Johann Sebastian Bach

Christmas Oratorio

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 150 Minutes
Genre: Oratorio
Time of Creation: 1734
World Premiere: 1734/35 (Leipzig)

Table of Contents

Bach's Christmas Oratorio in 5 Sentences

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is one of his most popular works and is still frequently performed during the Christmas season. It consists of six individual cantatas originally intended for the six services between Christmas Day and Epiphany. In composing it, Bach used large parts of already existing compositions (the so-called “parody procedure”, which Bach also used later in his Mass in B minor as well as Handel in his Messiah). The first performance was given by the Leipzig St. Thomas Boys Choir beginning on Christmas Day in 1734. As Thomaskantor, Bach had been responsible for church music in Leipzig since 1723.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Highlight 1: Jauchzet, frohlocket!

The large-scale, radiant opening chorus begins the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, depicting the birth of Christ:

Highlight 2: Bereite dich, Zion

In this famous alto aria, the great implications of the events to come are glimpsed for the first time:

Highlight 3: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen

The final chorus of the third cantata is similarly solemn as the opening chorus:

Highlight 4: Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen

In the final chorus of the last cantata, we are reminded once again of all that Jesus overcame, namely death, the devil, sin and hell:

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Question 1: Why did Bach write the Christmas Oratorio?

Music was needed for the Leipzig Christmas services of 1734: There were six feast days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Bach therefore wrote six cantatas which together form his Christmas Oratorio – one cantata per feast day or service.

Question 2: What are the names of the 6 parts of the Christmas Oratorio?

Part 1: Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
Part 2: Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
Part 3: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Part 4: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
Part 5: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
Part 6: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben

Question 3: What does the Christmas Oratorio tell us?

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is about the birth of Jesus Christ in the stable at Bethlehem and the accompanying worship by the shepherds and the three wise men from the east.

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Recording 1: RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, Anna Lucia Richter, Stefanie Irányi, Maximilian Schmitt, Roderick Williams, Hans Christoph Rademann (live, 2016)

Very often within a performance, only Cantatas 1–3 and Cantata No. 6 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are played. Such is the case in this terrific performance in which the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann play their special repertoire:

Recording 2: RIAS Chamber Choir, Baroque Orchestra B'Rock, Met Sunhae Im, Bernarda Fink, Martin Lattke, Dominik Köninger, René Jacobs

A blazing fast recording is available with René Jacobs on the podium:

1 Quote about Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!

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