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Systematic Discussions of Bach’s Other Vocal Works
Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248
Cantata 1

Discussions in the Week of October 10, 2004

Neil Halliday wrote (November 2, 2004):
BWV 248: (sections ! and 2)

[Toi Aryeh Oron] After Aryeh's reminder that BWV 248, the Xmas Oratorio, is currently up for discussion, I have listened to the first of 3 CD's, in Richter's 1965 recording.

This CD 1 covers all of section 1 and most of section 2 (movements 1 to 19), ending with what must be one of the highlights of the whole work (and at 11.14 it is in fact the longest of all 64 movements, in the Richter recording): the alto aria "Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh".

There are a number of reasons for its excellence and beauty, not least the wonderfully warm singing of Christa Ludwig; but what caught my attention was the exquisite instrumentation of the piece; and a look at the BGA score reveals all: Oboes d'amore 1 and 2 double the 1st violins, oboes da caccia 1 and 2 double the second violins and violas respectively, and a transverse flute doubles the alto part; plus continuo. The combination of the flute with Ludwig's voice is breathtaking in its effect.

All 19 movements (on this 1st CD) are delightful, including the recitatives. If I have any criticism at all, it would with some of tenor Wunderlich's vibrato, in his aria; OTOH, his voice has a pleasing timbre.

John Pike wrote (November 2, 2004):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< ending with what must be one of the highlights of the whole work (and at 11.14 it is in fact the longest of all 64 movements, in the Richter recording): the alto aria "Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh". >
I agree this is a most beautiful aria. I have Gardiner's recording of the XO, which I can warmly recommend.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 2, 2004):
[To John Pike] Yes, a lovely piece! Listening to the Ralf Otto recording of that, at the moment, with Monica Groop singing it. Sounds like they've got a theorbo in there participating in the bass line: yum! Can anybody with the booklet of that confirm for me, please, who's playing theorbo? The Brilliant Classics edition came with no booklet at all.

It seems to me that this piece, in all the Bach oeuvre, has some of the strongest claim to be sung by a woman (whether that's historically accurate or not, from the first performance)...Mary rocking the newborn baby. I'm not sure I'd want to hear it sung much more slowly than this, taking any more than 9.5 minutes, both for the overall flow and for that rocking. Pendulums the length of arms pretty much have a set tempo! And it's hard to go too slowly in [anachronistic] rocking-chairs, either.

I got our baby rocker up out of the basement a request for more rides in it, and piling it full of stuffed animals to rock them.

Sw Anandgyan wrote (November 3, 2004):
Otto's XO with Concerto Köln

Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Listening to the Ralf Otto recording of that, at the moment, with Monica Groop singing it. Sounds like they've got a theorbo in there participating in the bass line: yum! Can anybody with the booklet of that confirm for me, please, who's playing theorbo? The Brilliant Classics edition came with no booklet at all. >
Joachim Held : Theorbe
plays a 'Kopie nach Anonym,
17. Jahrh. von Nico B. van der Waals 1990

Gerald Hambitzer : Cembalo ( Harpsichord )

Happy Listening

Jason Marmaras wrote (November 17, 2004):
BWV 248 (XO), 1st Mv. - aufjauchzen

I'm again going to ask a[n a little trivial] question, one that I've been thinking about for quite a while.

So, here it goes. The text of the Christmas Oratorio goes "Jauchzet, frohlocket," - pause - "auf, preiset die Tage!" &c.

The translation in Gardiner's recording (in the booklet only the italian translator is noted after the complete text)

"Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
[Eng.:] Rejoice, exult! up, glorify the days,
[Fr.:] Jubilez, chantez d'allgresse! Louez ces joursmerveilleux!
[It.:] Giubilate, esultate! Celebrate questi giorni,"

It seems 'jauchzen' is the verb for the english translator, where it is aufjauchzen' for the other two; or, that the french and italian translators ommit 'auf'. Bach's music seems to go for the english translation, but since I saw that this mvt. is parodized from "Tnet, ihr pauken", I got suspicious... I still want to believe that Bach wouldn't mean "Jauchzet (,frohlocket,) auf" and write it the way it's written. And, anyway, if the english translation (I think by Ms. Mary Wittall) is invalid (i.e. 'auf' is/was not used in this way), the "auf, preiset dei Tage" must receive very careful and thought-through execution, no?

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 17, 2004):
[To Jason Marmaras] Both 'jauchzen' and 'aufjauchzen' mean 'jubilare.' While 'auf' might seem to be a separable prefix of 'aufjauchzen,' its position in the sentence, separated by another verb, precludes its use in this manner, nor can 'auf' be considered to be the separable prefix for both 'jauchzen' and 'frohlocken' since there is no separable verb 'auffrohlocken' in the German language. This leaves the possibility that 'auf' is used as an adverb with an imperative meaning: "stand up, get up, etc." As Jakob Grimm explains it in the DWB, 'auf' as an adverb, when used in this isolated fashion, replaces a normal imperative verb. One could easily say "Auf, frohlocket!" ["Rouse yourselves, get/stand up and be joyful!"] The position of 'auf' before 'preiset' seems to relate 'auf' more to the verb that follows it.

How does the NBA enter the first line of the text in its printed edition, based upon what the editors have seen in the score and original parts:

NBA 248/1: Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,

Originally this line read: BWV 214/1: Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!

But the NBA KB II/6 was kind enough to include a facsimile of the printed text of BWV 248 (Bach, as you know, was responsible for having his cantata texts printed for the members of the congregation to read as they heard the music performed. He would have to proof-read the printed texts before their final printing.)

This is Bach's own printing out of the words (not as he had entered it into the score):

>>Jauchzet! frohlocket! auf! preiset die Tage,<<

Notice the exclamation marks which separate the imperative forms of the full verbs and the 'auf' which is treated as a verb with an implied verb action of 'rising up.' Note also that despite the exclamation marks, the subsequent word is not capitalized. Now it becomes clear that the adverbial particle has an imperative meaning as it was described above. It (the 'auf') still appears to be related more to the verb 'preiset' which follows it, rather than standing completely alone. Bach's musical line, although the music was not composed on this particular text, seems also to imply a tight connection between 'auf' and 'preiset.'

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 17, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote:

Well reasoned and presented, from expertise in that material!

A good cogent presentation of the question by Jason, too.
It's a good point that the parsing of the text here (both for performers and listeners) is difficult in any case, with the music coming in from Bach's earlier use with a different text, and with the "auf" syllable connected so closely with the following material, musically. It seems to me that in performance there really needs to be a short staccato delivery of that syllable to help with the clarity. Another question would be in how strongly to accent it: as it comes in a weak part of the bar, but is automatically accented somewhat (agogically) following a rest, with regard to the strength of the exclamation points. All around, I'd suggest probably a medium volume but very crisp articulation and short "f" followed by lots of silence, during that beat. It danot sound like "aufpreise" across the bar line.

Ditto, the orchestra should be playing similarly short there, as if they were singing that text themselves with an appropriate (medium) amount of emphasis on that word. Certainly not as strongly as in the following downbeat.


Discussions in the Week of March 15, 2009

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 14, 2009):
Week of March 15, 2009: BWV 248/1, Jauchzet Frohlocket

Week of March 15, 2009: BWV 248/1, Jauchzet Frohlocket

Part One, Christmas Oratorio
Cantata for Christmas Day


Links to texts, translations, scores, recordings and earlier discussions:


Christmas Season 1734

Saturday, Dec 25, 1734 ­ 1st Day of Christmas
Part 1: Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
Sunday, Dec 26, 1734 ­ 2nd Day of Christmas (St. Stephen)
Part 2: Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
Monday, Dec 27, 1734 ­ 3rd Day of Christmas
Part 3: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Friday, Jan 1, 1735 ­ Circumcision of Christ (New Year¹s Day)
Part 4: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
Sunday, Jan 3, 1735 ­ Sunday after the Circumcision
Part 5: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
Wednesday. Jan 6, 1735 ­ Epiphany
Part 6: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben


The structure of the Christmas Oratorio has both an overall unity as an oratorio and a serial integrity as a sequence of independent cantatas. The whole work is linked by the biblical narrative which is sung by a tenor evangelist as in the Passions. The bulk of the text is drawn from the Lucan infancy narrative, switching to Matthew for the magi narrative. Bach is often selective, not setting all of the verses.

The poetic texts were probably written by Picander (Mvts. 1-5) Since the work is full of parodies from secular cantatas, scholars debate whether the oratorio project was already in mind when those cantatas were written. There are also several unifying features which reenforce the oratorio format: the overarching tonal sequence and orchestration, the use of the chorale ³Herzlich tut mich verlangen² as the first and last chorales in the work, and the final ³farewell² recitative of the four soloists (as in SMP). At the same time, each part is a fully-contained cantata which stands alone.


Mvt 1: = BWV 214, 1 (Chorus): ³Tönet ihr Pauken²
Mvt 2: new composition
Mvt 3: new composition
Mvt 4: = BWV 213, 9 (Alto Aria): ³Ich will dich nicht hören²
Mvt 5: new composition
Mvt 6: new composition
Mvt 7: new composition
Mvt 8: = BWV 214 (Bass Aria): ³Kron und Preis²
Mvt 9: new composition


Did Bach know Heinrich Schütz¹ ³Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi²? Schütz was commissioned to write his Christmas ³Oratorio² for the then-Protestant Court Chapel in Dresden in the mid-1650¹s. In his 1664 publication of the work, Schütz only included the Evangelist¹s recitatives and in the preface directed performers to contact other musicians for the rest of the intermedii which contain the choruses and solo ensembles. One of the contact people listed is the cantor at St. Thomas, Leipzig. That would suggest that work was performed in St. Thomas in the 17th century and probably known to Bach at least as a holding in the cantor¹s library (Sebastian Knüpfer was cantor 1657-76).

Schütz sets the entire infancy narratives beginning with the Nativity in Luke and concluding with the Return from Egypt at the end of Matthew. Bach is more selective but begins with the same verse. The musical style of the ³Historia² derives from Monteverdi and Cavalli, but the evangelist part is notable for its superb adaptation of the Italian recitative style to the German language. There is no direct influence on Bach, but he would have been aware that his oratorio was a contribution to a century-old tradition of setting the Christmas narrative. Bach certainly performed the music of Schütz which was in Bodeschatz collection of Latin motets which were sung every Sunday as the introit (see Muscial Sequence for Mass of Christmas Day below). We will see the Schütz connection again when we look at the Christmas interpolations in the Magnificat.


Mvt. 1. Chorus: ³Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage²
This splendid da capo movement is something of a puzzle. In its secular form it is a triumph of word-painting, a veritable ³Guide to the Baroque Orchestra² with characteristic themes for timpani, trumpets and strings. The opening is positively Mahlerian: the solo timpani actually introduces the principal theme. When he came to write the sacred version, Bach abandoned all the word-painting of BWV 214 and was content for the extroverted music to express a generalized sense of joy. Why didn¹t he ask Picander to write a verse that used biblical images of instruments? (e.g. Psalm 150). The motet, ³Singet dem Herrn² has figures depicting drums and harps. Was Bach worried that using a similar text might draw attention to the secular original? There are similarities between this chorus and ³Herrscher des Himmels² which opens Part Three and which was the concluding chorus in BWV 214.

Mvt. 2. Recitative (Tenor): ³Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit²
About 10 minutes before the tenor began to sing the scriptural verses here, the Deacon would have chanted the same text to a plainsong melody at the altar. In fact, all of Luke 2:1-14 was chanted, which is the entire text of
Parts 1-5 of the oratorio. (see below for the Musical Sequence for Christmas Day). Bach did not allude to any of the chant formulas in his recitative here or in the Passions.

Mvt. 3. Recitative (Alto): ³Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam²
One of the chief glories of the Christmas Oratorio is the way in which the other soloists break into the Evangelist¹s secco recitatives with very direct comments ­ the soprano yells at Herod in Part Six! The oboes d¹amore here have a four-noted, slurred figure which always appears ready to begin an arioso. This fluidity displays Bach¹s consummate mastery of forms.

Mvt. 4. Aria (Alto): ³Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben
Like the opening chorus, this aria drops the word-painting of its secular original in BWV 213: the writhing bass line in the B section depicted the serpents sent to strangle the infant Hercules in his cradle ­ Is this an inside manger-scene joke for Bach? Or a more respectable allegorical allusion to Hercules who killed the snakes as Christ would triumph over the satanic serpent? The movement is unusually scored for First Violins doubled by oboe d¹amore over continuo with bassoon ­ one would have expected all the violins in unison (neither oboe nor bassoon is found in BWV 213.) Also unusual is the appearance of the voice doubled by the violins -- Handel loved this kind of colla parte doubling. However, Bach quickly drops that unison and returns to the free canonic texture of the opening. There are careful markings of ³piano² and ³forte² throughout to alert the instrumentalists that there is a lot of antiphonal back and forth between the voice and the orchestra. Why doesn¹t Bach add these dynamics all the time? The ³unisono e staccato² marking in BWV 213 does not appear here.

Mvt. 5. Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfang²
Much ink has been spilled over why Bach used the chorale ³Befiehl du deine Wege², the so-called ³Passion Chorale² which he set so dramatically in the SMP. A look at the varied texts which were sung to the melody sheds considerable doubt on the thesis that Bach¹s listeners would have identified it as an exclusive reference to the Passion: modern listeners can¹t shake that impression. Bach does give the chorale a heightened importance by making it the first and last chorale in the oratorio. The melody has a chameleon-like shape which can shift from predominately minor harmonies, as in this setting, to a more major modality, as at the end of Part Six. Interestingly, Bach closes this harmonizaton with the same delayed cadence which depicted ³Pein² in the SMP (No. 72), even though there appears to be no word-painting here.

Mvt. 6. Recitative (Tenor): ³Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn²
Except in the Shepherds and Herod scenes, there is very little drama and almost no dialogue in the Christmas Oratorio. Certainly none of the narrative tension of the Passions. Bach contents himself here with one verse and segues without break into the following movement: again an immediate commentary by the other soloists.

Mvt. 7. Chorale (Soprano) & Recitative (Tenor): ³Er ist auf Erden kommen arm²
Once again Bach moves between genres with superb fluidity. The oboe, oboe d¹amore (an unusual pairing) and continuo begin a lovely trio which Bach marks ³Andante.² Over this, the soprano sings the Christmas chorale ³Gelobet Seist Du², which the congregation had just sung as the Gradual Hymn ³De Tempore² before the Gospel (for possible organ preludes on this chorale in the same service see below in Musical Sequence for Mass of Christmas Day). After each line here, the bass bursts in passionately with his recitative, and each time the oboes delightfully drag the movement back to the chorale. The chorale was very popular as a Christmas hymn and was the basis of chorale-cantata BWV 91.

Mvt. 8. Aria (Bass): ³Großer Herr, o starker König²
This lordly Bass-cum-Trumpet aria was adapted from the secular cantata and is similar in affect and even melodic shape to the bass aria in Cantata BWV 110, ³Unser Mund.² It even has the same penultimate position. Once again, Bach asks for unusual scoring, doubling the first violin with one flute: oboe doubling would have been more traditional (as in BWV 110). The flute does not appear in the BWV 214 source. Tremendous rhythmic tension is produced by the non-sychronized syncopations between the voice and orchestra: there are several moments when the listener can be tricked into losing the first beat of the bar. Once again Bach adds precise ³piano² and ³forte² markings ­ even a ³pianissimo²! ­ which are not in the BWV 214 source.

Mvt. 9. Chorale: ³Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein²
The cantata closes with a majestic setting of the Christmas hymn, ³Vom Himmel Hoch², a melody which fascinated Bach and which he used many times. The ³Canonic Variations² on the chorale is one of his great contrapuntal works, on a par with the ³Art of the Fugue² and ³The Musical Offering². Chorales were sung by congregations in three ways in Bach¹s time: 1) unison without organ accompaniment, 2) four-part harmony from 17th century sources with organ accompaniment. The third method allowed the organist to improvise flourishes or interludes after each line was sung. An improviser of Bach¹s genius would have played ad libitum every Sunday. A few of these improvisations were written down, most notably his stunning version of the Christmas ³In Dulci Jubilo.² Although the congregation did not sing the cantata chorale, the orchestra led by the trumpets provide brief interludes that give the melody a majesty which is breathtaking.

[Sources: Wolff, Terry, Leaver, Stiller & Williams]

Tower bells rung at 6 am and again at 7 am:
The 5200 kg bell ³Gloriosa² (1477) (pitched in A) was rung only on festivals
Candles lit at 7 am,
Archdeacon of Leipzig officiates as celebrant; Deacon assists
Musicians must be in loft by final bell or be fined.
[Williams says the organ began to play only when the service began after the opening bell. Organ music did not accompany the congregation coming into the church]

Organ Prelude on ³Puer Natus² (BWV 603 ­ Orgelbüchlein?)
Settings by Bach or other composers before all chorales & choral works )

Introit Hymn/Motet by Choir: ³Puer Natus In Bethlehem²
Settings by Praetorius or Schein are possible

Organ Prelude before Kyrie to establish key and cover tuning
Missa Brevis: Kyrie & Gloria (Plainsong Gloria intonation sung by Celebrant)
A concerted setting in Latin was sung from Christmas Day to Epiphany.
Bach¹s own missae breve are generally from his later tenure in Leipzig but may have been used with later performances of the cantata:
B minor (1733) ­ used in B Minor Mass [only missa brevis with brass]
BWV 233 - F major (1738)
based on Christmas cantata ³Dazu ist Erscheinen² ­ 2 horns
BWV 233a ­ Kyrie (1708-1712)
BWV 234 ­ A major (1738)
BWV 235 ­ G minor (1738)
BWV 236 ­ G Major (1738)

Collect/Prayer of Day sung in Latin plainsong by Celebrant
Choral Responses sung to four-part polyphony
from Vopelius collection ³Neue Leipziger Gesangbuch²

Epistle: Titus 2:11-14 (The grace of God has appeared)
sung by Deacon in German to plainsong

Organ Prelude on ³Gelobet Seist Du² (BWV 314 or 604?)
Congregational Gradual Hymn of the Day (³de tempore¹,):
³Gelobet Seist Du, Jesu Christ ³

Gospel choral responses sung in six-part polyphony from Vopelius collection
Gospel: Luke 2: 1-14 (Birth of Christ)
sung by Deacon in German to plainsong

Organ Prelude on ³Wir Glauben All An Einen Gott² (BWV 1098?)
Congregational Creed Chorale:
³Wir Glauben All An Einen Gott² (Luther)

Organ Prelude before Cantata
First Cantata

Organ Prelude on ³Ein Kindelein So Löbelich² (BWV 719?)
Congregational Pulpit Hymn after the Cantata (Offertory)
³Ein Kindelein So Löbelich²

Sursum Corda sung in Latin in six-part polyphony
from Vopelius collection
Preface sung in Latin by Celebrant
Sanctus (without Benedictus)
A concerted setting was sung in Latin during Christmas week.
BWV 237 ­ C major
BWV 238 ­ D major
BWV 239 ­ D Minor
BWV 240 ­ G Major (arr?)
BWV 241 ­ D Major (Kerll?)
Hand bells rung at the altar at the end of the Sanctus
Verba (Words of Institution) sung in German plainsong by Celebrant

Second Cantata ³sub communione² during Communion?
Unknown if by Bach or other composer;
Bach¹s motet ³Lobet den Herrn² has a traditional Christmas text.

Other congregational hymns during Communion:
introduced by organ prelude:
³Ich Freue Mich In Dir² (Ziegler)
³Wir Christenleut² (Fuger)

Final Prayer & Benediction:
sung with 4 part polyphony from Vopelius

Organ Prelude on ³³Ein Kind Geborn zu Bethlehem²
Final Congregational Hymn: ³Ein Kind Geborn zu Bethlehem²
German repeat of Introit chorale

[Willaims says that there was no music after the service as the congregation left the church]


Discussions in the Week of December 24, 2017 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (December 28, 2017):
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Part 1, Nativity

Shunned during the 19th century BGreat Awakening, his Christmas Oratorio finally achieved acceptance in the second half of the 20th century through long-playing recordings and choral performances. Today the six-part festive work is considered one of his major Christological works, approaching the revered Mass in B-Minor and the St. Matthew Passion. Like the Mass setting, it is an extensive parody of pre-existing arias and choruses with new text underlay and, like the Passion drama, it is a sacred story with Gospel narrative and congregational chorales. Lasting more than two hours, it is six varied church cantatas for the 1734-35 Yuletide festivals of the three days of Christmas, New Year's, the Sunday after New Year's, and Epiphany. Each 20-minute plus piece of six parts covers the incarnation of Jesus at the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds and their Adoration, followed by the Circumcision Naming of Jesus, the Journey of the Magi, and their Adoration. The First Part was premiered on 25 December 1734 at the early main service at St. Nicholas and in the afternoon vespers at St. Thomas, Leipzig's two main churches where Bach served as cantor.

To create this oratorio in the mid 1730s in his middle age, the Leipzig cantor used materials composed the previous year from a now-lost sacred cantata and three secular, drammi per musica for the reigning Saxon Court, BWV 213-215, celebrate birthdays of the monarch, Augustus III; his wife, Maria Josepha; and their year-old son, Friedrich Christian. They provided Bach with contemplative arias and regal choruses with trumpets and drums (horns in one), as well as pastoral flutes, oboes and hunting oboes, most notably in a newly-composed instrumental interlude, like the one in Handel's Messiah written five years later that begins with observed Jesus' birth. Bach then fashioned the gospel settings, devotional hymns, and commentary accompanied recitatives, inserting three into the chorale melodies to make love duets. Bach contrasted the triumphal music with devotional settings — with all in a more accessible, contemporary gallant style in structured, da-capo repeat lullabies and stirring choruses, with appealing melodies and dance-like rhythms. Notable are the hymns of Martin Luther, Johann Rist, and Paul Gerhardt, moving from traditional to pietist-flavored devotional stanzas in the later parts. Composed for the main church service, the Christmas Oratorio celebrated the three-fold meaning of Christmas in the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh as human, in the spirit inhabiting the believer in mystical union, and finally in the end time coming in final judgement of mankind.

Each of the six cantatas were distinct, with varied movements and structures while all had Gospel narrative with a total of 12 lyric, varied commentary arias and 15 accompanied recitatives, as well as 15 chorales, strategically placed. Regal choruses usually opened the musical sermons and chorales concluded them. The narrative dictated the musical treatment with trumpets and drums found in the Nativity scene first chorus, a solo trumpet in the bass aria and trumpets with drums in the interludes of the concluding chorale. The second cantata for the Annunciation of the Shepherds has a unique form and instrumentation of woodwinds opening with a pastorale sinfonia ( and returning with the melody in the interludes of the concluding chorale ( The Gospel text is spread out in three passages with the canticle of the Angels ( The third cantata of the Christmas festival trilogy for the Adoration of the Shepherds has a brief opening trumpet chorus that is repeated at the end (, with narrative in between and three chorales and a central duet meditation ( Several of the passages in Parts 2 and 3 are similar to one oin. the first part of Handel's Messiah.

Part 1, following the festive opening chorus, has two scenes that involve the preparation for the birth, Luke 2:1, and the actual birth, Luke 2:3-7. There are two mirror sections of four movements each, beginning with the Gospel Evangelist narrative, then an accompanied recitative and aria for the same voice, followed by a plain chorale. Bach makes one adjustment in the second scene where the bass accompagnato is interspersed with a soprano singing a chorale melody, forming a love duet in unio mystica style of Christ and the soul in dialogue (

The communal hymn plays a central, interpretive role which Bach probably chose and placed in a template (outline) of each of the six parts before the librettist (possibly Picander) began writing the poetry to be set to music. The chorale (No. 4) just before Jesus' birth is popular poet Paul Gerhardt's devotional, rhetorical advent hymn, "How should I receive you?", which Bach set to the Passion chorale, known in English as "O sacred head now wounded", the purpose still debated among Bach scholars. The soprano melody is a stanza of Martin Luther's Christmas hymn, "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" (Praised be you, Jesus Christ), beginning, "Er ist auf Erden kommen arm" (He has come on the earth in poverty), with the bass commentary interspersed. After a rousing bass trumpet aria proclaiming Jesus' majesty (, the cantata closes with another Luther Christmas hymn, "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her"(From heaven above to earth I come), with the 13th Stanza, "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein" (Ah little Jesus dear to my heart, This Luther Christmas melody, like the opening Passion tune, plays an iconic role in the Christmas Oratorio, set twice in the second cantata to other Gerhardt Christmas hymns. In all, Bach chose five Gerhardt texts to three from Luther, plus the repetition of this poplar Luther melody (see below, "Notes on the Test and Music").

No greater contrast is found than between this regal music and the initial intimate love song and lullaby of the alto (Nos. 3-4), representing the expectant Mary early in the Nativity cantata, actually an accompagnato with oboe d'amore, "Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam" (Now my dearest bridegroom) and the aria, "Bereite dich, Zion" (Make yourself ready, Zion, The symbolic oboe d'amore is the most prominent solo instrument, appearing in 16 of 64 movements, observes Ignace Bossuyt.2

While the idea of festive oratorios may have originated with Bach as early as 1725 in the original cantata version of the Easter Oratorio, the actual Christmas Oratorio libretto was "conceived after early October 1734," says Marcus Rathey,3 with actual composition "during the fall of that year." The stages of composition involved such factors as the "parody problem" using 12 arias and choruses from the three just-composed secular Cantatas BWV 213-215, as well as all eight movements from lost Cantata BWV 248a. The next stage involved the Liturgy as a performance context, says Rathey, for the main and vespers services during the six feast days. The actual narrative for these events was different from the liturgical order for these Gospel and Epistle readings, so the cantatas' sequence was adjusted for the three Christmas days In the Gospel of Luke and the narrative of the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12 for the final two days of the Sunday after New Y's and the feast of Epiphany. Then, Bach and his librettist selected 15 appropriate chorales, primarily from Luther early Reformation and the later poets Paul Gerhardt and Johann Rist, and others. Bach also made adjustments in the uses of the chorales and the connecting accompagnato recitatives, in several cases merging the two as duets. After adjustments in the planned parody music, Bach turned to the composition of the extensive (16) accompagnato recitatives with rhyming verse which function as both "a sonic differentiation between the biblical narrative and its reflective interpretation [in the arias]," says Rathey (Ibid.: 131]. These establish emotional and theological contexts for the ensuing arias and duets, often with oboe d'amore, such as the bucolic sphere of the shepherds in Parts 2 and 3. In the final revision stage of the oratorio, Bach added musical details to the complex festival narrative in six parts.

BWV 248I movements, scoring, text, key, meter (German text, Francis Browne English translation,

1. Chorus da capo, ritornelli complex [SATB; Tromba I-III, Timpani, Flauto traverso I/II, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. "Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage, / Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan! / Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage, / Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!" (Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day, / praise what today the highest has done! / Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation, / begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation!); B. "Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören, / Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!" (Serve the highest with glorious choirs, / let us honour the name of our ruler!); D Major; 3/8 dance style.
2. Recitative [Tenor; Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: Evangelist: "Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit, / dass ein Gebot von dem Kaiser Augusto ausging, / dass alle Welt geschätzet würde. / Und jedermann ging, dass er sich schätzen ließe, / ein jeglicher in seine Stadt./ Da machte sich auch auf Joseph aus Galiläa, / aus der Stadt Nazareth, in das jüdische Land zur Stadt David, / die da heißet Bethlehem; / darum, dass er von dem Hause und Geschlechte David war: / auf dass er sich schätzen ließe mit Maria, / seinem vertrauten Weibe, die war schwanger./ Und als sie daselbst waren, kam die Zeit, dass sie gebären sollte." (Evangelist: / It happened at that time / that an order went out from Caesar Augustu / that all the world should be assessed. / And everyone went, so that he might be assessed, / each to his own city / Joseph went up out of Galilee / from the city of Nazareth, into the land of Judah to the city of David / which is called Bethlehem; / for he was of the house and race of David: / so that he might be assessed with Mary, / his betrothed wife, who was pregnant. / And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth; Luke 2:1-6); D to A Major; 4/4; attaca:
3. Recitative Accompagnato [Alto; Oboe d'amore I/II, Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: "Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam, / Nun wird der Held aus Davids Stamm / Zum Trost, zum Heil der Erden / Einmal geboren werden. / Nun wird der Stern aus Jakob scheinen, / Sein Strahl bricht schon hervor. / Auf, Zion, und verlasse nun das Weinen, / Dein Wohl steigt hoch empor!" (Now my dearest bridegroom, / now the hero from the race of David / for the consolation and salvation of the Earth / shall at last be born. / Now the star that comes from Jacob shall shine, / its rays already burst forth. Rise up, Zion, and abandon your weeping, / your well-being climbs aloft!); A Major, 4/4.
4. Aria da capo, ritornelli complex [Alto; Oboe d'amore I, Violino I, Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: A. "Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben, / Den Schönsten, den Liebsten bald bei dir zu sehn!" (Make yourself ready, Zion, with tender desires / to see with you soon him who is most beautiful, most dear!); B. "Deine Wangen / Müssen heut viel schöner prangen, / Eile, den Bräutigam sehnlichst zu lieben!" (Your cheeks / must today be far more beautifully resplendent, / hasten, to love your bridegroom with the greatest longing!); E Major; 3/8 dance style.
5 Chorale plain [SAT,B; Flauto traverso I/II in octava e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Violoncello col Basso, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: "Wie soll ich dich empfangen / Und wie begegn' ich dir? / O aller Welt Verlangen, / O meiner Seelen Zier! / O Jesu, Jesu, setze / Mir selbst die Fackel bei, / Damit, was dich ergötze, / Mir kund und wissend sei!" (How should I receive you / and how should I meet you / O longing of the whole world / O adornment of my soul! / O Jesus, Jesus, place / yourself your lamp by me / so that what gives you delight / I may know and understand!"; E Major; 4/4.
6. Recitative [Tenor; Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: Evangelist: ": Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn / und wickelte ihn in Windeln und legte ihn in eine Krippen, / denn sie hatten sonst keinen Raum in der Herberge." (Evangelist: And she gave birth to her first son / and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger / for they had otherwise no room in the inn; Luke 2:7); 4/4; D Major.
7. Choral Andante 3/4 (Canto, Soprano) and trope Recitative Accompagnato 4/4 (Bass) [Oboe d'amore I/II, Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]. "Er ist auf Erden kommen arm, / Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn, / Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt? / Dass er unser sich erbarm, / Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen, / Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt? / Und in dem Himmel mache reich, / Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt, / Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt, / Und seinen lieben Engeln gleich. / So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden. / Kyrieleis" (He has come on Earth in poverty / Who will rightly extol the love / that our Saviour cherishes for us? / so that he may have mercy on us, / Indeed, who is able to realise / and make us rich in heaven / how he is moved by human suffering? / and like his beloved angels. / The highest's son came into the world / Because its salvation pleases him so well / that he himself is willing to be born as a man. / Lord, have mercy!); G Major.
8. Aria da capo [Bass; Tromba I, Flauto traverso I, Violino I/II, Viola, Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: A. "Großer Herr, o starker König, / Liebster Heiland, o wie wenig / Achtest du der Erden Pracht!" (Great Lord, O mighty king, / dearest saviour, O how little / you regard earthly splendour.) B. "Der die ganze Welt erhält, / Ihre Pracht und Zier erschaffen, / Muss in harten Krippen schlafen." (He who maintains the whole world / and created its glory and adornment / must sleep in a hard crib.); D Major; 2/4.
9. Chorale with instrumental interludes between lines [SATB; Tromba I-III, Timpani, Flauto traverso I/II in octava e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II col Tenore, Viola col Tenore, Violoncello, Fagotto, Continuo, Organo]: "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein, / Mach dir ein rein sanft Bettelein, / Zu ruhn in meines Herzens Schrein, / Dass ich nimmer vergesse dein!" (Ah little Jesus dear to my heart, / make for yourself a clean, soft bed, / to rest in the shrine of my hear / so that I may never forget you!." D Major; 4/4.

Notes on Text, Music

The core music in the Christmas Oratorio involves three contrasting, parodied da-capo movements — a chorus and two arias — in progressive style with ritornello structure, ABA da capo from, and concertato principal. The opening chorus "immediately sets the tone for the first cantata and for the Christmas Oratorio as a whole, says Bossuyt (Ibid.: 59). Originally, it was the introductory chorus to a birthday tribute to Saxon electress Maria Josefa, BWV 214,"Tönet ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten" (Resound, ye drums! Ring out, ye trumpets;, on 8 December 1733, changed to "Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage" (Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day; The "modern style" "is simplified, with less complex counterpoint" at the phrase "Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage" (Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation), "more homophonic" and "often with a structure" "of symmetrical-periodical phrases" with "clarity of text," he says. The music also has "monumental scoring" and "rich melodic development with relatively few repeated notes." The B section is a reflective contrast, beginning "Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören" (Serve the highest with glorious choirs), without trumpets and drums.

The first aria of the Nativity setting (no. 4), the lullaby "Bereite dich, Zion" (Make yourself ready, Zion;, is based on the title character, Hercules' aria, "Ich will dich nicht hören" (I do not want to listen to you;, from the birthday tribute to Prince Friedrich Christian, "Herkules auf dem Scheidewege" (Hercules at the Cross-roads), BWV 213, presented on 5 September 1733. With the addition of an oboe d-amore and a slower tempo, this invitation to Christian love has been transformed from the rejection of pleasure in favor of virtue in the original. The B section of the lullaby is more reflective, "Deine Wangen / Müssen heut viel schöner prangen" (Your cheeks / must today be far more beautifully resplendent).

Following the actual Nativity birth of Jesus (No. 6, Luke 2:7) and the soprano-bass mystic unity love duet (no. 7), the bass sings a stock triumphal aria, welcoming Jesus, in syncopation with trumpets and drums, "Großer Herr, o starker König" (Great Lord, O mighty king;, from the tribute to the Saxon electress, "Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen" (Crown and praise of crowned ladies; The B section of the Nativity tribute, "Der die ganze Welt erhält" (He who maintains the whole world), further emphasizes the "theological understanding of the presence of Christ," observes Rathey (Ibid.: 184), both as the Saviour and as a baby "in a hard crib." This festive music recreates the regal atmosphere with which the cantata opening and leads directly to the closing congregational prayer, with trumpets and drums interludes (no. 9), "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein" (Ah little Jesus dear to my heart; Luther's Christmas chorale, "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), reinforces the concept of the inhabitatio expressed in the unio mystica love duet, "as a prayer for Christ's presence in one's heart," says Rathey (Ibid.: 187).

Part 1: Three Chorales

Bach's use of the Passion Chorale melody in the Christmas Oratorio early in Part 1 and to conclude the final Part 6 has been the subject of considerable discussion among Bach scholars. While the link between Jesus Christ's incarnation and his sacrificial atonement is prominent in Lutheran theological writings, dating to Luther's Theology of the Cross and Doctrine of Justification, the actual Passion melody had love song secular origins and broad application in hymns of Bach's time. The actual text of the initial plain chorale setting (no. 5), "Wie soll ich dich empfangen" (O Lord, how shall I meet You,, is a Paul Gerhardt advent hymn in 10 eight-line stanza BAR Form.4 It was first published in 1653 in the fifth edition of the hymnal Praxis Pietatis Melica by Johann Crüger. To encounter Jesus, the Gerhardt refers to Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before the Passion and the Parable of the 10 Virgins awaiting Christ, as well as prophetic words in the Old Testament. Embedded in this hymn is the second and third meanings of Christmas, of the perpetual coming of Christ in the spirit to the believer (inhabitio) and his coming in judgment at the end of time.

The Passion melody, it origins and applications, are discussed in While various scholars reject the theological implications (Robin Leaver, Konrad Küster, Walter Blankenburg, and Alfred Dürr in Ignace Bossuyt (Ibid.: 76), and Rathey (Ibid.: 171f), Luther's dialectic of the Theology of Glory vs. the Theology of the Cross embraces the simultaneous theme of joy and sorrow, found throughout Bach's Passions and cantatas, observes Bossuyt.

The second chorale (No. 7) is Luther's 1524 Christmas hymn, "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ," in the symbolic soprano-bass duet The chorale melody stanza, "Er ist auf Erden kommen arm" (He has come on Earth in poverty), expresses the reaction of the faithful Christian, with the bass responding that Jesus is the Saviour who, born a man, comes in love to save the world, an expression of the Christus paradox of Jesus Christ as both truly man and truly God, in this "dialogue between reason and faith," observes Rathey (Ibid.: 179), and concluding with the iconic Christian litany, "Kyrieleis" (Lord have mercy).

The final chorale closing the Nativity cantata is Luther's popular 1534/39, 15-stanza Nativity hymn (Luke 2:8-18), "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,,_da_komm_ich_her.6 Besides Bach's use of the Luther melody in two Paul Gerhardt-texted Christmas hymns in BWV 248, Part 2, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Bach also set the first stanza as a Christmas interpolation in his initial Magnificat, BWV 243a, in E-flat Major, for Christmas Day 1723 ( Further, Bach set the melody in four organ chorale preludes, Orgelbüchlein, BWV 606; Kirnberger chorales, BWV 700, 701, and finally the Canonic Variations, BWV 769 of 17477 (all Bach music, The most extensive setting is the Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) motet, "Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin" (Take care, my heart, and look there; Stanzas 7, 3, 6, 8, 9, 13, 15; In 1543, Luther used the same melody (Zahn 346, EG 24) to create a similar Christmas hymn, Vom Himmel kam der Engle schar (From heaven came the angelic crowd), which Bach set as Orgelbüchlein, BWV 607 (


The Christmas Oratorio autograph score, D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 32, exists and was found in the 1790 estate of Emmanuel Bach, as well as the original part set. Provenance is: J. S. Bach - J. C. F. Bach - C. P. E. Bach - (G. Poelchau, 1805) - Sing-Akademie zu Berlin (1811?) - BB (now Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (1855), The original parts set also exists, D-B Mus. ms. Bach St 112; copyists: Johann Sebastian; Rudolf Straube (1717–c1785), main copyist; Mohrheim, Friedrich Christian Miohrheim (1718–1780), and Johann Georg Heinrich (1721-?), and Anon. L 98. The Provenance is: J. S. Bach - J. C. F. Bach - C. P. E. Bach - Sing-Akademie zu Berlin - BB (now Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz)(1855);


1 Christmas Oratorio, BCW Detail & Discography,; Score Vocal & Piano,; Score BGA,; References: BGA V/2 (Christmas Oratorio, Wilhelm Rust 1856), NBA KB II/6 (Christmas Oratorio ), Bach Compedium BC D 7, Zwang K 190; details,
2 Ignace Bossuyt, Johann Sebastian Bach Christmas Oratorio, trans. Stratton Bull (Leuven University Press, 2004: 55).

3 Marcus Rathey, Chapter 5, "Planning the Oratorio," Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 114).
4 Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), BCW biography,; hymn details,
5 "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" text,, melody,; details,_Jesu_Christ.
6 "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" text,; English (on-line,; music,, note, details BCW
7 Organ chorale prelude details: BWV 606 Ob.(; Kirnberger 700 (, 701 (; Misc.738 (, Canon Variations, 769,
8 Vom Himmel kam der Engle schar,,; details,; Christoph Graupner setting, 1742,,_GWV_1111/44_(Graupner,_Christoph).


William Hoffman wrote (January 11, 2018):
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Part 1, Nativity


Bach lovers will be aware that the Christmas Oratorio, unlike those for Easter and the Ascension, is not a single composition but a collection of six cantatas composed for December 25th and festive days thereafter. It was first performed over the Christmas/New Year period of 1734/5 although many of the movements are paraphrases from earlier secular works. Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. By the time he came to put the oratorio together he had already amassed cantatas for each of these six days, typically three but, in some cases, as many as four or five. If he saw the oratorio simply as a convenient way of classifying a half a dozen cantatas to be performed as a set over this period, why did he not make it up from works already composed for those days? Why go to the trouble of selecting and paraphrasing a number of secular movements and composing the additional ones he required in order to make up the sixty-four movements of the oratorio as it eventually took shape? Might it have simply have been an ambition to produce music of a superior quality to that which he had already provided for these days?

His decision may indicate that he viewed the work as a coherent whole, not just the sum of its individual parts. Much has been made of the unifying aspect of the same chorale used in the first and last cantatas but an equally compelling piece of internal evidence comes from the fact that five of the opening choruses are in three-time, an accepted symbol of the Holy Trinity. The exception is C 248/2 which begins with the sinfonia; nevertheless, 12/8 time is a compendium of notes in groups of three. It does appear that in the mid to late 1730s Bach was putting together a number of major compositions which included the three oratorios and the four short masses. Grouped with the already composed Magnificat and Passions, this forms a substantial body of religious music capable of servicing significant events of the Lutheran church year.

Having said that, there is no one consistent structural pattern uniting these cantatas. Five of them begin with a rousing major-key chorus, and one with a sinfonia. All but one end with a chorale but there is no uniformity in their presentation, ranging from the plain four-part setting of the fifth to the flamboyant, chorale/fantasia of the sixth. The number of movements varies from seven to fourteen, with only the last two works more equally balanced with eleven. And in any case it was not, by its very nature, intended to be heard at the one sitting or even within a single week. In fact, Bach had composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble this work, which some might view as the epitome of his religious output. Nevertheless, the number of movements paraphrased from earlier works places the oratorio in a different position from the majority of the cantatas following the first Leipzig cycle.

This examination of the oratorio will take much the same form of those of the rest of the cantata canon but perhaps in slightly less detail because it is already so well known. Furthermore, the sheer bulk of mucof the recitative text makes it impractical to paraphrase it fully.

NB Many of the movements of the oratorio are paraphrased from Cs 213 and 214. Essays on these secular cantatas may be found in vol 1, chapters 94 and 95.


Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 (1734-1735): Details
Complete Recordings: 1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Recordings of Individual Movements
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8
Systematic Discussions: Cantata 1 | Cantata 2 | Cantata 3 | Cantata 4 | Cantata 5 | Cantata 6 | Part 7: Summary Individual Recordings: BWV 248 – Collegium Aureum | BWV 248 - H. Christophers | BWV 248 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 248 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 248 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 248 - R. Jacobs | BWV 248 - N. McGegan | BWV 248 - R. Otto | BWV 248 - K. Richter | BWV 248 - H. Rilling | BWV 248 - P. Schreier | BWV 248 - M. Suzuki | BWV 248 - K. Thomas | BWV 248 - J.v. Veldhoven
Articles: A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio [D. Satz] | BWV 248/19 “Schlafe, mein Liebster” - A Background Study with Focus on the Colla Parte Flauto Traverso Part [T. Braatz]

Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127


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Last update: Monday, February 05, 2018 23:05