Bach Christmas Oratorio

22 january 2011  |  7.30pm  |  Canterbury Cathedral <visit website>

Julia Doyle soprano
David Allsopp counter-tenor
Jon English tenor
Benjamin Bevan bass
London Handel Orchestra (Leader: Adrian Butterfield )
Canterbury Choral Society
Canterbury Choral Society Youth Choir (Director: Will Bersey)
Richard Cooke Conductor

Programme Note

Christmas Oratorio – Parts IV, V and VI

The title of this work is a misnomer; although Bach called it an Oratorio, it is actually a cycle of six cantatas. Bach also used the term for his Ascension and Easter Oratorios, and in the case of the latter the term is really inappropriate since the work has none of the dramatic narrative that we associate with an oratorio. The Christmas and Ascension Oratorios, however, do give us a biblical story, related by the Evangelist, and occasionally aided by other soloists and the chorus, much as in the St John and St Matthew Passions. This gives the musicologists something to write about, as they also have on the extent to which the music of the Christmas Oratorio may have been borrowed from other secular cantatas.

The Cantatas represent a major part of Bach’s enormous creative output. According to his son C.P.E.Bach, he wrote five cantatas for each Sunday and Festival throughout the Church Year, which, together with some thirty-eight secular cantatas written for the celebrations of various members of the nobility, would have brought the total to something over 330, although about a third of them have been lost. It is not surprising, therefore, that, like his contemporaries, he recycled much of his material. During the time he was engaged upon the Christmas Oratorio he composed three secular cantatas using some of the same music, though so suited is this music to the Christmas composition that it was almost certainly destined to be used for that from the start.

The Church Cantatas took a variety of different forms, but a typical one would have consisted of solo recitatives and arias, sometimes with an opening chorus and usually a closing chorale. This is the shape taken by the six cantatas which make up the Christmas Oratorio. They were intended to be performed on six days during the Christmas period – the first three on the three days of the Festival, and Nos 4, 5 and 6 on the Feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s Day), the Sunday after New Year and the Feast of Epiphany. During Bach’s lifetime, they were only performed in this way, but today such a series could be quite difficult to arrange. Performed in one evening they make for a very long concert, even when several numbers are omitted, as they almost invariably are, and to hear the two halves separately, but complete, is more satisfactory.

The sequence of numbers which results produces a form not dissimilar to that of the Passions; in this, the second half, the choir sings three extended choruses and a number of chorales. The narrative does not carry the drama that the Passion story does and fewer dramatis personae are introduced, in fact in this second half only on two occasions, one when the bass sings Herod’s words and one when the chorus represent the Wise Men from the East. Otherwise the soloists and chorus have a reflective role. At the end of Part 6 the Quartet sung by the soloists (reminiscent of the one at the end of the St Matthew Passion) is followed by a final triumphant chorale ushered in by a blaze of trumpets. Bach uses symbolism in this work as in other cantatas and passions, and it is here that we find it in a powerful form: – the chorale is the ‘Passion’ chorale that Bach used to such moving effect in the St Matthew, and the message here must be that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order that He should suffer for our sins on the Cross.

SUITE No. 3 in D

Overture: Grave, leading to Allegro.
Gavotte I and II

Once again we find confusion over the title of a work: during the early eighteenth century there were many apparent inconsistencies in the titles given to certain types of composition. The pieces that we know as his Orchestral Suites Bach in fact called Overtures. The term Suite or Partita, was generally applied to keyboard compositions, and indicated a set of several dances almost always beginning with an Allemande, including a Courante and a Sarabande, and ending with a Gigue. The French Overture, by contrast, was generally orchestral, and had a first movement with a slow introduction leading to a lively fugal passage, this being followed by one or two dance movements; and that is a pretty good description of this particular work. The title Sinfonia was used for the orchestral introductions to operas or cantatas, but the classical Symphony had the Suite as its immediate precursor; the presence of a Minuet and Trio as third movement being evidence of such an origin. While most of the Suites for keyboard or other solo instruments have many more movements than one would find in a Symphony, this Orchestral Suite (or Overture!) with its substantial opening movement, with the familiar Air as slow movement, with a double Gavotte (in place of Minuet and Trio) and two lively dances to finish with, could very well have served as a model for the Symphonies that were to come. © John Andrewes