Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (BWV 248) was composed for the Christmas season of 1734-35 in Leipzig, Germany. Unlike other oratorios, like the earlier “St. John’s Passion” (BWV 245) and “St. Matthew’s Passion” (BWV 244), the “Christmas Oratorio” was not performed in its entirety in one service; it was presented originally as six separate cantatas, each for one of the Christmas feast days, celebrated from Christmas Day to Epiphany. Similar to the “Brandenburg Concertos” (BWV 1046-1051), each of the oratorio’s six parts are scored for their own unique instrumental and vocal forces. This has led to the assertion by a number of critics, including Albert Schweitzer, that there really is no oratorio at all, just six cantatas.
Adding fuel to this argument is the fact that Bach originally composed the music of the “Christmas Oratorio” for a number of secular cantatas. These are:
- BWV 213 “Laßt uns sorgen, Laßt uns wachen” (“Hercules at the crossroads”) — performed on Sept. 5, 1733, for the eleventh birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony.
- BWV 215 “Preise dein Glücke, gesegnete Sachsen” — performed on Oct. 5, 1734, for the coronation of the elector of Saxony, August III, as king of Poland.
- BWV 214 “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet ihr Trompeten!” — performed on Dec., 8, 1733, for the 34th birthday of Maria Josepha, queen of Poland and electress of Saxony.
Fortunately for us, these critics were not around to tell Bach what to do! He, like virtually every other great composer, used previously written music for other purposes. Just within this one oratorio alone Bach uses the music to “Un feste Berg ist unser Gott” three times and “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” twice for congregation-performed chorales. Does this make him some kind of lesser composer? Indeed, it is tempting, because the dates of the original compositions and the holiday performances are so close, to believe that Bach had the “Christmas Oratorio” in mind when he wrote the secular pieces. The strongest evidence for this is the relationship between the key signatures of each cantata and the perfection of the fit between music and new text.
The “Christmas Oratorio” is primarily in D Major. Parts I, III and VI are in this tonic. Part II (with its appropriate pastoral setting, and subdued orchestration) is in G, the sub-dominant of D. Part IV is in F and Part V is in the dominant A. This kind of mathematical logic is no accident; the tonality scheme is intended to lead the listener where Bach wants.
The words, of course, are different — the work of the master’s ablest and most trustworthy librettist, Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander). Elevating the secular to the sacred was this man’s specialty and never the reverse. No one today listens to, or cares about, “Hercules at the crossroads,” but music lovers and Christians worldwide revel in the sounds and thoughts expressed so perfectly for this season in the “Christmas Oratorio.”
The briefest examination of the piece shows how much more our Lutheran predecessors celebrated this time of year. The first cantata was for the Birth of Christ feast day (Dec. 25). The second (Dec. 26) was for the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The third (Dec. 27) marked the Adoration of the Shepherds. The fourth (New Year’s Day) was for the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus. The fifth, to be celebrated on the first Sunday after New Year’s, was for the Journey of the Magi. The final sixth cantata depicts the Adoration of the Magi (Epiphany). The text throughout is a paraphrase of passages in Luke 1.