Bach, Christmas Oratorio; Parts 1 and Parts 5, BWV 248. T. Herbert Dimmock introduces the Christmas Oratorio with comments on the opening and then discussion of several examples from Part 5. BDP #268.

(music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime work was actually the writing of cantatas. We know his wonderful organ pieces. We certainly know his instrumental music, even though there is not nearly as much of it. Bach in his lifetime probably wrote 300 or more cantatas, each of which are about twenty minutes long. Bach lived from 1685 to 1750. At the absolute height of his powers, when he was in Leipzig in 1734, he wrote six cantatas that stick together into a whole, which is called the Christmas Oratorio.

The Christmas Oratorio is a wonderful piece. I can’t tell you enough how I love the way it starts. How many pieces start with just the tympani playing by itself? Well, the Christmas Oratorio does. It is a signal motif that says, “Wake up!” as the timpani (music) has a little fanfare motive. It is interesting to me that the orchestra wakes up one at a time. First the flutes, they wake up. (music). Then the tympani plays. (music) Then the oboes wake up. (music) Then the tympani comes back. (music) Now the strings come in—this is so magnificent. They start at the highest note possible and it comes down, rip roaring through the strings, passed over to the violas, then the cellos, and then the basses. Of course, the double bass plays down the extra octave. There is this spectacular five-octave scale that takes place in the course of four measures. In a fast tempo it is a picture of God crashing down from heaven above to earth below.

Oratorio Opening

That is the first beginning of the Christmas Oratorio. The Christmas Oratorio is six cantatas written for Christmas. Christmas day 1, Christmas day 2, Christmas day 3, Christmas the Feast of the Naming of Jesus also called the Feast of the Circumcision, the first Sunday in the New Year, and the Feast of the Epiphany--six cantatas.

On the first Sunday of the New Year, we get Cantata 5. First of all, let’s talk about how the piece is put together. In this particular Cantata Bach features the oboe d’amore. The oboe d’amore is one of Bach’s favorite instruments. It is not an instrument that we use much in the modern orchestra today. If you think of the regular oboe as this big, and you think of the English horn as this big, then the oboe d’amore is in the middle. It has a bell-shape bottom. It has a beautiful dark sound that Bach so loved.

The text is “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen” “Honor be sung to Thee, oh Lord.” This opening melody is first given by the oboes. They play it in a way that talks about how we should sing it to the Lord. The Lord, of course, is in heaven above. So, the oboe d’amore… (music) the oboe d’amore directs our attention to where praise should be sung. It starts way down here (low note) and ends way up here (high note). Bach is directing through the instruments; the instruments are presenting a commentary on where the praises should be sung. When the singers come in they sing a melody that goes up. When they get to a word “Lob,” which is German for praise, there is wonderful exuberant quality to the word “Lob.” It goes upward. It goes up in a way that is eager to do so. 


You would think…(counting and singing) but Bach goes … (counting, singing, and playing). He leaps in early because there is an eagerness in giving the praise. The word Lob goes up (music). The second word is “Dank” and again in the word “Dank” that comes with the word praise we have lightness, a quality of thanks that goes upward.

Why do we call this the Christmas Oratorio instead of just six cantatas? This is one reason alone and one reason only. It is because the tenor soloist is given a name. He is called an “Evangelist.” The tenor soloist sings the text of the Bible that tells the story. For that reason, to differentiate it from the other cantatas where all of the singers are just called, “soprano, alto, tenor, or bass” we call this an oratorio.

Bach was a deeply religious person. He was what was called a pietistic Lutheran, a “heart on your sleeve,” a profoundly religious person. In the Christmas story at this point King Herod is saying that all of the newborn babies have to be killed. This is a very awful and sad thing. At this point of the story we have this (music). Why do we have sorrow here, why are we so upset? (music) This is somebody shaking with fear, if you will.

Fearful Chords

Well, the Tenor passage—this is pietistic Lutheranism in Bach’s time, in a “nutshell.” We had to have the sacrifice of Jesus to have salvation, to have Easter Sunday. We had to have the negative parts of the story for the ultimate good outcome. So, at this moment in the story (music) why do we have sorry here? The singer says “there is much to rejoice for, since God’s own plan will gain the sinful world’s salvation. Then he transforms those figures to (music). From the minor to the major, from the shaking sadness to same kind of rhythmic figures, but suddenly they are happy figures. In Bach’s mind, this terrible part of the story actually leasds to something good.

This is a wonderful cantata within the Christmas Oratorio, as they all are. I hope that you will have a chance to come and listen to it. It is well worth it!


(music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1)