Merry Christmas! My sincere apologies if you are somewhere in the world where it is not Christmas Morning anymore.
I have two new videos for you today, that will last you until January 6, just in case I don’t manage to write another blog post between now and then.
The J.S. Bach Foundation has released all six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to YouTube. They released these on CD and DVD for purchase last year, but have now made them available to everyone. You can find that video recording here.
What is even better: they also made the effort to provide English subtitles for Rudolf Lutz’ lecture about Part I of the Oratorio, for Christmas Day. You can find that video here. I highly recommend watching this to better understand the meaning of the music, to learn how Bach reworked some of his secular cantatas into this Oratorio, and that he perhaps planned to do that all along.
There is also a good video of parts I, II, III, and VI of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by Bach Akademie Stuttgart. The setting in which they perform is less festive looking than the beautiful Baroque church of the J.S. Bach Foundation, but it’s also well done. You can find it here.
If you would like to read and listen more, here’s an overview of my previous blog posts for this First Christmas Day:
Our Christmas Morning, from 2016, talks about how my mother used to wake my sister and me up with Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Three Days of Christmas, from 2017, gives you the three cantatas Bach wrote in 1724, all three brand-new, no reworking there.
It has been hard to read the newspapers this week and not be touched or even completely floored by human suffering. That’s why Cantata 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1724) is like a warm bath to me. The two horns in the orchestra already make my day, but there is also a strong presence of angels in the text and music of this cantata.
Watch a wonderful live registration of this cantata on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with Monika Mauch, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text and translations here, and the score here.
In the opening chorus (with the ascending scale of fast notes), Bach illustrates the “host of angels” singing, or, as Eduard van Hengel says, even “flapping their wings.”
Last year I already talked about how in most of his cantatas for Christmas Day, Bach focuses on Jesus’ journey from the godly realm, the heavenly glory, to being a struggling man on earth. It is very moving then to hear this following text in the bass solo. And it is a true Christmas present to me that it is Peter Kooij who is singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation video, because he is one of the best to interpret texts like these. Note how Bach illustrates the “Jammertal” (vale of sorrow) at the end.
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache die bereit, Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen. Der grosse Gottessohn Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen. Ach, lass dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren; Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself to welcome the creator amongst you. The mighty Son of God has descended and comes to you as a guest. Ah, let your heart be moved by this love; He comes to you, in order to lead you through this vale of sorrow to his throne.
In the beautiful soprano-alto duet (arguably the best part of this cantata), Bach brilliantly illustrates the contrast between the human suffering and the heavenly angels. He sets the suffering parts of the text to chromatic lines, similar to those just introduced on that word “Jammertal” in the bass solo. To the heavenly angels he gives happy, dotted rhythms.
While I grew up waking up to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Day (read more about this tradition here), these days I much prefer listening to all the other, earlier cantatas Bach wrote for the period between from December 25 to January 6. However, there are two new video projects of the Christmas Oratorio just out or about to be launched this year that I don’t wish to ignore, so for those of you eager to watch and listen to any of that, here’s my one-paragraph overview:
Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed on one day. The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were each meant to be performed on a different Sunday or holiday: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. The J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland recently released all six cantatas for free on their YouTube channel. You can find the list of videos, one for each cantata, here. If you enjoy watching these videos, please consider donating to the organization so they can continue to pay their musicians and produce these wonderful registrations. Voces8’s excellent “Live from London Christmas” paid programming features all six cantatas performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. Appropriately, each cantata will go live on the day for which it was intended. You can purchase this series here.
On this blog I have shared only two of Bach’s compositions for Christmas Day so far: Cantata 91 from 1724 here, and of course the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (our family’s “wake-up call” on Christmas morning) from 1734 here. But Bach wrote at least three more cantatas for this day, as well as his Magnificat.
Today I’d love to share Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) from 1725. Find The Netherlands Bach Society’s live recording of this cantata here on YouTube.
Find the text with English translations here, and the score here.
This live video registration has an abundance of Christmas presents for me: the festive setting of the Grote Kerk in Naarden; soprano Maria Keohane in a Scandinavian Christmas dress and truly enjoying herself; tenor Charles Daniels, always a delight; a promising new young bass, Matthias Winckhler, who can actually sing every note of the enormously challenging bass aria in this cantata; and the best gift of all: Alex Potter singing the alto aria, which to me is the most moving part of this cantata, and also the core message Bach wanted to communicate to his fellow believers on this Christmas Day in 1725.
For the joyous opening of this cantata, Bach re-uses his Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069) to grandly illustrate the “arrival” of Jesus. In the center of the cantata, after the festivities of the opening chorus, but before the very pretty Christmas-y “Glory to God in the highest” soprano-tenor duet, and an impressive bass aria with trumpet, the music goes into a minor key, and also turns inward, in the alto aria. The text of that alto aria is as follows:
Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind, Ah, Lord, what is a child of man Dass du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest? that you should seek his salvation with so much pain? Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest, A worm whom you curse Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind; when hell and Satan are around him; Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist but also your son, whom soul and spirit Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt. Through love call their inheritance.
Of course this text refers to the believers in general, that on the one hand they are worms, and on the other hand will be saved by Jesus. but I feel the choice of the word “Menschenkind” is not a coincidence. It definitely also refers to the the fact that Jesus can’t just stay in the godly realm, but in order to be a true savior, he has to come to earth, become man, and go through all the rotten reality that might imply. This theme appears more or less prominently in all Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day, and in this cantata 110 it is already announced in the tenor aria:
Er wird Mensch, und dies allein, He has become man, and this only Dass wir Himmels Kinder sein. so that we may become children of heaven.
Nine years later, in the first cantata of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach also stresses this “coming to earth” and “becoming man” of Jesus on this first Christmas Day, in what is also the most moving and inward-looking part of that particular cantata: the soprano-bass duet. The text Bach gives to the bass in that duet is as follows. Note the last line.
Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn, Who will rightly extol the love Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt? that our Saviour cherishes for us? Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen, Indeed, who is able to realise Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt? how he is moved by human suffering? Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt, The highest’s son came into the world Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt, because its salvation pleases him so well So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden. that he himself is willing to be born as a man.
Growing up in the Netherlands, my sister and I did not expect gifts at Christmas, and certainly not under the tree. We had already received our gifts on the eve of St. Nicholas, December 5. At the dinner with relatives on Christmas Day, we would maybe receive one book, or a small piece of jewelry. It would be well coordinated between mother and grandmother that this would amount to only one present per person, and it would be next to our plate when we arrived at the extremely well-dressed Christmas dinner table.
However Christmas Morning was something we immensely looked forward to. The Christmas Morning breakfast was the most wonderful breakfast of the year, even better than the Easter breakfast. We would have crispy rolls from the oven, artisan sliced ham, boiled eggs, cheese, jams, and of course the sweet breakfast sprinkles American kids can’t believe Dutch kids get to eat for breakfast. And Kerststol, or Christmas Stollen, a fruit bread with an almond paste filling.
There was an unwritten rule that my parents would set out the breakfast (including my father carving a bell or Christmas tree out of the butter) and us kids would stay in bed until my mom would sound the special alarm. And the special alarm was: Harnoncourt’s recording of the opening chorus of Part One of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at full volume, the sound of the timpani rocking the whole house. I usually play the Herreweghe recording in my own house nowadays. You can find that here on YouTube.
In 2012, Herreweghe’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Brussels was recorded and released on DVD. It is a beautiful registration, and has some of my favorite soloists: Dorothee Mields, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. For my readers in Germany, and countries not to far from there, you can buy the regular DVD here, or the blu ray version here. For readers in the USA, if you have Amazon Prime, you can stream it here.
Read more about the history of Christmas in Europe and the USA in this extremely interesting article and join me again tomorrow for a cantata for Second Christmas Day.
Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2016, links updated December 24, 2019.