Johann Sebastian Bach

Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), in six parts, BWV 248 (BC D7)

    Description by James Leonard

    Although German composer Johann Sebastian Bach entitled his work Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), it is in fact closer to a cantata cycle than an oratorio. Composed and compiled for the Christmas season as celebrated in Leipzig in 1734 and early 1735, the six parts of the Christmas Oratorio were intended to be performed on the six major feast days over that 13-day period from December 25 through January 6: the "First Day of Christmas," the "Second Day of Christmas," the "Third Day of Christmas," the "Feast of the Circumcision," the "First Sunday of the New Year," and the "Feast of the Epiphany." Furthermore, each part of the work is designed to function as an independent musical unit; each part (except the second, which starts with a "Pastoral Symphony") begins and ends with choruses in the tonic key, and each part tells a separate part of the Christmas story.

    However, Bach also clearly intended the music to be heard as a unified work: not only does the oratorio tell a single story based on Biblical texts, but it is musically organized around the key of D major. The musical content of the oratorio is, for the most part, drawn from three secular cantatas: Herkules auf dem Scheidewege, BWV 213; Tonet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, BWV 214; and Preisse dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215. In addition, portions of the music were drawn from the lost St. Mark Passion, and the sixth part of the oratorio was later given an independent existence as a separate cantata (BWV 248a).

    So skillful is Bach's adaptation that listeners at the time would have been unlikely to be disturbed by Bach's self-plagiarism (which was a common procedure for him anyhow). In the manner of Bach's Passions, the text of the Christmas Oratorio is drawn from the Gospel interspersed with meditations on the meaning of the Gospel texts. While scholars conjecture that these meditations were written by Bach's usual collaborator, Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander), some also suspect that Bach might have written or rewritten many of them himself because Picander did not include the text of the oratorio among his collected works. A joyfully celebratory work, the Christmas Oratorio is one of the peaks in Bach's compositional oeuvre.

    The story is related in recitative by an Evangelist, or narrator, thus placing the work within the long-established tradition of religious drama. However, unlike earlier oratorios and unlike Bach's own settings of the Passion story, there is virtually no dramatic dialogue, The only named characters are the Angel in Part Two and Herod in Part Six. Scored for the usual four-part vocal forces, the oratorio is given is own distinctive character through the varied orchestration featured in each section. Thus, Part One, largely a joyous celebration of Christ's birth, is adorned by brilliantly festive trumpets and timpani. The following cantata stands in complete contrast, its gentle pastoral mood reflected in scoring that includes pairs of oboes d'amore and their more rustic cousin, the oboe da caccia. Bach then gives symmetry to the first three cantatas by bringing the trumpets and timpani back for Part Three, which opens with an exultant chorus before proceeding to the arrival of the shepherds at the manger. Part Four introduces a pair of horns into the orchestra; their resplendent tones dominate an opening chorus celebrating the glory of God. Part Five, for the lesser feast of the Sunday after New Year, calls for smaller orchestral forces -- just a pair of oboes supporting the usual strings and continuo, perhaps as a counterpart to the second cantata. Finally the full majesty of trumpets and drums returns in Part 6, the topic of which is God's power over evil, here personified by Herod and his dealings with the three Magi.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Jauchzet, frohlocket!
    2. Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit
    3. Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam
    4. Bereite sich, Zion
    5. Wie soll ich dich empfangen
    6. Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn
    7. Er ist auf Erden kommen arm
    8. Wer kann die Liebe recht erhöh'n
    9. Großer Herr und starker König
    10. Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein!
    11. Sinfonia
    12. Und es waren Hirten
    13. Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht
    14. Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen
    15. Was Gott dem Abraham verheißen
    16. Frohe Hirten, eilt
    17. Und das habt zum Zeichen
    18. Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall
    19. So geht denn hin
    20. Schlafe, mein Liebster
    21. Und alsobald war da bei dem Engel
    22. Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe
    23. So recht, ihr Engel
    24. Wir singen dir in deinem Heer
    25. Herrscher des Himmels
    26. Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel führen
    27. Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem
    28. Er hat sein Volk getröst'
    29. Dies hat er alles uns getan
    30. Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen
    31. Und sie kamen eilend
    32. Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder
    33. Ja, ja! mein Herz soll es bewahren
    34. Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren
    35. Und die Hirten kehrten wieder um
    36. Seid froh, dieweil, dass euer Heil
    37. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
    38. Und da acht Tage um waren
    39. Immanuel, o süßes Wort
    40. Jesu du, mein liebstes Leben/Komm!, Ich will dich mit Lust umfassen
    41. Flößt, mein Heiland
    42. Wohlan! dein Name soll allein
    43. Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben
    44. Jesus richte mein Beginnen
    45. Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
    46. Da Jesus geboren war zu Bethlehem
    47. Wo ist der neugeborne König der Jüden?
    48. Dein Glanz all Finsternis verzehrt
    49. Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen
    50. Da das der König Herodes hörte
    51. Warum wollt ihr erschrecken
    52. Und ließ versammeln alle Hohenpriester
    53. Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?
    54. Mein Liebster herrschet schon
    55. Zwar ist solche Herzensstube
    56. Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben
    57. Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich
    58. Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällen
    59. Nur ein Wink
    60. Als sie nun den König
    61. Ich steh' an deiner Krippen hier
    62. Und Gott befahl ihnen im Traum
    63. So geht! Genug, mein Schatz
    64. Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken
    65. Was will der Hölle Schrecken nun
    66. Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Naxos 857400102
    2018 Brilliant Classics 95853
    2018 Pan Classics PC 10393
    2017 Carus CV 83312
    2017 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 16010
    2016 Linn Records CKD 499
    2016 BR Klassik 900513
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796438
    2016 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 88875173752
    2016 Sony Classical 88985331452
    2015 BR Klassik 900512
    2014 Harmonia Mundi HMX 97163031
    2014 Brilliant Classics 95019BR
    2013 Hyperion CDA 680312
    2013 Archiv Produktion 4791758
    2013 Decca
    2013 Erato 2564647351
    2013 Gramola GRAM 99021
    2012 Rondeau ROP 403435
    2012 BR Klassik 900902
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94275
    2011 Decca
    2011 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099909633421
    2010 Signum Classics / Signum UK 215
    2010 Haenssler / Hänssler Classic 98622
    2010 Challenge Records 76607
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94050
    2010 Berlin Classics 0300034
    2010 Archiv Produktion 477 873-5
    2010 Archiv Produktion / Deutsche Grammophon 4778735
    2010 Bellaphon Records / Zebralution
    2010 Decca 478 227-1
    2010 Decca 4782271
    2010 Das Alte Werk
    2010 Document 224065
    2010 Newton Classics 8802001
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon / Universal 4779088
    2009 Documents Classics / Meisterwerke/Membran 223052
    2009 Delta
    2009 Apex 2564686217
    2009 Channel Classics 30809
    2009 Coro COR16072
    2008 EMI Classics 2292072
    2008 EMI Classics 367668
    2008 Corona Records 0002312CCC
    2008 Warner Classics / Warner Classics & Jazz 256469854
    2008 DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697 33321-2
    2008 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 5099921762
    2008 Berlin Classics 0184192
    2007 Philips 4759155
    2007 DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 711232
    2006 Brilliant Classics 93102
    2006 Archiv Produktion 000719302
    2006 Philips
    2006 Membran / Scandinavian Classics 224179
    2005 History 204580
    2005 ARTS 47714-8
    2005 Capriccio Records 60025
    2005 Erato
    2005 Haenssler 98910
    2005 Document 222381
    2004 Decca 4481762
    2004 Rca Red Seal 55701
    2004 Harmonia Mundi 2901630/31
    2004 Archiv Produktion 000345102
    2004 Berlin Classics 0183892
    2003 Coro 16017
    2003 Archiv Produktion 427236
    2003 Channel Classics 20103
    2003 CPO 999917
    2002 Haenssler 94031
    2002 Amati 4/2
    2002 Pinnacle 91095
    2001 Harmonia Mundi 2908113/15
    2001 Musica Omnia 258
    2001 Haenssler 94010
    2001 Haenssler 98998
    2000 Decca 458838
    2000 Haenssler 92076
    2000 Deutsche Grammophon 463701
    2000 Titanic 258
    1999 Teldec 25705
    1999 Teldec 25704
    1999 BIS 941/942
    1999 Leipzig 1812
    1999 Teldec 25711
    1999 Dorian 93183
    1998 Deutsche Grammophon 459017
    1998 London 455783
    1998 Haenssler 98976
    1998 Deutsche Grammophon 459 067-2GCC10
    1997 Farao / Farao Classics 108015
    1997 Harmonia Mundi 901630
    1997 Unison 81152
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 69503
    1996 Erato 14635
    1996 Teldec 97902
    1995 Newport Classic 85582
    1994 Archiv Produktion 439885
    1994 Naxos 550428
    1994 Vox Box / Vox Box 2 CDX 5096
    1993 Berlin Classics 0020652BC
    1993 Collins Records 70282
    1993 Teldec 77610
    1992 Virgin Veritas 595302
    1990 PolyGram 423232
    1985 Sony Classical 3K39229
    Brilliant Classics 93102-VOL5
    Haenssler 91114
    Archiv Produktion 423232
    History 204586
    Erato 45212
    Virgin 59530
    Pentagon 302
    Erato
    Edel Records 1818
    Teldec 35022
    Berlin Classics 2065
    Teldec
    Haenssler 98854
    Brassissimo 2572775
    Laserlight 15951
    Haenssler