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adoration_of_the_shepherds_1622

Adoration of the Shepherds by Dutch painter Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. Pommersches Landesmuseum (Pomerania State Museum), Germany.

What was I thinking? Promising you yesterday that I would be back today with a post about Second Christmas Day? Should I not just celebrate Christmas with my family, go on hikes, play puzzles, listen to music, and cook and bake? Well, that’s what I did last year, but I also remember that this made me extremely frustrated. I felt a strong urge to share all the beautiful cantatas for this catata-rich time of year with others, and that was the whole reason I started my blog on January 6 of this year.

So, here I am with my post for Second Christmas Day. In Bach’s time, there were three Christmas Days. In many countries in Europe there are still two Christmas Days. In the Netherlands, a country so small that you can easily travel to all your relatives within a day, people are expected to visit one side of the family on Christmas Day, and the other side on Second Christmas Day. Or at least that is how I remember it.

Of course, you could continue listening to the Christmas Oratorio, via the links for either Harnoncourt’s recording or Herreweghe’s recording I gave you yesterday. The second cantata is a charming one, evoking the pastoral scene of the shepherds on the field. But this composition has never grabbed or moved me the way the first or fourth cantata of the Christmas Oratorio do. The cantata I am eager to share with you today is cantata 40 Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, written for Second Christmas Day in 1723.

The interpretation I grew up with is Harnoncourt’s recording from 1974, with countertenor René Jacobs, tenor Marius van Altena, and bass Max van Egmond. Find the text here, and the score here.

This cantata is really Christmas for me. I don’t know exactly why: perhaps because on Second Christmas Day we didn’t have to go to church, so I associate it with a more relaxed, unscheduled day. Perhaps because of the horns in the orchestra in the opening chorus and the tenor aria (I have a soft spot for horns or trombones in Bach cantatas), because of the impressive “Höllische schlange” (Snake of Hell) bass aria (yes, I have a soft spot for bass arias too), or because of the closing chorale that is so pretty, going up so high on the text Wonne, Wonne über Wonne! Er ist die Genadensonne. (Delight, delight upon delight! He is the son of mercy.) I sang this cantata in a Bach cantata reading group mid November this year, sitting directly behind the horns, standing next to one of my best friends, and I couldn’t believe my luck I got to sing this closing chorale.

Wieneke Gorter, December 26, 2016.