We started this week’s edition of WDBX Opera Overnight with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248. It was assembled for usage during the 1734 Christmas season, and belongs in a group of three works that Bach wrote during that time frame for major feast days, the others being the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) and the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249). All three works “parody” (a musicological term for recycling – yep, Bach was a green composer!) earlier works, but the Christmas Oratorio is by far the longest and most complex of the three.
The oratorio was written in six parts, each part intended to be performed on one of the six feast days of the Christmas season:
- Christmas Day,
- Dec. 26, which celebrates the Annunciation to the Shepherds
- Dec 27th for the Adoration of the Shepherds,
- New Year’s Day for the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus,
- the first Sunday after New Year’s Day, for the Journey of the Magi
- Epiphany, January 6th, for the Adoration of the Magi
Given all this, the oratorio ends up being 2 hours 46 minutes in length, making it one of the longer of Bach’s compositions.
Bach frequently recycled older material (especially material originally written for secular purposes) for use in his later material, and the Christmas Oratorio includes portions of four earlier works:
- Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Hercules at the Crossroads), BWV 213, performed in 1733 for the 11th birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony.
- Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, BWV 214, performed in 1733 for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony
- Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215, performed on 5 Oct 1734 for the coronation of the Elector of Saxony, August III, as King of Poland.
- Part six is believed to come almost entirely from a lost church cantata, BWV 248a. There is also an aria in Part V, Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?, that is also believed to be from a lost source, while a chorus from Part V is believed to have come from the lost St. Mark’s Passion, BWV 247 (a major loss, given the significance of the two surviving passions as among the greatest of Bach’s compositions).
This method of recycling earlier works was not motivated by the intention of cutting corners, or by a need to churn out volumes of material. Rather, as the noted musicologist Christoph Wolff wrote, his desire was to rescue good material from single-performance oblivion and to put it to good purpose. Indeed, his manner of recycling was by no means simple, as he rewrote many sections, transposing into new keys, writing new recitatives and arias, and setting the music into new meters. Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach, Johann’s son and himself a noted composer, wrote about his father’s recycling method thusly:
“As to the church works of the deceased, it may be mentioned that he worked devoutly, governing himself by the content of the text, without any strange misplacing of the words, and without elaborating on the individual words at the expense of the sense of the whole, as a result of which ridiculous thoughts often appear, such as sometime arouse the admiration of people who claim to be connoisseurs and are not.” (Wolff 384)
Not only is the oratorio historically important, so is the recording that we are hearing tonight. It is a 1965 recording by the Munich Bach Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Karl Richter (himself once an organist at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach had once been the kapelmeister during the height of his career), with quite an impressive lineup of German singers:
Gundula Janowitz– one of the preeminent sopranos of the ’60s and ’70s, who sang primarily German-language works.
- Christa Ludwig – one of the major mezzo-sopranos of the middle of the 20th century. We’ve played several of her recordings on WDBX Opera Overnight already.
- Fritz Wunderlich – In 1965, Fritz Wunderlich was an up-and-coming tenor with a powerful voice, who was already noted for his recordings of Schubert lieder (his Dichterliebe is highly regarded among lieder recordings). He had just recorded a well-regarded rendition of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote with Karl Böhm, and was even branching out into some minor Wagner roles. But he died on 17 September 1966, just short of his 36th birthday, after falling down a flight of stairs. I think that, had this not happened, he might have eventually become one of the great German tenors of the 20th century. He definitely had the voice, but simply had not learned the full repertoire yet. Even so, a 2008 poll in BBC Music Magazine ranked him 4th among the greatest tenors of all time. Pretty good for one with such little recorded evidence.
- Franz Crass – a bass, known for his Wagnerian roles and his performances in various Mozartean roles.
After Bach, we heard Heinrich Schütz’s telling of the Christmas Story, titled Weihnachtshistorie. Schütz, who was born in 1585 and died in 1672, is considered one of the major German composers of the early Baroque era, a primary link between Giovanni Gabrielli, Claudio Monteverdi (both of whom he studied with) and Bach. He is believed to have written the first German opera (Daphne, which is now lost, as is much of what Schütz is believed to have written; Schütz did not publish most of his work). However, his surviving work is almost entirely religious in nature, and there are no surviving works that are purely instrumental, even though he is said to have been a fine organist who helped establish the North German organ tradition from which came Bach and his immediate predecessor Dietrich Buxtehude.
Tonight’s recording is a 1989 Harmonia Mundi recording, with the Concerto Vocale under the baton of René Jacobs, and soloists Martin Hummel, Maria Cristina Kiehr, Susanne Norin, Hanne Mari Orbaek, Susanne Ryden, Andreas Scholl, Akira Tachikawa, Gerd Turk, Matthias Widmaier, Werner Gura, Andreas Lebeda, Ulrich Messthaler, and Franz-Joseph Selig.
After Schütz, we heard a work by Hector Berlioz with a most interesting pedigree. His L’Enfance du Christ is an oratorio that was written, one section at a time, between 1850 and 1853. He started with an organ piece, L’adieu des bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell), which he turned into a choral piece. Berlioz premiered the chorus under a nom de guerre in 1850 (directing it himself, as he was so influential a conductor that he is considered to have influenced an entire tradition of French conductors that continues today). Berlioz was pleased to find that people who generally hated his music liked the piece, with one comment being “Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece…” He then added a piece for tenor, Le repos de la sainte famille (The Repose of the Holy Family), and preceded both movements with an overture to make a piece he called La fuite en Egypte. This was then published in 1852, and performed in 1853. He was encouraged by friends to expand it even further, which he did by adding L’arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), which included solo parts for Mary and Joseph. Thinking that the result was unbalanced, he then added a section prior to the existing music, Le songe d’Hérode (Herod’s Dream). So, over a period of three years, he took a simple organ piece and expanded it, piece by piece, into an oratorio that provides an hour and a half worth of music.
It is interesting to note that, while writing music such as this, Berlioz was in fact an atheist. He may have been Catholic at one point in time, and he held a lifelong admiration for Catholic church music (an influence that is quite evident in this work). But by 1850 he had lapsed, and was referring to himself as an atheist.
Tonight’s recording is from 1987, and features Anne Sophie von Otter, Gilles Cachemaille, Jose Van Dam, Jules Bastin, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Rene Schirrer, Michel Fockenoy, Phillippe Bernold, Gilles Cottin, Chantal Mathieu, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre de L’Opera de Lyon, with John Elliot Gardiner conducting.