Homepage List Listening to Bach's CHRISTMAS ORATORIO on Christmas Day

45. Listening to Bach's CHRISTMAS ORATORIO on Christmas Day

What else could be more appropriate than listening to Johann Sebastian Bach's vocal masterpiece "Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248" on Christmas Day? Having listened to it many times before, I did enjoy this wonderful two-and-half-hour-long music again on Christmas Day, the day before yesterday. The music, once again, same as before each time I was listening to it, brought me to a state of exaltation and fulfilment that no simple earthly entertainments could have produced the same effect. As bathing and soaking in the music, I had my soul purified, worries lessened, sense of hardships overcome, feeling of loneliness driven away, painful psychological wounds healed, depression battered and afflictions of old age diminished.

Immediately after its completion by Bach, "Christmas Oratorio", as a six-part musical cycle each part designated to be performed in the successive sermons on the holidays or Sundays on and after Christmas Day, was first performed in the turn of the year 1734-35. These six parts of the music are Part One: For the 1st Day of Christmas, Part Two: For the 2nd Day of Christmas, Part Three: For the 3rd Day of Christmas, Part Four: For the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Part Five: For the 1st Sunday of the New Year and Part Six: For the Feast of Epiphany. In the period not long before the completion of "Christmas Oratorio", Bach had just gone through a series of happiness and misfortune of life, the vicissitudes of alternating births and deaths of his family members. Bach, with so powerful an ingenious and creative musical mind that, in the opinions of many critics, has not yet been surpassed by any of the musicians or composers after him, can definitely be crowned as the greatest musician or composer of all times!

The following passage, taken from an article "Overcoming Materialistic Thinking: Bach's Christmas Oratorio" written by Andreas Bomba, provides valuable information that can deepen our understanding of the music:

"For many people within the Christian cultural sphere, Bach's Christmas Oratorio is today so integral a part of Christmas celebrations as are Christmas trees and presents, as well as the heightened awareness of family values. The Christmas Oratorio is an anchor of Christian tradition in a world that is secularized yet constantly seeking for meaning and fulfilment, and this is perhaps the reason that it is Bach's most popular work.

"The Christmas Oratorio will also have had an existential meaning for Bach personally. A few weeks before we began our reflections, on Bach's 45th birthday in March 1730, his newborn daughter Christiana Benedicta had died. Birth and death were never far apart in those years. By March 1735, Bach's 50th birthday, celebrated three months after the performance of the Christmas Oratorio, three more of Bach's children had seen the light of day: Christiana Dorothea (March 18, 1731), Johann Christoph Friedrich (June 23, 1732) and Johann August Abraham (November 5, 1733); moreover, Anna Magdalena was expecting Johann Christian, born on September 7, 1735. Two of the newborn had already died (Christiana Dorothea and Abraham, who only lived for three days), as well as Regina Johanna born in 1728 (April 25, 1733). How did the family deal with such strokes of fate? The proximity of the extremes of life and death, joy and mourning? How could the provider of the family attend to his duties under these circumstances? How much passion was left to him for pursuing other musical interests?

"In this context, the conception and composition of a piece that tells of the Lord's birth could also constructively serve as an aid to overcoming the crisis. The Christmas Oratorio is also the manifestation of the act of setting off for new shores. It is a courageous idea which demanded a great deal of exertion but immediately turned out to be a big hit. And: the successful bid for a post at the court of Saxony in the form of a cantata of homage supplied the materal for finally overcoming materialistic thinking in Bach's music, for reconciliation with serving one's duty, for deepening the faith and turning to music as an expression of the cosmic order."

(Written on December 27, 2011)