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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bach's Christmas Cantatas

The writing and performing of church cantatas was central to so much of Johann Sebastian Bach's professional life. There is much we don't know about Bach's cantata writing, but what we do know is that more than 200 of his church cantatas (and a number of secular ones) survive, displaying a seemingly endless imagination in setting texts vividly and powerfully.

By the time Bach took up the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723, the position he held for the last 27 years of his life, he'd already had numerous church and court appointments, many of which provided the opportunity for him to write cantatas for church services. The cantata was an integral part of North German Lutheran worship at the time, being performed before (and sometimes also after) the sermon, and specifically designed to illuminate the Gospel reading for the day.

Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church), Leipzig

In Leipzig a cantata was required for almost every Sunday of the year as well as major feast days like Christmas, Easter and so forth. In all, some sixty cantatas were required each year and in his first two years in Leipzig, Bach deliberately set himself a punishing schedule to arrange complete cycles of cantatas - most of which were new works - for use in future years. Some scholars believe that he embarked on a third, a fourth and perhaps even a fifth cycle, occasionally using works by other composers, but evidence is patchy for these later plans.

After he had three or four cantatas available for any particular Sunday or feast day, Bach then had a repository of works that he could rotate and reuse in future years, meaning that the massively punishing composition schedule he'd set himself from 1723 relaxed after about 1726.

Christmas Day was then - as now - an especially important day in the church calendar and something on a large scale was normally expected when it came to the Christmas Day cantata. Some years later - in 1734 - Bach devised the well-known Christmas Oratorio, made up of six cantatas to be performed on the six major feast days between 25 December and 6 January; part one of the Christmas Oratorio is the cantata for Christmas Day 1734.

But before this Bach wrote other cantatas for performance on 25 December. Of these one has sadly only survived incomplete (now known as BWV197a). But the other three are magnificent and they are the subject of this article.

Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church), Leipzig

For his first Christmas in Leipzig - 1723 - Bach didn't write a new cantata but instead reused a magnificent Christmas cantata he'd written in Weimar nine years before, now known as BWV63. It begins with one of his most sumptuous celebration choruses: "Christians, engrave this day in metal and marble! Come and hasten with me to the manger..."

The instrumentation is especially lavish with no less than four trumpets, plus timpani, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. But on a purely practical level, what must it have been like to go to church on Christmas morning and have heard an opening chorus like this? [listen from 0'00]

At around half an hour, BWV63 is longer than most of the Leipzig cantatas, and it does have a rich structure, perfectly balanced between this staggering opening chorus and another major chorus at the end. In between there are three recitatives alternating with two duets, and having two duets in a cantata was unusual for Bach.

But even the recits are on a grand scale. The cantata's second movement is a richly-scored accompanied recit for alto and strings, which contains some breathtaking turns of harmony. The text speaks of the Christmas message in devotional terms. [listen from 5'15]

And the duet which follows - for soprano and bass - is accompanied by one of Bach's exquisite oboe solos. As in most of Bach's cantatas there is one movement which is substantially longer than all the others, a centrepiece for contemplation and devotional focus, and this movement fills that function here. This is just the start of it, in which the text expresses devotion and trust in God. [listen from 8'08]

The later duet in BWV63 is a far more jolly affair, in which the alto and tenor encourage the congregation to rejoice in what Christmas means. [listen from 16'23]

An extraordinary recit, for the bass, follows this. I say "extraordinary" because it's accompanied by not only the strings and continuo but also by the three oboes. It's a powerful exhortation to prayer and praise. [listen from 19'58]

And this leads, not into a final chorale (or hymn) as was Bach's usual practice in the Leipzig cantatas, but into another extended chorus for all the forces heard in the opening movement. This prayer for God's support and protection is accompanied by cascades of notes from the entire orchestra working, as it did in the opening chorus, in three distinct instrumental groupings: trumpets, oboes and strings. There are magical moments, too, when all the instruments are silent and the voices sing alone. [listen from 21'02]

Mantegna: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1450)

After reusing a pre-existing work for his first Christmas in Leipzig, Bach wrote a completely new cantata for his second. His second cantata cycle was a "chorale cycle"; that is, every cantata was based on a Lutheran hymn appropriate to the Sunday or feast day in question. This provided Bach's incredible imagination with further stimulus as he wove the old cantata tunes - and their texts - into his vivid and demanding chorus, recits, arias and ensembles.

Thus, the cantata for Christmas 1724 - BWV91 - is based on a chorale, and one of the best-known Lutheran hymns: Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (Praise to you, Jesus Christ). Bach would make use of this chorale tune in the Christmas Oratorio a decade later; here the tune and its text permeate the entire work. [listen]

The instrumentation in BWV91 creates its own special sound. In addition to the strings and continuo, Bach uses three oboes, plus two horns and timpani. The combination of horns and timpani is highly unusual; timpani were nearly always linked with trumpets, but here the high horns in G - true virtuoso parts - add a completely different sound to crown the opening chorus. This chorus has the chorale melody sung in long notes in the soprano, while the other three parts - and of course the orchestra - perform stunning music all around it.

The text is the first verse of the hymn, which speaks of the angels rejoicing at the birth of Jesus. It's not hard to imagine Bach's busy, overlapping musical lines suggesting the crowds of angels in the sky. This opening chorus is simply one of the most joyous things Bach ever wrote. [listen from 0'00]

After a soprano recitative, which moves back and forth from the chorale melody, Bach provides an amazing aria for the tenor. This is one of a number of pieces in which Bach clearly shows how much he loved the sound of three oboes in ensemble. The tenor sings of the greatness of God being confined in a manger, and it's possible Bach uses the three reed instruments here to suggest the shepherds. [listen from 5'34]

Bach is never predictable. In surveying the cantatas I never cease to be amazed at the sheer inventiveness and ingenuity in every single work. This aria is followed by an accompanied recit for the bass which challenges the faithful to receive their Saviour. Near the end the text turns dark, with a hint of the suffering awaiting the son of God. Listen to the bleakness, the blackness, of the harmonies Bach uses to paint this on the German word Jammerthal (meaning "valley of torment"). [listen from 8'12]

This sets us up for the large, extended movement in BWV 91, a soprano and alto duet. The text speaks of two contrasting ideas: the poverty taken on by God in his incarnation, and the richness of his heavenly treasures. Bach portrays this with two completely different musical ideas, a stern, dotted motif in the violins, and a flowing, intertwined motif in the voices. Neither takes on the other's music, but both co-exist perfectly. Bach the theologian is obvious at every turn and this is really the key to the entire cantata. [listen from 9'33]

The chorale cantatas, being based on pre-existing chorales, usually end with a simple statement of the foundation chorale, although there are times - and this is one of them - when Bach embellishes the setting to make the most of the instruments he has on hand. The final movement of BWV91 is the last verse of the hymn with most of the instruments doubling the four voice parts, but over the last couple of bars, the two horns add their own special embellishments to bring the cantata for Christmas Day 1724 to a close. [listen from 16'23]

Statue of Bach outside St Thomas Church, Leipzig

The extent to which Bach completed a third cantata cycle - let alone a fourth or a fifth - is a matter of conjecture among Bach scholars. But certainly he went on to write many more cantatas after completing (or almost completing) the chorale cycle for the second year in Leipzig.

For his third Christmas in the city Bach wrote another cantata, BWV110, and in this we return to the festive sound of trumpets (the usual three this time, rather than four), again with two flutes, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo.

Most fascinating of all, though, is that this massive first chorus - and it is massive - is not a new composition. Bach decided to add voice parts to a pre-existing orchestral work, something which is very hard to do. The work in question is the overture to the fourth orchestral suite, BWV1069, which was probably written when Bach was working in Cöthen, immediately before he went to Leipzig. [listen] What Bach achieved in making the choral version was little short of miraculous. If you weren't aware of the existence of the orchestral original, you could be forgiven for assuming the vocal version in the cantata was conceived that way. In fact, as Julian Minchin has pointed out in his comprehensive study of the cantatas (my primary source for this article): "The intellectual challenge of adding choral parts to an already rich and complete texture must have been formidable but Bach does it in such a way that when one returns to the suite after hearing the cantata, something appears to be missing."

Given that the text of the opening chorus begins, "Then our mouth was filled with laughter", Bach's use of the rollicking 9/8 section of the overture for the voice parts is absolutely appropriate. The texture is even more varied by the appearance of all four soloists in the movement, the soprano, alto and tenor as a trio, and then the bass on his own. [listen from 0'00]

After this stupendous opening the rest of BWV110 follows an unusual course: aria, recit, aria, duet, aria and final chorale. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the second aria, given to the alto and coloured by the use of a solo oboe d'amore, the alto oboe which Bach used so often and so effectively. Here the dark side of the Christmas message is the focus, with the text lamenting the unworthiness of mankind and the influence of Satan. [listen from 12'55]

This is counterbalanced straight away with a bubbling duet for soprano and tenor setting the familiar words of the Christmas angels: "Glory to God in the highest and peace, goodwill toward men". What is staggering about this duet is the virtuosic demands placed upon both singers, who were of course members of Bach's ensemble (the soprano would have been a boy; the tenor probably a school or university student) and not professional soloists as we are accustomed to today. [listen from 17'15]

As Bach would provide near the end of part one of the Christmas Oratorio in 1734, BWV110 has near its end an aria for bass coloured by solo trumpet. The exhortation is for Christians to awake and sing to give pleasure to God. [listen from 20'46]

And there remains only now the final chorale, a hymn of praise, which is interestingly in a more subdued mode - B minor - ending with a twist to B major (a so-called tierce de Picardie) on the final chord. [listen from 24'37]

Bach's three surviving Christmas cantatas are nowhere near as well-known as the later Christmas Oratorio and that's a real shame. The Oratorio is magnificent, of course, and yet the three cantatas discussed in this post are also magnificent. They are - like the Oratorio - virtuoso works which place huge demands on both singers and instrumentalists and it speaks highly of the ever-practical Bach that he could have mustered people to perform these works, usually on a single rehearsal the day before.

And of course they are merely the tip of that incredible iceberg which is the Bach cantatas. They're always worth exploring.

Hölzel: Adoration (1912)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2014.

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