Church Life: Bach Cantatas




Bach's Christmas Oratorio


December 25 — January 6

ChristmasOratorioSchedule.jpgCelebrate the birth of Christ with the Christmas Oratorio

by Gwen Gotsch, Grace Communications Coordinator

When I first saw the Bach Cantata Vespers schedule that included six cantata services between December 25 and January 6, I groaned. “That’s a lot of church.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love Bach. I love to sing. I’ve been singing Bach cantatas with the Grace Senior Choir for 35 years.

But six services? At such a busy time of the year? Really?

Yes. Really. And it’s going to be glorious!

I first heard the Christmas Oratorio at a concert at Concordia College in River Forest when I was 6 or 7 years old. I was there because my father, Herbert Gotsch, was the conductor. (There may be members of Grace who sang in that choir.) I learned at the time that “aria” meant a long, elaborate movement, in which the text was repeated over and over, and that recitatives often had more words, but no repetition, so they were over quickly. Choruses were loud, complicated, and exciting. Chorales were like hymns, and as a Lutheran-church-going child I recognized some of the tunes.

I bought a set of records for the Christmas Oratorio when I was in college and a CD some years later. One day recently, I clicked on Spotify (the Internet music streaming service), searched for the Christmas Oratorio, and chose one of forty available recordings to listen to, instantly, while I worked on the computer.

The Christmas Oratorio begins with timpani, booming out the beat as if a parade were stepping off. Flutes gather, fluttering with excitement, and soon trumpets and strings join in, and the celebration is on. The chorus proclaims “Jauchzet, frohlocket!”—celebrate, rejoice, praise— because of what God has done for us on this day!

I sat in my office that day and imagined this music and these words ringing through Grace Church on Christmas morning, and I knew it would be brilliant. How could I not be there for that service and for all (or most) of the services that follow?

Usually Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is presented as a single work, performed in one evening on the concert stage. The oratorio is actually six separate cantatas, first performed in 1734-35 on Christmas Day, on the Second and Third Day of Christmas, on New Year’s Day, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, and on the Feast of Epiphany. The cantatas tell the Christmas story from Luke and Matthew, with poetic reflections interspersed with the biblical narration. Bach himself filed the six scores together in a single folder on which he wrote “Christmas Oratorio.” though the cantatas were never presented in a single oratorio-like performance during his lifetime.

Following Bach’s original plan, the six cantatas will be performed at separate worship services this Christmas season at Grace. Some of these services are part of the regular worship schedule, including Christmas Day and New Year’s Day at 10 a.m. and Epiphany, January 6, at 7 p.m. Some are special services at 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. similar to the vespers format used in Sunday afternoon Bach cantata services.

As I listened to the streaming recording of the Christmas Oratorio, I heard many familiar tunes—a tender lullaby sung by the alto soloist which I learned as a high school student, duets I’ve hummed along to through the years, catchy tunes for oboes and flutes, and the beautiful orchestral sinfonia which opens Part Two, a graceful pastoral that sets the scene for the story of the shepherds and the announcement of a Savior’s birth.

DSC_0037_(1).jpgMost of all I noticed the chorales. The cantata for Christmas Day ends with a stanza from Martin Luther’s hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a stanza that I and many other children learned as “Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child.” The final cantata, for Epiphany, ends with the chorale tune we know as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” This is Bach’s statement of faith, reminding us that Jesus’ death brings us redemption from sin. It’s a tune that is unbearably sad in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but in the Christmas Oratorio it’s in a festive major key with a text describing how “God is the place/for the human race.”

You don’t have to be familiar with Lutheran church music to appreciate the Christmas Oratorio. The music could be described as “the best of Bach.” Much of it originated in secular cantatas that Bach composed a year or two earlier for the birthdays of various princes and royal figures. He tinkered with these earlier compositions, improving, transposing and expanding them, something he often did with his best and most interesting ideas. Certainly music composed for observances of royal birthdays could be put to better use celebrating the birth of the King of Kings!

Modern audiences, even people who worship regularly, may not have the same appetite for church-going as 18th century citizens of Leipzig. In Bach’s day, worship services were a focal point of community life. People in Bach’s town of Leipzig in December 1734 could purchase a libretto ahead of time with the texts for all six cantatas. I can picture them coming to the Thomaskirche or the Nicolaikirche early on a holiday morning to hear the choirs and the town’s best trumpeters, string players, flutists and oboists perform music which focused their minds on God’s love and in which they took justifiable civic pride.

It’s a lot of church, but these will be six worship services you won’t soon forget. In the 21st century, so much of our Christmas celebration is packed into the days and weeks before the actual holiday on December 25. This year the performances of the cantatas from the Christmas Oratorio, and the worship services that surround them, give you the opportunity to keep your celebration going a little longer, throughout the traditional “twelve days of Christmas.” Instead of going to a movie on December 26, or lounging in your pajamas on New’s Year morning, come and hear the glorious music of J. S. Bach and the good news of all that God has done for us, proclaimed in grateful song.