Sunday, 13 January 2013

Christmas Oratorio, Day 6- The Feast of the Epiphany. Christmas is Over. Happy War

The Three Kings reach Bethlehem and give their gifts to Jesus in an idyllic scene of adoration. It's the ideal time for Bach to give us a calm, pastoral ending- the shepherds with their safely-grazing sheep, Mary dressed in an improbably clean and anachronistically bright blue shift, Joseph looking slightly dull and worthy at the back. That's what Epiphany- the feast of the Three Kings- is all about. Right? Well, yes- Bach gives us all that, for a moment or two. But what drives the end of the whole sequence is conflict. The story focusses on a secret escape from a terrified duplicitous dictator; the music is harmonically unstable and unsettling. And underlying it all is an ongoing war of the spirit with a snorting, raging Enemy that will only be won decades in the future through tortured self-sacrifice.

The opening chorus brings us back to the world of Christmas Day, at the very beginning of the Oratorio. Trumpets, kettle-drums and a lively flourish from the strings. But there's something wrong. Christmas Day's opening chorus started in the trumpets' favourite key, D major; it happily cycled through to A major and later did some interesting things around E major. It all works beautifully and creates no psychological jolts for the listener. Today's opening chorus starts as if it's playing the same game. Again, we start with a strong triple-time entry in D major with trumpets and drums, then a move towards A major to give us a touch more excitement. Even if you don't know a D major chord from a Dover sole, you feel that things are right.  Exciting, beautiful, yes, but in a familiar sort of way. But as soon as that rightness gets settled in the listener's minds, we're thrown.

At Bar 20, Bach makes what can only be described as a harmonic lurch into strange and remote territories, full of notes like C natural and D sharp which are completely alien to what came before. (Incidentally, for any of you geeky enough to want to check the score, a fairly decent public domain version is at .) And remember that Bach's instruments were tuned to be very good at playing in ordinary keys like C major and A minor with not many sharps or flats; indeed, in these keys they were more in tune than ordinary twenty-first century instruments. But in distant keys with more sharps and flats, they sounded strange and un-nerving. You can hear the difference when comparing Karl Richter's 1965 recording on modern instruments and tuning with John Eliot Gardiner's; Richter's merely sounds quieter, muted, intriguing at this point. With Gardiner and his eighteenth-century style band, the harmonic shift feels like a brief encounter with a banana skin on a dancefloor. We stay upright, but we'll have to take care not to end up heels-over-head. The old, confident tonality does return, backed up with the trumpets- but again it has to fight against these strange, dissonant interjections, made with insistently repeated notes on strings and oboes. The Christmas world of unalloyed joy is not as simple as we thought.

And when the chorus come in, they sing of struggle against a raging enemy. Their first line is almost comical in its vivid vocabulary- schnauben means to snort, as a raging boar might when confronted with a hunter trying to turn him into sausages. “Lord, when our proud Enemy snorts with rage, grant that we in firm faith may look to your power and help!”. Not exactly calming Christmas card stuff; we've moved on from that. And opposition and conflict are written into the way the words underlay the music. feinde Schnauben, “the enemy snorts” doesn't just rhyme with Feste glauben- “firmly believe”- it's set to exactly the same melodic pattern. Firm belief directly takes on the steaming nostrils of the enemy in Bach's web of musical counterpoint- and wins out, despite those persistent wobbles into strange unnerving tonality.

So why is Bach talking about enemies and conflict? The answer comes in the next recitative, which has one of the few moments when a character appears in the oratorio and speaks his own lines solo, rather than simply being described by the Evangelist. And surprisingly, it's not a Wise Man, or Joseph- but bad King Herod. This is the sort of enemy Bach is talking about in the opening chorus- not a vague sense of moral evil, but human, personal, and very dangerous. But he's also faintly ridiculous. The tenor steps aside and gives an opportunity for the bass soloist to practice his best fake-innocent wheedling voice as he says he wants to know where to find the Christ child, “dass ich auch komme und es anbete”- “that I may also may come and worship him”. You can almost imagine the Wise Men silently thinking “Yeah, right, Herod”.

And this lighter touch continues in the next aria. When the soprano sings “Spricht der Höchste nur ein Wort, Seiner Feinde Stolz zu enden”- “when the Highest One speaks a single word to put an end to the Enemy's pride”- there's a lovely whimsical staccato rhythm on Stolz zu enden, well brought out by Nancy Argenta on John Eliot Gardiner's DG recording. It brings to mind a primary school teacher waving her finger at a particularly badly behaved child- “I'm speaking, so don't even think about interrupting!”. And there's a long instrumental “outro” to finish, which re-enacts that bouncy rhythm. It's just a reminder that yes, there's a war on- but there's no need to get too frightened when the enemy is as transparent as Herod, and the person really in charge can squish him with a single word.

We return to the story, with some more cool recitative from the tenor Evangelist. The wise men stealthily escape over the border, keeping an eye out for the agents of the state. Initially, the music is calm, austere and reminiscent of Alan Bennett's dictum that people reading Scripture should aim for the same level of excitement as the Saturday afternoon football results. But Bach does something interesting (when does he ever not?). After a brief chorale interjection, the tenor recit moves from being straight quotes from the Biblical narrative to something more impassioned. Firstly, there's an emotional address to the Kings, bidding them farewell (“So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hier”- “Go then, it's enough that my treasure remains here”). This develops into a rhapsody of ardent love for the Christ child. People complain about “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics in happy-clappy evangelical worship songs today; but Bach's unknown librettist beats them all at this point:

“He stays here by me, I will not let him leave me. His arm will embrace me out of love and with great tenderness. He will remain my bridegroom, I will dedicate my breast and heart to him. I know well that he loves me; my heart loves him ardently too.”

And the instrumentation mirrors this journey from cool scripture to burning passion. It stops being recitativo secco (literally “dry recitative”) accompanied only by the keyboard, and acquires the more fruity tones of two instruments whose name is literally Love: oboes d'amore, with a richer, sweeter Semillon tone than the conventional oboe's drier Pinot Grigio. Finally, the tenor's recitative blossoms into an aria. Is it going to be more meditative love-stuff? On the contrary- there is a war on, you know! After the declaration of love, it's time to concentrate on the enemy. The previously sensuous oboes d'amore set up a 2/4 march-time (particularly jagged and unsentimental in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording), while the tenor mocks the stolzen Feinde once again: “Now you proud enemies may try to scare me- what sort of fear can you arouse in me?”.

In fact, for all the language of passion and war, Bach is using the music to give a strictly orthodox Lutheran plan for dealing with any fiendish temptations. First, you read the word of scripture calmly, unadorned- that's the first, dry part of the recitative. Then you go into your own emotional response to the text- that's the richer, more impassioned accompanied section of the recitative. Finally, you follow this with practical external action, mocking the wiles of sin and the flesh- the aria, with all its lithe marching vigour.

We're almost at the end of the two-week long journey now. But Bach still has some surprises up his sleeve. Firstly, all the soloists- soprano, alto, tenor, bass, join together to sing a recitative together- that's never happened before in the whole piece. It's a beautiful last opportunity for them to take a bow together (figuratively speaking, of course)- but there's more important work to be done. The trumpet sounds, the drums thunder; all our memories of Christmas Day, so long ago, are rekindled again. Time for final unalloyed jubilation to bring our great Oratorio to a unified close? Yes- and no. Despite the jubilation of the brass, the chorus don't come in with unison joy as on Christmas Day. Nor do we have with florid fugal entries as they did at the start of today's segment. It's Bach's last shock for us. What they sing is the chorale melody which is at the heart of the St Matthew Passion, known to us as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. While the drums and trumpets blare, the shadow of the Cross falls.

There's some controversy on whether this tune unequivocally signified “crucifixion” in Bach's day; it started as a secular love tune, after all. And it's true that not all of the congregation in St Thomas's in Leipzig on Epiphany Sunday 1735 might have known that this tune was used as the backbone of the great Passion setting sung there a few years previously. But Bach certainly knew that melody's significance to his own grandest setting of the Passion of Christ. Its inclusion here must be Bach's deliberate choice to cast us forward from the waning days of Christmas to the black heart of Good Friday. Just like the king's final gift of myrrh, used for anointing the dead, it points us forward from the beginning of life to its end.

This war isn't won at Bethlehem, surrounded by gold and frankincense; for Bach, it's won on a lonely cross outside Jerusalem, thirty-odd years later. But the struggle has now begun. For the great composer, dramatist, theologian and human being of St Thomas's, Leipzig, the hope of eventual victory is sure. Christmas is over. Happy war.

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