem for the census. This is interrupted by the alto, who after a recitative in which Christ is introduced as bridegroom (as in BWV 140), calls in a gentle aria, "Bereite dich, Zion," to prepare oneself. After a chorale the tenor continues his narration of the Christmas story. The ensuing bass recitative contemplating the meaning of it all is intertwined with the sopranos singing the chorale "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ." This leads to the glorious bass aria "Großer Herr, o starker König," originally from a secular work in praise of the king, but with its trumpet fanfares wonderfully suited to the new text. A grand setting of the chorale "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her," with trumpets, ends the cantata.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas