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Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248
General Discussions - Part 8

Continue from Part 7

Discussions in the Week of December 4, 2016 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote wrote (December 4, 2016):
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Introduction

Bach’s mid-1730s composition of his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, was an affirmation of both Lutheran and Catholic tradition and another major step in Bach’s conception of a Christological Cycle of major music that culminated 15 years later with his completion of the “Great Catholic” B-Minor Mass, BWV 232. This sacred Yule drama, with most of its choruses and arias shaped from Dresden Court congratulatory drammi per musica through parody or new text underlay, utilizes the emerging gallant idiom of dances and love duets to form a work of stile misto or mixed style. As part of his calling for a “well-ordered church music to the glory of God,” its composition manifested his embracing new styles while continuing to pursue his interest in old, particularly polyphonic music. The Christmas Oratorio was the first of three extant oratorios for the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Ascension, with a possible, lost Pentecost Oratorio, all conceived and presented in Leipzig on the major Christological feasts day celebrations of the church year, honoring Jesus Christ.

A major vocal work long disregarded by Bach scholars and musicians as self-plagiarism and light music, the Christmas Oratorio is now considered a masterpiece that is unique and fulfills its conception of the Christmas story for the Lutheran congregation. With its cantata-like parts for the six services from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany, it is the centerpiece of Bach’s varied Christmas-time music for the birth of the Christ-child in its theological meaning of incarnation or God made man in the flesh. It presents the narrative from the Gospels of Luke 2:1-21 and Matthew 2:1-12, with interpretive choruses, arias, and ariosi, as well as collective chorales in oratorio historia form.1

The first part (for Christmas Day) describes the Birth [or Nativity] of Jesus, the second (for December 26) the Annunciation to the shepherds, the third (for December 27) the Adoration of the shepherds, the fourth (for New Year's Day) the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, the fifth (for the first Sunday after New Year) the Journey of the Magi, and the sixth (for Epiphany) the Adoration of the Magi, says Wikipedia.2 Especially for the feasts of Christmas Day, New Year’s, and Epiphany, its music compliments other traditional, “well-ordered” pieces Bach presented during the extended early main service involving polyphonic introit Psalm motets, settings of the Latin Mass Ordinary Missa: Kyrie-Gloria and Sanctus, and organ chorale preludes for the congregation, as well as the evening vesper services with his Magnificat setting of Mary’s Canticle.

Leipzig Religion, Music

As it happens today, the Christmas Day Feast was the most popular service in Leipzig in Bach’s time, the focal point of a religious outpouring that saw this Saxon intellectual and commercial center renovate old churches to accommodate the growing attendance and additional mid-week services, observes Robin A. Leaver.3 It’s concomitant musical tradition was nurtured at the Thomas Church and School for many years where Bach served as cantor, as well as the University of Leipzig and the Collegium musicum. The Lutheran liturgy “was an extraordinary mosaic that encompassed unadorned chant, congregational hymnody, the organ . . . and the rich counterpoint of concerted music,” observes Leaver (Ibid.: 10).

Meanwhile, following the devastation of the 30 Years War in 1649, Leipzig under the domain of the ruling Saxon Court in Dresden, officially practicing Roman Catholicism, continued to observe various Catholic liturgical and musical practices which Bach pursued increasingly in the 1730s. Instead of continuing to compose and present cycles of church year cantatas as cantor, Bach as Leipzig music director expanded his profane interests to the progressive Saxon-court faction serving on the Town Council, which had favored his employment, as well as to community intellectual, business, cultural, and social puruits. He directed his interests to musical colleagues in Dresden, where he sought and finally achieved the title of Court Composer in 1735, and continued to present drammi per musica for the annual visit of the Saxon Court family of Augustus III.

A strong connection in particular is found between the Thomas Church and the Dresden court’s Kreuzkirchke where in 1664 senior court composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) presented his narrative Historia der Geburst Jesu Christi, SWV 435 (Story of the Birth of Jesus Christ) at Christmas vespers. The musical setting of the biblical account of the Nativity (Luke 2:15-21) and Herod and the Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-23) uses the new recitative style, interspersed with instrumental intermedii (interludes) and opening and closing choruses.4

Schütz published only the Evangelist’s recitatives but made available the intermedii music through the two churches in Leipzig and Dresden. The narratives began as chant-based forms in German Passion settings and “histories” of the Nativity, Resurrection, and Ascension. The tradition of festive Christmas music in Lutheran Germany dates to Michael Praetorius’ Christmas Vespers music of 1620, blending the polychoral motet style of Monteverdi and the German chorale tradition.5

About the turn of the 18th century the German oratorio form embracing various types of music began to take shape in the Hamburg area where various composers and poets created works for the Hamburg opera. During Lenten season when the opera was closed, they turned to static histories which utilized choruses, arias, and ariosi. To this they added biblical narration, both literal and poetic paraphrase, particularly the emerging Passion. A secular form of oratorio was developed by Dietrich Buxtehude (c1637-1707) in Lübeck.6

Buxtehude Adendmusiken Oratorios

Between mid-November and -December 1705, Bach encountered first-hand the Buxtehude Abendmusiken while he was on leave from his organist’s post in Arnstadt. Two non-liturgical, extended, hybrid dramatic oratorio presentations in five parts with large performing forces were given in church public concerts. With inserted chorales for the congregation, the music commemorated the death of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (Castrum Dolores) and celebrated the accession of successor Joseph I (Templus honoris). No music survives, only the librettos.

Much later, Bach’s drammi per musica for the Dresden Court, three serving as parody material (BWV 213-215), employed musical components that Buxtehude had used, including their “mutual use of the love duet, of chorale dialogues, and of trumpets and timpani associated with nobility,” observes Kerala J. Snyder in “Oratorio on Five Afternoons: From the Lübeck Abendmusiken to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.”7 Further, the “genres of dramma per musica and oratorio are closely related ,” observes Markus Rathey in “From Love Song to Lullaby – The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.”.8 “While the dramma per musica was the smaller relative of opera, the oratorio was the sacred sister of the genre,” he says.

Love Songs

Buxtehude, whose organ music profoundly influenced Bach (the reason he went to Northern Germany in 1705-06), also set a dialogue from the biblical Song of Solomon, between the allegorical figures of the Bride and Bridegroom (Faithful Soul and Jesus), BUXWV 111, Snyder points out. The Song of Solomon also was set by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) as a dialogue wedding cantata, “Meine Freundin, du bist schön” (My beloved, you are beautiful).9 In the Christmas Oratorio, Bach parody set a soprano-bass duet, “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen” (Lord, your compassion, your mercy) as a love dialogue with two oboes d’amore, Snyder points out (Ibid.: 86f). This duet (no. 29) occurs as the shepherds journey to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child.

The original version of the Christmas Oratorio love duet found in Bach’s 1733 Cantata BWV 213, “Laßt uns sorgen, lasst wachen” (Let us take care, let us keep watch), is a love duet that unashamedly begins with a paraphrase from the Song of Solomon (6:3), “Ich bin deine’ (I am yours), “Du bist meine” (you are mine), the original being, “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” In Bach’s original, “it is one of the most enticing and erotic moments in all of Bachs music!,” says Rathey (Ibid.: 43).

In all, Bach borrowed the opening chorus and four other arias from Cantata 213 for the young Saxon crown prince for its sacred parody of “the Christ child as the ruler over heaven and earth – again, most probably a case of premeditated reuse of material to create a permanent repertory piece,” observes Christoph Wolff in “Under the Spell of Opera? Bach’s Oratorio Trilogy.”10 “For Bach, the connections between dramma per musica and oratorio manifest themselves also in single arias, for these arias focus primarily on human virtues, qualities, and emotions and generally relate to the character of the original dramatis persona,” says Wolff.

The Christmas Oratorio is “the first, grandest, and most important of the three oratorios, says Richard D. P Jones in “Sacred and Secular Vocal Works II: Oratorios.” 11 Besides the six movements from Cantata 213, Bach parodied four from Cantata 214 and one from Cantata 215. Since almost all the madrigalian arias and chorus movements from Cantatas 213 and 214 were used (and composed a year earlier), “we cannot exclude the possibility that these pieces were already earmarked for parody at the time of their composition,” says Jones (Ibid.: 309). “We are here presented with a classic case of Bach’s bringing occasional music, which had served its purpose at its original performance, into permanent form.”

Divine Love Meditations

“The transformation from love duet into a meditation of divine love was aided by the fact that Christmas, in Bach’s time, was understood as a demonstration of divine love,” says Rathey (Ibid.: 46). The music “tells the story of Christ’s incarnation as a love story between God and mankind,” he relates (Ibid.: 51). It describes the Doctrine of the “Threefold Advent of Christ”: coming into the flesh, coming into all hearts, and coming in judgment (Ibid.: 52f). The three-day Christmas Festival (December 25-27) observes the Nativity, the Annunciation, and the Adoration of the Shepherds. The other three parts observe: New Year’s, the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus; Sunday after New Year’s, Journey of the Magi; and Epiphany, Adoration of the Magi.

Another form of love duet are the three original chorale-recitative dialogues, sung by the soprano with the bass singing a poetic commentary, as Snyder points out. Their incipits are: (no. 7), Soprano, “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” (He has come on Earth in poverty), bass, “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn” (Who will rightly extol the love); No. 38, Bass, “Immanuel, o süßes Wort! / Mein Jesus heißt mein Hort” (Emmanuel, O sweet word! / My Jesus is my refuge), Soprano trope, “Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben, / Meiner Seelen Bräutigam” (Jesus, you who are my dearest life, / My soul's bridegroom); and No. 40, Bass, “Wohlan, dein Name soll allein / In meinem Herzen sein!” (Well then, your name alone / Shall be in my heart), Soprano trope, “ Jesu, meine Freud und Wonne, / Meine Hoffnung, Schatz und Teil” (Jesus, my joy and delight / My hope, treasure and share). The last two chorales are found in the Johann Rist 1642 collection, Himmlische Lieder. These last two dialogues (BCW English translation Francis Browne) are found at the beginning of the Christmas Oratorio, Part 4, the Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (Emmanuel, God with us).

Trumpets and drums are symbols of festive nobility and, following Buxtehude’s lead in the 1705 Abendmusiken, Bach particularly used these instruments in his opening chorus, “Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage” (Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day), and the bass aria with trumpet (no. 8), “Großer Herr, o starker König” (Great Lord, O mighty king), drawn from Cantata BWV 214, “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!” (Sound, you drums! Ring out, you trumpets!), composed a year earlier.

Besides particular musical influences of Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, its unusual structure presented more than a month may have given Bach a similar opportunity. It is possible that Buxtehude’s “radical but long-lived concept of the dramatic Abendmusik series, in which a story is spread out over five performances in as many weeks, inspired the structure of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with its six performances produced in a more reasonable time span of under two weeks,” says Snyder (Ibid.: 94). “Both the Lübeck Abendmusiken and the Dresden opera may have inspired Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, just as the Hamburg Opera Had spawned Buxtehide’s dramatic Abendmusiken,” concludes Snyder (Ibid.: 95). “Although Bach’s Christmas Oratorio lacks the named characters that populate Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken, and its venue lay in the liturgy of the church rather than in public concerts, it nonetheless displays drama in music of the highest art.”

Evolving Style, Complimentary Tone

“Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a compendium of his evolving styles and approaches during the 1730s and 1740s,” suggests John Eliot Gardiner in his musical biography emphasizing vocal works, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.12 In particular, throughout the work “we encounter Bach’s fresh ways of handling his chorales,” citing the voice-leading with “an even stronger sense of proportion and balance” as well as “greater warmth.” At the same time as the composition of the feast day oratorios in the mid-1730s, Bach began the composition of the four Missa: Kyrie-Gloria, BWV 233-36, Gardiner points out ((Ibid.: 530). These are contrafactions of old motet-like and new dance-styles from sacred cantata arias and choruses primarily from the third cycle in 1726. These realizations are most appropriate during the feast-day services with their Latin settings of the Mass Ordinary and this may be why Bach compiled them.

The “tone of the Christmas Oratorio in unmistakable: a Christian joyfulness, sometimes pensive sometimes exuberant, full of melody not least in the new recitative,” says Peter Williams in “Leipzig, the middle years,” in his just-published Bach: A Musical Biography.13 “Equally unmistakable is the work’s position in the biography. This is music of the 1730s by a mature composer looking towards Dresden and its tastes.” These include both love lullabies as well as “arias of a more distinct gallant cast,” as well as old-fashion chorales, “mostly in the major and often very familiar” (Ibid.: 358), with “newly thought progressions, imaginative accented passing notes, more fluid lines than usual, in every case demonstrating some new thinking.” The music’s “overall tone” “is immensely warm and light, meticulous in its contrapuntal detail, wide-ranging on its melodies and with startling moments of unexpected charm,” such as the return of the oboes in the final chorale of Part II, playing the same theme they did in the opening Pastoral Symphony, as well as the flourishing trumpets closing Part 1. The use of polonaise-style music, a “dutiful illusion to the union of [Catholic] Poland and Saxony,” strengthens the sense of Dresden with “the newer tastes that were transforming parish-church music in general,” observes Williams (Ibid.: 384).

To “compensate for the lack of dramatic action,” each of the cantata-type parts of the Christmas Oratorio has a different spiritual theme, says John Butt, Bach conductor and scholar, in the liner notes to his new recording.14

For example, Part 1, the Nativity, “focuses on the spiritual marriage between the believer and the coming Saviour, together with his ultimate kingship (thus developing the vivid image of the triumphant Jesus in Revelation); Part 4 concentrates on the implications of the naming of Jesus and on the many predicates and feelings his name might carry for the believer; Part 6 concentrates on the inevitable defeat of those who dare oppose the truth brought by Jesus.”

“Another, complimentary strawas to give a scenic, almost pictorial character to each of the six parts,” says Butt. Part 1 with trumpets in the opening chorus, bass aria and closing chorale, sets a brilliant festive beginning; Part 2, the Annunciation, with oboes and flutes, emphasizes the rural, pastoral character of the shepherds, particularly in the opening Pastoral Symphony; Part 3, the Adoration of the Shepherds, emphasizes the humility of the shepherds, “which is matched by the boundless love and compassion of Jesus”; Part 4, the Naming of Jesus, “cultivates the most elegant, courtly atmosphere,” with dance-like music and horns in the opening chorus and the elaborate closing chorale; Part 5, the Wise Men’s Journey, emphasizes the light of the guiding star with expectation and uplifting spirits; and Part 6, Adoration of the Magi, again stresses brilliance and a “defiant sense of victory,” with a contrasting soprano aria in Polonaise style (no. 57), “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen” (Just a wave of your hand).

Secular to Sacred Borrowings

Early reception of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in the mid-19 century was met with consternation because Bach had borrowed extensively for his arias and choruses. To some it was laziness, to others, sacrilegious. Later scholars and musicians have come to realize that Bach’s process of self-borrowing was pragmatic, utilitarian, intentional, and effective. Music composed for a unique, secular occasion could be recycled and transformed through a process of new-text underlay for sacred application. It was a tradition established in the Renaissance when often vernacular, profane texts such as l'homme armé (the armed man), could be recast through contrafaction into the Latin Mass Ordinary. Thereby, the congregation could better understand and remember the Mass text and possibly its import.

As to a sacrilegious or idolatrous charge, Bach and his society still accepted the principal of God-given authority instilled in earthly monarchs, particularly in the case of the Catholic Saxon Court and its acceptance of Lutheranism, as well as the Leipzig royalist party’s support of Bach’s position as cantor and director of music. “Bach’s belief in the divine right of monarchs was probably of a piece with his belief and trust in God,” observes Butt (Ibid.: 11). As Butt points out, the three extant 1733 secular models for the Christmas Oratorio, Cantatas BWV 213-215, celebrate birthdays of the monarch, Augustus III; his wife, Maria Josepha; and their son, Friedrich Christian. “Much of the text and music of the resulting oratorio points to the figure of Jesus as supremely ’royal’,” Butt comments.

Bach’s adaptation of the secular celebratory original texts observes various Baroque conventions. Most prominent is the affect, or general mood, of the music itself in which the opera-style free da-capo arias and choruses convey the meaning of the poetic text. The words are designed as commentary or interpretation of the allegorical-mythological figures representing various regal character qualities such as Pleasure, Virtue and Fame. In many cases, Bach through his librettist, probably Picander, was able to transform certain qualities or characteristics, through virtual reversal, Butt points out (Ibid.: 12). For example, the “archetypical lullaby for the infant Jesus,” the alto aria, “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh” (Sleep, my dearest, enjoy your rest), as the Shepherds approach the manger in Part 2 (no. 19), originated as a Pleasure seduction aria towards the young Hercules (the Saxon Prince) in Cantata 213, “Schlafe, mein Liebster, und pflege der Ruh” (Sleep, my darling, and get used to ease). These reversals could suggest that Bach’s listeners “found meaning through the context and the counterpoint of music and text rather than through any ‘fixed’ musical meaning,” says Butt.

Passion Influences

In the last three parts of the Christmas Oratorio, Bach use of Passion chorale melodies and possibly Passion turba choruses from his St. Mark Passion, BWV 247, could have symbolic and theological meaning, says Butt, citing scholar Robin A. Leaver.15 In Part 4, the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, the soprano-bass dialogues (nos. 38 and 40, see above, “Divine Love Meditations) using the Passiontide chorale, “Jesu, mein liebstes Leben,” “specifically associate the first shedding of the blood of Christ (circumcision) with the Crucifixion,” comments Butt. In Part 5, the Magi ask, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?,” which is a possible parody of “Ah though that destroyest the temple,” 39b (114), in the St. Mark Passion.

Of particular note, Part 6, the Adoration of the Magi, closes with a festive chorus setting of the Passion Chorale known as “O sacred head, now wounded.” This same melody is found at the beginning of the Christmas Oratorio in the first chorale, set to a Paul Gerhardt text, “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” (How should I receive you). This suggests that the entire oratorio is a celebration of the Incarnation, “which would eventually lead to the crucifixion, atonement and resurrection,” says Butt.

Bach also uses this Passion melody in various non-Passion cantata settings, as other scholars have pointed out, says Butt. Perhaps Bach meant this melody to serve a dual purpose as part of the Christus Paradox of God and Man, to emphasize both the incarnation as well as, in a reversal, Christ’s Coming in Judgment. For example, the source of this chorus, as well as all the other madrigalian movements in Part 6, is a sacred cantata thought to have been composed in 1733, possibly for the Feast of Michael and All-Angels, in which Satan as evil is defeated, good triumphs and judgment is rendered.

Another reason for the earlier devaluing of the Christmas Oratorio is the lighter style of the music cast as an historical oratorio in the form of Bach’s poignant oratorio Passion settings of John, Matthew, and Mark, the last, a similar madrigalian parody introduced in 1731 and the overall (re)compositional model for the Christmas Oratorio. The difference is based both on the subject matter, the joyous birth of Jesus, and the “new stylistic direction” that Bach undertook in the early 1730s, says Butt (Ibid. 13). Bach sought “to integrate elements from the more modern gallant idioms” with “graceful, strongly phrased melodies” like the alto lullaby in Part 2 and soprano-bass duet in Part 3, and the “lighter, folk-inspired idioms (particularly in Part 2), says Butt.


1 Christmas Oratorio, BCW Details & Recordings,; Score Vocal & Piano, and Score BGA, as well as German & English texts, and other details found in six parts. References: BGA V/2 (CO, Wilhelm Rust, 1856, NBA KB II/6 (BWV 248, Walter Blankenburg & Alfred Dürr, 1962), Bach Compendium BC D 7, Zwang: K 190.
2 Wikipedia entry with sections on biblical “Narrative Structure,” First “Performance,” “Music,” “Instrumentation” with Notes, “Text” with Bach’s special settings, and 64 “Parts and numbers” with movement type, Key, Time, First line, Scoring, & Source, as well as Recordings, References, Sources, and External Links; see
3 Robin A. Leaver & Paul McCreesh, “Lutheran Epiphany Mass” liner notes, a reconstruction of the Epiphanyfest service c.1740 (see BCW,
4 Paul McCreesh, Schütz Christmas Vespers (notes,; music,
5 Paul McCreesh, Preaotrius Mass for Christmas Morning, notes,, music,
6 See William Hoffman, “Northern Germany: Abendmusiken and Passion-Oratorio,” in BCW Article Bach’s Dramatic Music: Serenades, Drammi per Musica, Oratorios (2008,
7 Kerala J. Snyder article in J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition, ed. Daniel R. Melamed; Bach Perspectives 9, American Bach Society (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011: 84).
8 Rathey, Chapter 3 in Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (New Haven CN: Yale University Press, 2016.
9 For details of Christoph Bach’s motet, see BCW, “Bach Family Dialogue Concerti,”; music,
10 Christoph Wolff in J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition (Ibid.: 10), see Footnote 7.
11 Richard D. P. Jones, The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Volume II: 1717-1750. “Music to Delight the Spirit” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013: 308).
12 Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013: 532), music,
13 Peter Williams, Bach: A Musical Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2016: 357f).
14John Butt notes, scroll down to Page 10; Dundin Concort, Linn Records CKD 499D, details,
15 Robin A. Leaver, “The mature vocal works and their theological and liturgical context,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bach, ed. John Butt (Cambridge University Press, 1997: 98).


To Come: Christmas Oratorio: new compositional directions, especially the dance element, and a historical look at the changing Christmas Season culture in Leipzig, as well as musical forerunners and other composer’s Yuletide interests, and Bach’s Christmas Day Leipzig performance calendar.

William Hoffman wrote wrote (December 9, 2016):
Christmas: Oratorio, Forerunners, Cantata 142, Rathey Book Review

Following the early German baroque tradition of Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schütz, Bach’s predecessors as Cantor at the Thomas School and Church in Leipzig helped lay the groundwork for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, in its content and form. Of particular note (and their dates as cantors) are Johann Schelle (1677-1701), and Sebastian Knüpfer (1657-1676). Bach knew his predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, and the Christmas Cantata, “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” (Unto us a child is born), formerly attributed to Bach as BWV 142, is possibly the work of Kuhnau or one of various composers in Leipzig between 1700 and 1710.

Furthering this Yule tradition were the Leipzig Collegia musica ensembles of mostly university students led by various musical notables.1

The three cantors' settings during the growth of Lutheranism and the emergence of a special piety and theology helped shape the Christmas Oratorio as a masterpiece among Bach’s mature works often utilizing parody or contrafaction, that is existing music with a new-text underlay. Bach’s account of the six services at Christmas Season is the culmination and centerpiece of his Christological cycle of varied musical settings involving cantatas as musical sermons, Latin liturgical settings, introit psalm motets, and Lutheran congregational chorales.

The twin themes of the compositional process that shaped and produced Bach’s static sacred Yuletide drama, without historical parallel, and the cultural and theological understanding of Bach’s Christmastime in Leipzig are explored in depth in Marcus Rather’s new Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture.2 The music the three previous cantors had composed followed a direct and unique line beginning with Praetorius’ c.1620 Christmas Mass setting of polychoral motets and chorales, leading to Schütz’s narrative story, Historia der Freuden- und Gnadenreichen Geburth Gites un Marien Sohnes, Jesu Cristi (History of the Joyously- and Richly-Merciful Birth of God’s and Mary’s Son, Jesus Christ) of 1660/64.

Leipzig Cantors Knüpfer, Schelle

Subsequently, cantor Knüpfer composed a Christmas concerto setting, “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her,” of Luther Christmas chorales and others’ hymns, the Gloria from Luke 2:14, and free poetic texts. Dating to c1683, Schelle’s Actus musicus “is a somewhat straightforward setting of the Christmas story from Luke 2, combined with hymn stanzas and occasional instrumental interludes,” says Rathey (Ibid.: 38). Bach also used this music in his various settings. This work was part of a cycle of oratorio-type cantatas (concertos) and he also composed a cycle beginning with chorales, as his Actus musicus does.

Knüpfer was the Leipzig agent for the distribution of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie, and “we can assume that the piece was at some point performed in Leipzig as well,” says Rathey (Ibid.: 39). On a smaller scale is Knüpfer’s Christmas concerto, also with Luther’s “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar” and Kaspar Füger’s 1592 “Wir Christenleut,” as well as other chorales (music download, Instead of an oratorio-like setting with biblical texts, Knüpfer still has a “clear dramatic element,” says Rathey (Ibid.), with the introduction of the angel announcing the birth and the juxtaposition of choirs of angels and shepherds.

Elements in Schelle’s Actus musicus that Bach later uses include the various narrative choirs and the setting of Luther’s “Vom Himmel Hoch,” Stanza 13, “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein” (Ah little Jesus dear to my heart), that closes Part 1, the Nativity, in BWV 248/9 with trumpet flourishes, as well as the textual, theological references to Jesus coming into the heart of the believer as unio mystica and Mary as motherly love, says Rathey (Ibid.: 40f). Schelle work also uses Stanza 5, “Alleluia: Gelobet sei Gott” (Allelujah! Praise be to God), of “Wir Christenleut haben jetzund Freud” (We Christian people have joy now). This text also is used to close Bach’s Cantata BWV 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (May our mouth be filled with laughter, Psalm 126:2), for Christmas Day 1725 (see BCML Discussion, week of December 11). Bach also uses the anonymous melody to a different text in Part 3, the Adoration of the Shepherds, in his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248/35. The same Stanza 5 also is the closing chorale for the anonymous Christmas Cantata 142.

Around the turn of the 18th century, a Leipzig Collegium musicum performed at the annual New Year’s Fair, beginning on the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, closing the Christmas season. Meanwhile, the Leipzig opera house, founded in 1693, would mount a new production. This heralded the development of the Italian-style cantata with its madrigalian choruses and arias, as well as accompanied recitatives, and plain chorale settings, elements central to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Anonymous Christmas Cantata 142

The apocryphal Bach Cantata BWV 142, “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” (Unto us a child is born), whose composer is still unknown, dates to as early as the first decade of the 18th century, with its mix of choruses, arias and recitatives (recording, Lasting about 14 minutes in eight brief movements, it is a hybrid, non-symmetrical, possibly adaptation involving three arias and a plain recitative text (variant) of Erdmann Neumeister, two choruses set to biblical words, an osinfonia, and a closing plain chorale.3

Accompanied by pairs of recorders and oboes with strings, its setting of two da-capo arias (nos. 5 and 7) with parodied texts in the same work ruled out Bach as the composer but the model “is not unknown in their predecessors,” observes W. Gillies Whittaker in The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.FN Its attribution to Johann Kuhnau (1660-1772) in the early 20th century suggested to Whittaker that Kuhnau “may well have been responsible for the first version. If Bach took a hand in it at all, it may have been in remodeling the arias, which are short and not without charm.”

“The work is distinguished by its striking instrumentation and the variety of its musical forms,” says Peter Wollny in the 2004 liner notes to the Wolfgang Helbich CPO recording.5 The three arias are “markedly graceful,” with the three soloists (bass, tenor, alto) entering in ascending sequence with the separate sound groups of high instruments accompanying, respectively, with violins, oboes, and recorders, Wollny points out. The biblical dictum second fugal chorus, following the bass aria (no . 3), is a paraphrase of Psalm 69.3.

Cantata 142 movements, scoring, incipits, key, meter:6

1. Concerto, instrumental sinfonia, 33 mm. (2 recorders, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo); a minor; 4/4.
2. Chorus double fugue, 41mm [SATB, tutti instruments]: “Uns ist ein Kind geboren, / ein Sohn ist uns gegeben.” (A child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, Isaiah 9.6); a minor; 4/4.
3. Aria in two parts, with short ritornelli, 38 mm [Bass; 2 violins, continuo]: Dein Geburtstag ist erschienen, / so erfordert meine Pflicht, / dich, mein Jesu zu bedienen.” (Your birthday has appeared / and so my duty requires / that I should serve you, my Jesus.); “Doch, ich Armer weiß gar nicht, / was ich suche, was ich finde, / welches dir zum Angebinde / dich, o großer Gott, vergnügt.” (But I – poor man -- do not know at all -- / what I could look for, what I could find / that as a gift for you / might be considered a holy offering / that would please you, o great God.); e minor; 4/4.
4. Chorus fugal, 64mm [SATB; strings, continuo]: “Ich will den Namen Gottes loben mit einem Liede, / und will ihn hoch ehren mit Dank.” (I wish to praise God’s name with a song / and honour him highly with my gratitude.); C Major; ¾.
5. Aria da capo, opening theme from Concerto, 22 mm [Tenor; 2 oboes, continuo): A. “Jesu, dir sei Preis gesungen, / Jesu, dir sei Ehr' und Ruhm!” (Jesus, may praise be sung to you / Jesus, may you have honour and glory!); B. Denn das Los ist mir in allen / auf das Lieblichste gefallen; / du, du bist mein Eigentum.” (For the lot that has fallen to me / is the most delightful of all; you, you belong to me.); a minor; 4/4.
6. Recitative secco, 8 mm [Alto, continuo]: “ Immanuell! Du wollest dir gefallen lassen, / daß dich mein Geist und Glaube kann umfassen; / kann ich die Freude gleich so herzlich nicht entdecken, / die dein Geburtstag will erwecken, / wird doch mein schwaches Lallen / dir durch Lob und Preis gefallen.” (Immanuel, it has been your pleasure to allow / my spirit and faith to grasp you; / even if I am not able wholeheartedly to reveal all the joy that the day of your birth will inspire, / yet my feeble stammering will still / please you through giving praise and honour.); f minor; 4/4.
7. Aria da capo (same music as No. 5) [Alto; 2 recorders, continuo]: A. Jesu, dir sei Preis gesungen, / denn ich bin durch dich erlöst” (Jesus, may praise be sung to you / for it is through you that I have been redeemed.”; B. “Nichts betrübet das Gemüte, / da mein Herz durch deine Güte / überschwenglich wird getröst't.” (Nothing troubles my soul / since my heart through your kindness / has been abundantly consoled.); d minor; 4/4.
8. Chorale plain, with ritornelli, 41mm [SATB; winds, 2 violins obbligato; viola, continuo): “Alleluja, Alleluia, gelobet sei Gott, / singen wir aus unsres Herzen Grunde, / denn Gott hat heut' / gemacht solch Freud' / der wir vergessen soll'n zu keiner Stunde.” (Alleluia, alleluia, may God be praised, / let us sing from the bottom of our hearts, / for God has today / created such joy / that at no time should we ever forget it.); a minor; ¾.

Cantata 142 appeared authentic, a “seemingly certain attestation,” says Wollny (Ibid.). Christian Friedrich Penzel, one of Bach’s last students and prefect in 1755, copied Bach cantatas found in the Thomas School archives, including this work (original lost). Five cantatas of Bach survive only in copies by Penzel: BWV 150, 157-159 and 106. Cantata 142 Provenance is as follows: Penzel - J. G. Schuster (1801) - Franz Hauser (1833) - J. Hauser (1870) - BB (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (1904).

The text of Cantata 142 was based on Neumeister’s third annual cycle of 1711, first set by Georg Philipp Telemann, TVWV 1:1151 (recording,; details,,_BWV_142). In 1720, Kuhnau performed a cantata setting of Neumeister’s text, “differing textually, however, in many details,” says Wollny (Kuhnau article with list of extant works, Kuhnau also composed various cantata settings for Christmas, including one beginning with the chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (How beautifully shines the morning star). Kuhnau also composed a Latin Magnificat setting ( “Kuhnau’s mastery of styles and forms suggests a versatile and lively musical mind, something which belies his current reputation as the somewhat dull and pedantic predecessor of Bach, observes John Butt in his Kuhnau profile in the Sacred Music recording by the King’s Concort (

Another composer with Leipzig associations in the early 1700s to whom Cantata 142 may be considered is Georg Melchior Hoffman (c.1679-1715), Leipzig New Church music director, whose Magnificat setting, BWV Anh. 21, was attributed to Bach, as well as Cantatas BWV 53 and 189 (see BCW Biography, Other composers7 were Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), violinist whi worked in Leipzig 1710-12, whose cantatas are lost; Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), who student Collegium musicum at Christmas 1710 set music for the Leipzig University Church, and young Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749), who studied in Leipzig, 1707-10 (see BCW Biography, Another possibility is an unknown composer from the Kuhnau-Hoffmann Leipzig circle who also was associated with the cantata texts of Neumeister, who studied in Leipzig c.1695 and was a pastor in Weissenfels, Sorau, and Hamburg (BCW Biography,

Stölzel, Mid-1730s Music

Stölzel, court composer at Gotha and Sondershausen, has come to be a major figure in Bach performances in the mid 1730s at the time Bach’s oratorios were composed and he began the contrafaction arrangements of the four Missae: Kyrie-Gloria, BWV 233-36 for feast days services to accompany the oratorios. At Good Friday 1734 before undertaking the Christmas Oratorio, Bach presented Stölzel’s poetic Passion oratorio, “Ein Lammlein geht,” (A Lambkind goes fourth), followed after the oratorios with the first of possibly two Stölzel double cantata cycles, known as the Names of Jesus and the String cycles. Coincidentally, from Christmas 1736 to Epiphany 1737, Sölzel performed his setting of a so-called non-liturgical “Christmas Oratorio in the Form of a Cantata Cycle” in the Sondershausen court chapel (recording information,ölzel-Christmas-Weimar-Baroque-Ensemble/dp/B00003Q083, biography & works,ölzel.

Before beginning his Christmas Oratorio as a series of feast day oratorios in the mid-1730s, Bach had completed three church year cantata cycles, three biblical Passion settings of John, Matthew, and Mark, as well as the Missa: Kyrie-Gloria, BWV 233a, 1733 setting that opens the B-Minor Mass, Bach’s Leipzig Christmas Day Performance calendar (BCW Cantatas for Christmas Day,

1723-12-25 Sa - Cantata BWV 63 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (2nd performance, Leipzig) + Magnificat in E flat major BWV 243a (1st performance, Leipzig)
1724-12-25 Mo - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (1st performance, Leipzig, earlier version); Sanctus, BWV 238
1725-12-25 Di - Cantata BWV 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (1st performance, Leipzig)
1726-12-25 Mi – no documentation
1727-12-25 Do – no documentation
1728-12-25 Sa - Cantata BWV 197a Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (1st performance, Leipzig) (? or the following year)
1729-12-25 So - Cantata BWV 63 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (3rd performance, Leipzig) (?)
1730-12-25 Mo – no documentation
1731-12-25 Di - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (2nd performance, Leipzig, earlier version; or 1732)
1732-12-25 Do - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (2nd performance, Leipzig, earlier version; or 1731)
1733-12-25 Fr - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (3rd performance, Leipzig, later version)
1734-12-25 Sa - Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248/1 Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (1st performance, Leipzig)
1735-12-25 So - G.H. Stölzel: Uns ist ein Kind geboren, ein Sohn ist uns gegeben, Mus A 15:38 + Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, Mus A 15:39
1746-12-25 So - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (5th performance, Leipzig, later version; or 1747)
1747-12-25 Mo - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (5th performance, Leipzig, later version; or 1746)

Vocal works with no definite date:
(1728-1731) - Cantata BWV 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (2nd performance, Leipzig)
(1736-1737) - Cantata BWV 197a Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (2nd performance, Leipzig)
(After 1740) - Cantata BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (4th performance, Leipzig, earlier version)
(1743-1746) - Cantata BWV 191 Gloria in excelsis Deo (1st performance, Leipzig)
(?) - J. Kuhnau: Cantata BWV 142 Uns ist ein Kind Geoboren (not known if performed by J.S. Bach)
(?) - G.M. Hoffmann: Little Magnificat in A minor BWV Anh 21 (?,not known if performed by J.S. Bach)

Marcus Rathey's New Book

Marcus Rathey’s new study of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology and Culture (Oxford University Press, 12016), is an exhaustive, source-based examination of what has emerged as a major masterpiece, shedding its earliest historical reception in the 19th century as a light, inconsequential work of self-plagiarism and idolatrous contrivance. The chapter titles hint at the breadth and depth of this odyssey: “Redefining Christmas,” “Layers of Time: The Theology of the Christmas Oratorio,” Bach’s Oratorio Concept,” “Planning the Oratorio,” and the six parts: Part 1, Nativity, “Dichotomies”; Part 2, Annunciation to Shepherds, “Mundane and Celestial Harmonies”; Part 3, Shepherds’ Adoration, “Inward Mobility”; Circumcision & Naming, “’What’s in a Name’?”; Paar 5, Magi Journey, “Paths of Enlightenment” (Part 5), and Part 6, Magi Adoration, “The Bridegroom and the Enemy.”

Rathey’s latest book follows on the heels of his Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (Yale University Press, 2016), with its Chapter 3, “From Love Song to Lullaby: The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.” His new monograph is an exemplar for an individual study of Bach’s major vocal works and hopefully will lead to other studies of the Passions, groups of cantatas for seasons and special uses, and the other oratorios, as well as the instrumental music (Peter Williams emphasizes the keyboard music in his new Bach: A Musical Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The cultural and religious climate of Bach’s time and his oratorio are the basic subject of Rathey’s study, examining various German sources, particularly before Bach’s time. Of central interest, and an extension of his previous book, is the theme of the heart, found in graphic and devotional literature, with an emphasis on love songs and duets. His theological studies focus on the unio mystica of the human heart in the “The Duty in life” concept of the meaning of the Christmas feast with its related “Doctrine of Faith” and “Consolation of Faith” as “Christ comes as a child to make mankind children of God,” relates Rathey (Ibid.: 9).

Rathey also conducts a philological study of the textutal and musical influences found often in this extensive parody work. Musically, in “Redefining Christmas,” Rathey examines the traditions that were most directly influential on Bach (see above, “Leipzig Cantors Knüpfer, Schelle”). In the chapter, “Layers of Time: The Theology of the Christmas Oratorio,” examined is the “The Threefold Meaning of Christmas,” that is the three modes of Christ’s coming, into the flesh, into our hearts, and at the final judgement. These are found in the prayer books and libretti of Bach contemporary poets (and pastors) Neumeister (see above, “Anonymous Christmas Cantata 142,” and Benjamin Schmolck (Stölzel’s librettist; see above, “Stölzel, Mid-1730s Music”).

The oratorio libretto, possibly by Picander, “has three gravitational centers: the historical event of the birth of Jesus, the existential meaning on this coming expressed in the image of Christ’s indwelling in the believer’s heart, and the return of Christ at the end of Time” [the eschatology), says Rathey (Ibid.: 61). At the same time, in order to engage the congregation, Bach set plain chorales with elaborate instrumental support, a chorale chorus, and three dialogues with troped poetic materials as love duets, emphasizing Christmas hymns of Martin Luther, Johann Rist, and Paul Gerhardt, moving from traditional to pietist-flavored stanzas.

In the chapter “Bach’s Oratorio Concept,” Rathey studies contemporary models and the influence of poetic Passion texts of Stölzel (see above) and Johann Adolph Hasse at the Dresden court, both performed on Good Friday 1734. No examples of other composers so-called “Christmas Oratorios” are cited, except for Carl Heinrich Graun’s poetic work with chorales (Ibid.: 80f), “Mache dich auf, werde Licht,” and no date but similar in structure and gallant style to his poetic Passion setting, “Der Tod Jesu” (The Death of Jesus). Almost no information is found on the works of Johann Mattheson, “Die Heilsame Geburt” (1715) and “Das größte Kind” (1720), Telemann’s “O Jesu parvule,” TVWV 1:797; and Georg Gebel’s “Jauchzet, ihr Himmel! Erfreue dich Erde!” of 1748.8 These works are designed in cantata style while Bach’s contemporaries also composed numerous cantatas for Christmas Season services.


1 See “Bach’s Collegium musicum in Leipzig and Its History,” A Summary Translation by Thomas Braatz of an article by Andreas Glöckner entitled “Bachs Leipziger Collegium musicum und seine Vorgeschichte” from Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten Vol. 2, Johann Sebastian Bachs weltliche Kantaten; editors: Christoph Wolff/Ton Koopman published by Metzler/Bärenreiter, 1997, pp. 105-117.
2 Rathey, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
3 Cantata 142 Details and Discography, Score Vocal & Piano [1.MB],; Score BGA [1.87 MB], References: BGA XXX (Cantatas 141-150, Paul Graf Waldersee, 1881; NBA KB I/41, (Miscellaneous cantatas, spurious Andreas Glöckner, 2000: 117). Score copy, digital facsimile,
4 Whittaker, W. Gillies. The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach: Sacred & Secular (London: Oxford University Press: 1958: I: 161).
5 Peter Wollny notes (Susan Marie Praeder trans.), BCW Recording details,
6 Cantata 142 German text and Francis Browne English translation,
7 Also cited in Rainer Weber, “Nachbemerkung” (Afterward), Cantata 142 vocal-piano score (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel EB 7142, 1977).
8 Recordings of these works are listed at


This discussion of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will continue a year from now on the BCML during consideration of Bach’s Christological cycle, taking up the remainder of Rathey book, dealing with the chapters “Planning the Oratorio,” and the six chapters on each part, as well as the extensive dance element in the work, and other resources.


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: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 08:27