Music in the Castle of Heaven

Reindeer eat marshmallows in the castle of heaven 🙂

Music 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.

Music in the Castle of Heaven

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.

Music in the Castle of Heaven

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.

St Thomas Church, Leipzig
St Thomas Church, Leipzig
St Nicholas Church, Leipzig
St Nicholas Church, Leipzig

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.

Music in the Castle of Heaven

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.

Music in the Castle of Heaven

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.

Music in the Castle of Heaven

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.

Christmas Oratorio
Dunedin Consort

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.

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