Dec 22, 2012
An early Christmas present. If you are one of the many celebrants who finds joy or solace or peace, each season, by playing Handel’s “Messiah” or letting the TV screen show the never-ending burning Yule log, here is an alternative.
Thanks to uncountable technologies, and innumerable traditions, you can enjoy a marvelous musical and spiritual experience by watching, or just listening to, the “Christmas Oratorio” of Johann Sebastian Bach. One of the greatest pieces of music in Western culture, in or out of churches, Bach’s oratorio is a full composition, like Handel’s, in many parts. There are full orchestra and full choir movements, solos, narrations, and instrumental sections. The words are from the Bible’s story of Christ’s birth; the music is some of the most stirring you will ever hear.
The very first part, “Exult! Rejoice!” (Jauchzet, Frohlocket in German) is an astounding cascade of choir and orchestra led by the motif of tympani drums’ notes.
Like the “Messiah,” it is in several parts and lasts almost three hours. It originally was performed in Bach’s St Nicholas Church, and some nights in St Thomas Church, in Leipzig, in 1734-35, essentially through the 12 nights of Christmas, in parts, beginning on Christmas Day.
Of several excellent performances on the web, I have chosen to share a recent video recorded at that very St Nicholas Church. See the grand Baroque setting as it appeared when first performed… listen to the period instruments, simulating the actual sounds of Bach’s music… enjoy the camera’s examination of the church’s details, and the community’s reverent models and landscapes of the Christmas story.
There are no English subtitles of the German texts, but you know the old, old story! You will hear the names of Jesus and Mary, Abraham and Old Testament prophets, and references to God and angels. The order of the six constituent cantatas’ subjects are: the Birth; the Annunciation to the Shepherds; the Adoration of the Shepherds; the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus; the Journey of the Magi; the Adoration of the Magi. I thought it better to be “home” in Bach’s own church, and to see the re-creation of a Baroque celebration, than to choose a performance-only video, or one of the versions with one old painting on display over the entire performance.
I hope this brings extra joy, special comfort, and stirring inspiration to you this Christmas season. Bach has been called “the Fifth Evangelist,” and works like this illustrate why. Georg Christoph Biller leads the Thomanerchor and the Gewandhausorchester Leizig.
Click: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio