A pastoral symphony portrays shepherds watching their flocks; an angel appears, telling them not to be afraid; a jubilant heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest”. Anyone who’s been near a concert hall over Christmas might well be humming Handel at this point. But given that the name of this blog is A Year With Bach, it’s a fairly safe bet that we’re still in Leipzig and revelling in the Christmas Oratorio- day two, for December 26, 1734 (Day three will follow shortly. Is that a threat?). Bach’s depiction of the angel’s message to the shepherds is subtly different to Handel’s; possibly less purely serene and celestial, but ultimately more subtle and true to the paradoxical mixing of heaven and earth in the Christmas story.
We start with that familiar Messiah moment; a lilting triple-time string melody conveying the serenity of flocks grazing on winter hillsides. But Bach’s version has more harmonic tension than Handel’s pastoral symphony- clearly these shepherds are going somewhere. And the instrumentation is subtly different too; Bach specifies oboi da caccia, literally hunting oboes, with a broader, slightly coarser tone than the refined standard instruments. They have all the resonances of the pifa- the rustic reed instrument like a shawm that shepherds are stereotypically supposed to have used. And, just like in the Messiah, a sudden moment of cinematic transition takes us from serenity to shock as the angel appears. Interestingly, it’s not the angel who takes the lead in comforting the shepherds’ fear; rather, it’s the voice of the worshipping community in the chorale. They reach out across the ages and declare that the news is “unser Trost und Freude”- our trust and joy, for a community of faith that extends from first century shepherds in Palestine all the way to eighteenth-century German townspeople.
And this breaking down of temporal barriers carries on in the bass’s recitative that follows. Bach and his unknown librettist reach back a thousand years further into the past, and tie the first century shepherds’ experience to that of Abraham- a shepherd too, and one who heard an unexpected message that reached across boundaries of time and space. The tenor aria that follows us calls us all to be frohe Hirten- joyful shepherds; and The bass recitative that follows directly identifies the “gesamte Chor”, the full choir, with the shepherds and calls them to worship. But it’s not so much that the shepherds are being depicted by the choir. They aren’t- the next aria is a solo and as we’ve seen, the characteristic shorthand for the shepherds is those bleating oboi da caccia. It makes more sense to turn the identification round- the choir, as members and representatives of the congregation, are being called to the role of shepherds again. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Bach’s congregation in urban Leipzig probably didn’t see a sheep from week to week any more than I do. The call- to calm your fear, refresh yourself, rejoice, worship- is the same for all the hearers in all places and times.
The alto lullaby that follows intriguingly calls on the Christ-child to share the good things about being human. The refreshment that a few lines earlier was being offered to the people listening is offered to the sleeping baby: “Labe die Brust, empfinde die Lust, wo wir unser Herz erfreuen”- “refresh your breast, experience the joy, there where we make our hearts joyful”. It’s an unusual theological point; that the gift of humanity is being bestowed on Christ, and this is something for him to rejoice in too. “Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb”, that slightly obscure line from the unavoidable carol O Come All Ye Faithful, has its point made clearer here; it’s good to be human. Christ becoming human is a source of joy for all, even the poor baby in the middle of it all who has to put up with it.
Finally, after the shepherds’ lullaby is completed, we’re woken up with a bang. At last we return to the familiar narrative and the heavenly host turns up. The three-fold message- glory in heaven, peace on earth, good will to men- is perfectly depicted in the three musical segments of the next chorus; exalted upper register fanfares, falling motifs and then a return to the heights with an even more marvellous fugal section depicting the working-out of the good-will. The bass soloist addresses the chorus, no longer shepherds, as Ihr Engel- you angels; and the final chorale alternates the rustic oboes on earth with the ecstatic heavenly host. In Handel’s Messiah at this point, the angels float away in a charming diminuendo; for Bach, this only happens once shepherds and angels have joined together in praise. Unity is achieved between heaven and earth; and the end is peace, as the shepherd’s pipes gently die away.