Friday, January 5, 2007

The Christmas Oratorio

On January 6, 1735, J.S. Bach premiered the sixth, and final section, of his Christmas Oratorio.

One of the things that I appreciate about the music of Sebastian Bach is the liturgical context of his work which integrated with worship services. This fact is true with regard to the six-part Christmas Oratorio (1734-35)—a work written and conceived as a whole but designed to be performed on significant dates during the twelve days of Christmas. This unfolding of the Christmas story, compiled primarily from the biblical narrative, includes details about the Annunciation, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision, and the arrival of the Magi. Bach wrote the sections of the oratorio to be performed during services on the First, Second, and Third days of Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), the First Sunday of the New Year, and the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).

The technical mastery, personal devotion and faith, liturgical application, and accessibility of Bach’s music is unmatched by any other composer. Even Handel’s Messiah is not a work for the church service, and the successive generations of composers after Bach (including Handel) wrote primarily for the concert stage—not the sanctuary.

As such, Bach’s music, and the Christmas Oratorio in particular, offers a rich feast of theology and worship. It’s a shame that these works (including the 200 church cantatas) are so under-utilized in worship, but at least we have recordings.

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