The creative team at Beutler Ink attempted to bottle the chaos of 2016 in a comprehensive illustration modeled after the famous Garden of Earthly Delights painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Organized by digital strategist Pete Hunt, the Hieronymus Bosch-themed visual has been in the making since the beginning of the year. The illustration was done by Niv Bavarsky, a Los Angeles-based artist whose playful work has been featured in The New York Times, Wired and Bleacher Report.
We don’t know how Bach and Handel celebrated Christmas, other than with oratorios, but we can be reasonably sure it wasn’t with a cherry feast!
Bach might have had an indoor Christmas tree, by the end of the 16th century, indoor Christmas trees were a common fixture in most German homes. And by 1610, thin strips of silver, later to be known as tinsel, began to be used as decoration.
Dinner eaten at wealthy tables before the mid 19th century in England was served as a buffet; all the food for the diners was laid on the table before them to serve themselves. To eat dinner at a wealthy household was all about giving your guests choice. the more things there were to choose from, the better your host had treated you.
Turkey was already the choice for Christmas of those with money. Originally from the Americas, the turkey became a tasty treat for those who could afford it. Those with less to spend would save for a goose, or a large piece of meat, such as a side of beef. A plum porridge would be served with one course; not quite a Christmas pudding, but more a risotto with dried fruits. Minced pies were also served, sometimes with meat, sometimes with fruit, sometimes both. Presumably not in the same pie!
A surviving Royal Christmas menu from 1734 England, contained all of the above along with many other treats, but modern diners might miss the importance of the dish at the centre of the Royal table. A large salad. A salad, in December! This showed that you were prepared to spend a lot of money on some really talented gardeners who could grow you food that was out of season.
No salad, turkey, plum porridge or pies in sight at this feast!
The cherry feast is all about cherry trifle with brandy and dark cherry and almond tart…
…cherries and Blackforest cake with Kirsch…
…and a chocolate log with Grand Marnier for the extra icing on the cake 🙂
Reindeer eat marshmallows in the castle of heaven 🙂
1685 was a very fine musical vintage indeed. A few days after Handel was born, less than 160km away, Maria Elizabeth Bach gave birth to Johann Sebastian Bach, the latest in a large family and a long line of musicians. Bach’s background was socially and geographically different from Handel’s. This goes some way to explaining the difference in their careers, output and subsequent reputation. Bach, “parsimonious and prudent” and with a reputation for being obstinate, immersed himself in narrow-minded Lutheran Saxony. Handel, the Italian-trained extrovert, became a risk-taking entrepreneur on an international scale.
By the time of Bach’s death, musical fashions were fast changing and his music was perceived as antiquated. During his lifetime, he had been more celebrated as an organist and choirmaster than as a composer. Indeed, many of the works for which he is celebrated today fell on deaf ears or were simply ignored. Unlike Mozart or Beethoven, he had little posthumous influence until Mendelssohn rediscovered his choral masterpieces in the 19th century, and his works began to be performed once more.
Bach’s achievement was to synthesise laborious German part-writing with the styles of the light French dances and the Italian concertos and sonatas. His works represent a culmination: by the time he was finished, there was musically nothing more anyone could do in his style, except to write exercises and answer examination questions; he had taken it to the limit. While to some he is still a ‘musical arithmetician’, to others J.S. Bach is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, of all composers. A working musician his entire life, his composition ranges from the deeply spiritual to the flamboyantly virtuosic, radiating an irresistible energy and joy which continues to touch listeners profoundly.
Bach’s years in Leipzig were amazingly fruitful. Not just in disagreements with the council over pay and conditions, but also in output in the form of cantatas. One of his principal jobs in Leipzig was to write, rehearse and direct cantatas for the Sunday services at St Thomas and St Nicholas churches, and he produced around 250 cantatas for voices, chorus and orchestra, mostly based on well-known protestant chorale tunes. When he first arrived in Leipzig in 1723, he composed at a frenetic rate, producing one cantata every week for at least three years. However, by the 1730s he seems to have become accustomed to a much more leisurely rate of composition (although it was still remarkable by modern standards). Moreover, he often reused earlier music – not necessarily to save time, but probably as part of a project of perfecting his music – refining and recasting those pieces which he most obviously valued.
In Leipzig he also produced two magnificent settings of the Passion story, according to St Matthew and St John, the Mass in B minor, the Christmas Oratorio and other major sacred works into which he poured all the resources of vocal and instrumental writing available to him. Incredibly, over a third of Bach’s matchless series of cantatas (around 100 in total) were gradually disposed of as being of no further use, while following its first performance during the Christmas season of 1734-5, the Christmas Oratorio went unplayed for over 120 years.
From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it not with a single feast day, but with a “season” — six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany; the birth of Jesus (December 25), the announcement to the shepherds by a host of angels (December 26), the adoration of the baby by the shepherds (December 27), the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day), the coming of the Magi from the East to find the child “born King of the Jews” (the Sunday after New Year’s Day), and finally the Magi’s worship with their gifts (January 6). On each of these days Bach’s congregation was inspired by a cantata that recounted one of these stories, commenting and reflecting upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community.
The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense. Instead the format is that of a cantata. Similar to the Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12. In order to keep clear what is narrative and what is commentary, all the Evangelist recitatives – the Gospel texts- are secco (dry, with simple chords from the cello and organ), while the other recitatives have obbligato instruments or string accompaniment. These recitatives are unified by lyrical meditations, or arias. The rich, imaginative harmonizations of the ten chorales reflect the voice of the people, as they were hymn tunes mostly well-known to Bach’s congregation. The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (under the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably gathered and arranged the texts.
Bach had composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble the Christmas Oratorio. In fact many of the movements are paraphrases from earlier cantatas dating from 1733 and 1734. Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Let us take care, let us watch), BWV213, was performed on 5 September 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the Crown Prince, Friedrich Christian of Saxony. Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (Resound, ye drums! Ring out, ye trumpets!), BWV214, was written for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Electress of Saxony and now (owing to her husband’s election to the throne) Queen of Poland, on 7 December 1733. Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen (Praise your good fortune, blessed Saxony), BWV215, celebrating the first anniversary of the accession of Augustus II as Elector of Saxony and (soon thereafter) King of Poland, was first performed on 5 October 1734 in the market place in Leipzig, in the presence of the royal family. Politically, this might well have marked the highpoint of Bach’s entire career, since he was soon to earn the prestigious royal title that he placed before all others on official documents. Cantata 215 provides a single movement for the Christmas Oratorio, in Part V (No.47). The fourth cantata adapted for the Christmas Oratorio is known only from the incomplete instrumental parts of a lost cantata catalogued as BWV248a, and this provides much of the music for Part VI. It seems that Bach used virtually every movement of this piece, since the parts show very little alteration. Pastoral Sinfonia to Part II seems to be freshly composed for the occasion, as does much of the expressive alto aria with violin obbligato, No.31 from Part III.
Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. However, it would be wrong to assume the Christmas Oratorio was cobbled hurriedly together. Bach subtly imbued the work with a sense of tonal and instrumental unity by casting Parts I and III (with their exhilarating trumpet writing) in the rousing key of D major, whilst moving to a more calming G major for the pastoral atmosphere of Part II. For Christ’s naming in Part IV he shifts to the more remote F major (partly to accommodate the horn writing), and then signals a glorious return by setting Part V in the leading dominant key of A major, setting up the final part in D, which once again rejoices in the festive sound of trumpets.
The Christmas Oratorio is the quintessential Christmas choral extravaganza. Of the 64 movements across the six cantatas, 14 are chorales. The chorale was an invention of Martin Luther, who wanted to create a type of church music in which the congregation could participate. The opening movement, when Bach stands up and shouts for joy, sets the mood. It’s in the celebratory key of D major, with lots of ‘royal’ trumpets and timpani for the Christ child, and the trilling oboes give a foretaste of the pastoral mood that comes later, an orchestral sound evoked by a band of four ‘non-standard’ oboes (oboes d’amore and oboes da caccia) together with flutes.
Bach’s cantatas were closely associated with the texts of the New Testament readings at the main morning service, thus providing a commentary and reflection on the Scripture concerned. Most importantly, the music provided a depth of emotional engagement that no other art could muster. Thus, in the tradition of Martin Luther’s own supreme regard for both music and preaching, the cantata was profiled as a focal point of the service, together with the sermon itself (indeed these followed one another in the liturgy). While much of the Biblical text in regular cantatas is presented in short quotations or paraphrased in modern poetry, the Christmas Oratorio contains the complete Gospel narrative of the Nativity (Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12), something that renders the work analogous to other familiar oratorios such as Part I of Handel’s Messiah.
The Christmas Oratorio is rarely heard complete due to many programming challenges for any musical organization. Since the six cantatas of the Oratorio were originally performed one per day, the instrumentation is different for each one of them. Additionally, the work has particularly virtuosic choral and solo writing, making the piece inaccessible to many choirs.
The Dunedin Consort Bach: Christmas Oratorio CD is one of the finest accounts now available of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, released just over two months ago. The approach of scholar/conductor John Butt is never authenticity-or-die, but full of historical investigation without purporting to recreate what Bach might have done – which would be tough, given that the original 1734 vocal soloists probably doubled on instruments. Given that Bach had severely restricted time for rehearsals and was saddled with inadequate numbers of competent choristers and musicians, we can be fairly sure that the Christmas Oratorio would have sounded excruciating by modern performance standards.
Mostly from program notes by Lindsay Kemp for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, John Butt, director of Dunedin Consort, for Australian Chamber Orchestra and Ryan Turner, artistic director of Emmanuel Music.
Another musical Christmas tradition is Handel’s Messiah, although originally it was an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin in April 1742, and it was the most famous concert Handel gave. The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah (it was the rehearsal performance), stressed its charitable aims: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’
Dublin was then the second-largest city in the British Isles, and this was Handel’s first and only visit there. There were several reasons for the choice of Dublin Messiah’s debut. Handel had been downcast by the apathetic reception that London audiences had given his works the previous season. Handel’s last two Italian operas, Imeneo and Deidamia, were both failures with fickle London audiences. Handel did not want to risk another critical failure, especially with such an unorthodox piece. Other Handel oratorios had strong plots anchored by dramatic confrontations between leading characters. But Messiah offered the loosest of narratives: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralded his Resurrection.
Dublin was one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in Europe, with a wealthy elite eager to display its sophistication and the economic clout to stage a major cultural event. The city had an active theatre and concert life and Handel’s visit coincided with the opening of a new concert venue, the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel gave two performances each of L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea and Esther between December 1741 and February 1742. Handel only brought over the soprano Avolio and a few assistants from London, but the Lord Lieutenant’s court at Dublin Castle boasted a small orchestra, and numerous professional singers worked at theatres and in the city’s two cathedrals. These local musicians formed the core of Handel’s musicians and the first series of subscription concerts was an enormous success. He was persuaded to stay longer than planned and produced another concert series which included Alexander’s Feast and Hymen, an unstaged serenata adapted from Imeneo. This was Handel’s last performance of an Italian opera.
During this time, Handel’s celebrity grew, both as a composer genius and as a major character. At one performance, a solo violinist called Dubourg took off on a flight of fancy, and got rather lost; eventually he found his way back to the place where he’d left off. To the delight of the audience, Handel’s voice resounded loudly through the hall: “You are welcome home, Mr Dubourg!”
The second series of concerts finished on April 7, 1742, but Handel was hungry to capitalise on his eager audience, so he arranged the first performance of Messiah for April 13. Expectation was high: the rehearsal on April 12 was ticketed and the following morning excited newspapers reported that the oratorio “far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Not a bad review! Advertisements requested that Ladies attend ‘without Hoops’, and that ‘Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords’ in order to increase the capacity of the hall. Handel estimated that the venue could hold 600, but an extra 100 people crammed in. No fire regulations then!
The premiere of Messiah was a triumph. The alto soloist, Susanna Cibber, was an actress who had attracted scandal in the past, but legend has it that her emotional performance of ‘He was despised’ moved Dr Patrick Delany – the husband of one of Handel’s most ardent champions – to exclaim “Woman, for this, be all your sins forgiven”. The Dublin Journal’s review proclaimed that “the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”
The performance was repeated a few weeks later to another crowded audience. Messiah has taken its place ever since as the most famous oratorio of all time. Citing Messiah, Ludwig van Beethoven himself called George Frideric Handel “the greatest composer that ever lived”.
Now, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to the concert hall in the western world that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar. Little bears are partial to Tafelmusik and their performance of Messiah is sublime.
For many amateur choirs, the work is the heart of their repertoire and the high point of the year. In most of Handel’s oratorios, the soloists dominate and the choir sings only brief choruses. But in Messiah the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages.
He was born Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, Germany, into a religious, affluent household. His father, Georg Händel, a celebrated barber and surgeon in northern Germany, wanted his son to study the law. But an acquaintance, the Duke of Weissenfels, heard the prodigy, then barely 11, playing the organ. The nobleman’s recognition of the boy’s genius likely influenced the doctor’s decision to allow his son to become a musician. By 18, Handel had composed his first opera, Almira, initially performed in Hamburg in 1705. During the next five years, he was employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice, as well as in Germany, where the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, was briefly his patron.
Handel’s restless independence contrasted him with the other great composer of the age, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whom he did not meet. Bach never moved out of the cocoon of court patronage or church employment. Handel, on the other hand, rarely attached himself to any benefactor for long, although he would compose court music when asked. He wrote The Water Music (1717), one of the few of his pieces other than Messiah recognizable to the average concertgoer, for George I, to be performed for the monarch as His Majesty’s barge navigated through a London canal on a summer evening. But Handel didn’t hang around palace antechambers waiting for his lordship or royal highness.
Such free-spirited musical entrepreneurship was more than possible in London, to which Handel moved permanently in 1710. A commercial boom underpinned by overseas trade had created a thriving new merchant and professional class that broke the monopoly on cultural patronage by the nobility. Adding zest to the London music scene were rivalries that split the audience into two broad musical camps. On one side were defenders of the more conventional Italian opera style, who idolized the composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) and brought him to London. Enthusiasts of Handel’s new Italian operas cast their lot with the German-born composer. The partisanship was captured in a 1725 verse by poet John Byrom:
Some say compared to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.
Increasingly elaborate opera productions led to rising costs due, in part, to hiring musicians and singers from Italy, as it was generally agreed Italian singers were better trained and more talented than local products. But beautiful voices were often accompanied by mercurial temperaments. At a 1727 opera performance, Handel’s leading sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, actually came to blows onstage, with their partisans cheering them on.
In the 1730s, the emotional and financial toll of producing operas, as well as changing audience tastes, contributed to Handel’s growing interest in sacred oratorios — which required neither elaborate scenery nor foreign stars — including, eventually, Messiah. The oratorios generally caused Handel fewer problems than the operas, but they weren’t all plain sailing either. Many of the stories of the oratorios were taken from the Bible, two of them directly quoting text from the Holy Book. Some people were shocked by this – to them it was sacrilege to set sacred text to music intended for performance in theatres. And then, when the stories weren’t from the Bible, the same people would complain that it was wrong to present non-religious stories during Lent – which was when the oratories were generally performed.
There were also difficulties with the people who wrote the libretto. The most troublesome librettist was a man called Charles Jennens, who selected the text from the Bible for Messiah. Jennens was a good writer but he criticised Handel’s music quite nastily at times. He once wrote Handel such a horrible letter that it made him ill – much to Jennens’ delight. Not impressive!
Still, in July 1741, Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth: ‘Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will layout his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.’ Handel began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate. It is generally believed that Handel composed Messiah in the composition room, on the first floor at the back of the house at 25 Brook Street, where Handel moved in 1723 and lived for the rest of his life. The house is now open as the Handel House Museum and little Puffles and Honey visited the museum in 2014.
Jennens and Handel produced great works together, and Handel probably wasn’t an easy collaborator either. Intensely loyal to friends and colleagues, he was capable of appalling temper outbursts. Because of a dispute over seating in an orchestra pit, he fought a near-fatal duel with a fellow composer and musician, Johann Mattheson, whose sword thrust was blunted by a metal button on Handel’s coat. Yet the two remained close friends for years afterward. During rehearsals at a London opera house with Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel grew so infuriated by her refusal to follow his every instruction that he grabbed her by the waist and threatened to hurl her out an open window. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” he screamed at the terrified soprano.
Amassing a fortune through his music and shrewd investments in London’s burgeoning stock market, Handel donated munificently to orphans, retired musicians and the ill. A sense of humanity imbues his music as well — a point often made by conductors who compare Handel with Bach. But where Bach’s oratorios exalted God, Handel was more concerned with the feelings of mortals. Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah. The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none. And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down.
Messiah’s success in Dublin was repeated in London. At first the London premiere on March 23, 1743, seemed disappointing by comparison. But the intense emotional power unleashed by the Hallelujah chorus assured the work’s eventual immortality and Handel’s lasting popularity. It took time for Messiah to find its niche as a Christmas favourite. There is so much fine Easter music — Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially — and so little great sacral music written for Christmas. But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ.
There is little doubt about Handel’s own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favourite charity — London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children — always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home.
His total estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, which made him a millionaire by modern standards. He left the bulk of his fortune to charities and much of the remainder to friends, servants and his family in Germany. His one posthumous present to himself was £600 for his own monument at Westminster Abbey, final resting place for British monarchs and their most accomplished subjects. Three years after Handel’s death, the monument by French sculptor Louis François Roubillac, was installed.
Abroad, Handel’s reputation — and that of his best-known composition — only continued to grow. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel’s genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
Handel’s dramatic treatment of the oratorio’s content and subject matter has never been surpassed. The list of oratorios by Handel is truly impressive: Esther (1720), Deborah (1733), Saul (1739), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742), Samson (1743), Semele (1743), Joseph and His Brethren (1743), Belshazzar (1744), Judas Maccabaeus (1746), Joshua (1747), Solomon (1748), Theodora (1749) and Jephthra (1751), to mention only the best known! All of these were first heard in London, with the exception of Messiah. Messiah has become synonymous with the most inspiring and most inspired example of oratorio writing. Here the glory of baroque music has reached a pinnacle shared only by Bach’s great Mass in B Minor.