Thursday, 3 January 2013

Christmas Oratorio, part 3- the Third Day of Christmas

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

It's December 27 1734, and Bach's musicians are probably feeling as groggy and overfed as most people are on the day after Boxing Day. At least this segment only needs to be played once, at St Nicholas' Church- the previous two were given at St Thomas's too. And for the third day in a row, they give life to a masterpiece. Royal trumpets meet pastoral woodwind in the introduction as the shepherds approach their King- who happens to be poor, helpless and powerless. It's all about inverted expectations on multiple levels. So the chorus addresses the earth-bound Jesus as Herrscher des Himmels- Lord of heavens; they ask the baby to hear their babbling, “erhöre das Lallen”. When the babbling actually consists of a formally perfect choral fugue, clearly something is unusual here! But the key to it is the request to look upon the heart's joyful praise- der Herzen frohlockendes Preisen- the only thing where appearances can't be deceiving. And this theme is crucial for today's section of the Oratorio- the combination of external worship and internal meditation.

The shepherds act as the models of how to relate to God in the eternal world. Firstly, they move. After a quick interjection from the tenor Evangelist, Bach dramatises their decision to go on pilgrimage with a little turba chorus. It's the same sort sort of vigorous choral interjection that Bach gave to the disciples and the raging crowds in his Passion settings. It's functional, dramatic music that moves the plot on concisely, rather than allowing time for meditation. “Let's go to Bethlehem”, they say- and within less than a minute, they're on their way, with concise encouragement from the bass soloist and a chorale.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

And once they reach Bethlehem, the textures slim down and the scale diminishes. We have a duet for soprano and bass, accompanied by those rustic-sounding oboes d'amore. It's as if only a couple of people could squeeze into the stable at a time. It may not be the most earth-shattering piece Bach wrote; but it sums up that simple sequence of action that we're called to at Christmas- first go to the manger; then kneel at a place where prayer is strong. And all the time we're still playing with the strange upside-down-ness of Christmas- addressing a little baby, yet talking about “deine Vatertreu”- your fatherly love.

But the really sublime moment (at least to my ears) comes next. The Evangelist speaks up again, describing not only the shepherds' spreading the word about the new baby. Yet the narrative shifts from the external to the internal: “Maria aber behielt alle diese Worte und bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen.”, “Mary kept all these words and stored them away in her heart”. Bach does something rather magical here; indeed, I think it's a sign of his genius that his recitatives are never dull. (As a demonstration of how difficult it is to write exciting and compelling recitative, I'd point out Ton Koopman's reconstruction of the St Mark Passion, where the recits are newly composed by Maestro Koopman himself in immaculate Baroque style. I confess to finding them eye-wateringly boring...) But here, Bach shifts into a new harmonic territory for the words bewegte sie, with a little chromatic slither in the bass which lets us feel we're entering new pastures- and then we're into what could be an operatic aria for Mary herself. I love the feeling of patient pondering in the solo violin introduction. It could be Mary walking up and down in a room, or possibly the passage of thoughts one after the other in her mind as she tells herself: “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder
Fest in deinem Glauben ein!” - “
My heart, store away this blessed wonder firmly in your faith”. This section of the oratorio could so easily be staged. It's tempting to imagine an impassioned Mary alone and looking out at an ecstatic audience after the departure of the shepherds.

But this isn't opera. It would have been sung with no costume, by a boy or young man in a musician's gallery, possibly not even visible to the congregation. But this is part of the power of the piece. At one level, it's a song that Mary sings after the birth of Jesus as she meditates on what has just happens- as it might have happened then and there, and nowhere else. But by transcending any staging and by being sung by a high-voiced male, not a female, the aria breaks free of the bounds of time, place and gender in the narrative. It's the song that Bach is offering all his congregation (and, by extension, us) to share in for all time.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

A brief recitative speeds up the pace as we stand up from the crib. The chorale that follows is a simple repetitive tune with remarkably slow, short three-syllable lines (“Ich will dir/ Leben hier,/ Dir will ich abfahren”). But under the child-like melody are complex harmonies. For just one example, I've outlined in red how the tenors and basses rise up a whole octave through the texture in the last three bars, singing words that mean “With you I will one day soar, full of joy, beyond time, to another life!”. And how appropriate that they reach their peak on the word “Life”.

And after this rise to life, we go back. The tenor recitative tells of a joyful return home for the shepherds; and after a brief, simpler chorale echoing that joy, that's exactly what Bach does. We return to the opening chorus, back to the combination of king's fanfares and shepherds' pipes. The great journey of the first three days of Christmas is over, and Bach's congregation return home too.

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The next time they hear Bach's music it will be a new year.

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