Christmas Day- Christmas Oratorio, Part 1
Rejoice! Advent has passed. Suddenly we hear something different. A totally new tone of suppressed excitement and simple, unalloyed excitement- and the chorus impatiently cuts off the elegant line of the trumpet’s fanfare to shout with unharmonised roughness- Jauchzet! Be joyful! Even then, the lines can’t restrain themselves from flowing into one another- the last syllable of getan on Ruhmet was heute das Hoechste getan ("Praise what the Highest has done today") melts into the flowing fugue of Lasset das Zagen ("Set aside fear"). Something too exciting for the ordinary language of musical word-painting is happening; for a moment, there's a harmonic crunch on Klage ("lamentation"), but it's swept aside. Similarly, the middle section of returns us to a cerebral, considered Bach we thought we knew from the Advent cantatas. But it's all punched away by a return to the unison command- Jauchzet!
And the differences continue. The next movement isn't just a tenor recitative like in the other cantatas we've looked at so far; rather, the tenor's an Evangelist; less impassioned, sticking to the Scriptural text, but with a noble austerity. It takes the entry of the richly accompanied alto recitative to bring emotion to us on a passionate operatic scale. Just as in any other opera of Bach's time, the recitative sets out the narrative logic and facts behind the emotion- "Now shall my beloved Bridegroom be born"; the aria that follows enables us to inhabit the emotion and drink it in. Time stops and we are able to feel the bosom-heaving desire for the Bridegroom Christ; I do no justice to the flirtatious sensuality of the music simply by quoting the words Eile den Braeutigam sehnlichtst zu lieben- "Hurry to love the Bridegroom ardently". You have to listen to it and feel the heartbeat of the lover quickening.
But this isn't opera. This isn't some accompaniment to an overheated boudoir scene. Perhaps you, like me, can imagine a buxom singer-actress winking and flirting with an audience on the cheeky gaps after the words "Den Schoensten, den Lieben"- "the most beautiful, the lovely". Easy, tigers. This music would probably have been sung by a boy with an unbroken voice from a gallery where he would have been all but invisible to the congregation (who were definitely not an audience). So why write such passionate music, and set it to a libretto that drips with sexuality? It's all in the Bible, I'm afraid. All the imagery comes from the Song of Solomon. That journey of self-preparation, of preening yourself for the arrival of your dream lover, and of eventual uniting in ecstasy are part of the rich centuries-old metaphor of Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as Bride. Bach, in his genius, has gone even further and made the Church an operatic character as passionate as any heroine.
But that's not the end of it. For any good Lutheran, the voice of the Church is found in its congregation, and in particular through the chorale. And the chorale that follows is indeed a love song. It's a secular tune used for centuries before Bach for a harmless little love ditty, Herzlich mich thut verlangen. It means more or less “I mourn for you passionately”; and the words set to it here resonate with that, asking “How shall I receive thee and how shall I encounter thee, Desired One of all the world?”. But there’s another darker side to this love. By 1734, when Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio, Bach had used this tune as the heart of the St Matthew Passion- the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. It’s a Liebestod a century before Wagner; a mingling of present passionate longing and the certainty that the love will culminate in agonized death. And by combining those two concepts in a chorale, Bach is allowing every member of the congregation who heard it on Christmas Day in 1734 to share in a bitter-sweet mixture of emotion worthy of Wagner’s Isolde.
And after another simple, noble declamation of the scripture for today from the Evangelist- “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn…” the solo recitative of the bass and the soprano chorale melody wrap around one another in a dance of indescribable beauty- so I won’t even try. (This is a problem I fear I may increasingly have- Bach’s music is just too good for words…) All I’ll point out is the the conclusion- the bass’s declaration of the form Christ’s love took (“So he will himself be born as man”) leads directly to the chorale’s Kyrieleis. The individual’s recognition of Jesus’s love leads to the communal, confident plea for mercy.
And the bass gives us a glorious depiction of the paradox of Christmas. His swaggering aria is in an almost martial duple time, with courtly flourishes from the strings and the brass. But the words deflate this depiction of secular power- O wie wenig achtest du der Erden Pracht- “O how little do you esteem earthly power!”. All this pomp and ceremony is for an ultimately powerless baby in poverty at the heart of a hostile regime, who only has a harten Krippen- a hard manger- to sleep on. And this irony is brought out by the fact that much of the music for this section is taken from an earlier, secular cantata named Toenet, ihr Pauken. It celebrated one of Bach’s princeling employers. But by reappropriating the music for Christmas and the birth of that baby, Bach himself is turning upside down the idea of secular power. We end the cantata with the last chorale, accompanied by the full glory of the orchestra- but muted (particularly well done in Harry Christophers’s recording with the Sixteen). I think quiet, sustained grandeur works well at this point, especially when the chorale’s words are almost verging on baby-talk:“Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein, Mach dir ein rein sanft Bettelein”- Ah, my darling little Jesus, make yourself a clean safe little bed” doesn’t get the child-like feel of the repeated diminutives ending in –lein. (Perhaps “Jesusy-Weesusy” and “beddy-wed” might do it. Or perhaps not.)
We’ve just seen the first act in a monumental new work, superficially similar to the cantatas, but moving their idiom closer to that of opera. But it’s an opera where the congregation are themselves represented through the singing of the chorales, as sacramentally and effectually as Christ was present for them under forms of bread and wine. The congregation, with Joseph and Mary and the Christ child are crucial characters here. On Christmas Day, Bach tells them to rejoice; and they rejoice as figures in a divine work of art.