Bachs Christmas Oratorio Johann Sebastian Bachs Oratorium Tempore Nativitatis Christi, a cycle of six cantatas for the Christmas season, had its collective premiere from Christmas Day 1734 through Epiphany Sunday 1735 in Leipzig. One of Bachs reasons for these performances was his search for a more permanent home for the music of three large-scale occasional works. The music involved was that of the three cantatas (Drammae per Musica) for members of the princely house of Saxony: Hercules auf der Scheidewege BWV 213 (September 1733) (Hercules at the Crossroads), written for the eleventh birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony; Tnet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214 (December 1733) (Sound, ye drums! Burst forth, ye trumpets!), written for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Crown Princess of Saxony and Queen of Poland, and mother of Friedrich Christian; and Preise dein Glcke, gesegnetes Sachsen BWV 215 (October 1734) (Praise thy good fortune, o blessed Saxony), written for the first anniversary of the accession of Augustus II, Crown Prince of Saxony and King of Poland. These cantatas provide the lions share of the arias and choruses for the first four cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. The fifth cantata, in contrast, is almost completely composed of original material, and the sixth is based as a whole on a single church cantata, which has not survived in its original form. The choice may well have been due to the fact that BWV 213-215, in a sense, comprised a sort of cyclic whole, making use of similar styles of text and music. But the most important reason for this large-scale parody composition was, of course, the musical quality and festive atmosphere of the three Saxon cantatas, which could easily be translated to the Christmas story. Bach commissioned his (unknown) librettist to rewrite the chorus and aria texts in such a way that this music could essentially be re-used unaltered, but as might be expected, he could not resist the temptation to introduce numerous improvements to the original compositions as he rewrote them. Bachs surviving clean final copy of the 1734 full score provides fascinating documentation for this process. He also had a handsome libretto printed separately, above all to make it clear to his fellow citizens of Leipzig and the audience that this was a major Oratorio, in spite of its performance being spread out over the course of six Sundays and two weeks. In later years, some have been uncomfortable with the secular origins of the Christmas Oratorio: the concept that music from a group of princely birthday cantatas could also serve to celebrate the birth of Christ was difficult to accept. But in the period before the Enlightenment, reigning heads of state were seen in a theological context: their office was conferred by God and was seen as completely separate from their physical bodies and good (or bad) deeds. For this reason, music written for these Kings was by its very definition highly suitable for the birthday of that other King, Christ, and most fit to sing the praises of the Ruler of the Heavens. Pieter Dirksen, 2002 Translation: David ShaperoDownload booklet
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