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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Christmas week. Even the most spiritual people among us – plausibly, the MOST spiritual among us – easily can be caught up in the THINGS of this week. Touching bases, checking lists, doing this and that, going here and there… all of which is legitimate. All of which we routinely regret, to an extent. All of which we resolve, nest year, to balance with quiet time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

At your service, folks. Here is a 2010-style method of slowing your pace, soothing your soul, and communing quietly with, maybe, your family; with God… and with Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the end of this message is a link to a performance of Bach’s immortal CHRISTMAS ORATORIO. We are used to hearing Handel’s “Messiah,” at least several famous portions. No less beautiful, and powerful, and spiritual, is Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”

The oratorio is best explained as a religious opera without a stage. Drama based on biblical stories is presented employing overtures and instrumental movements, solos and choruses, and often a narrator – an orator, providing one theory of its name – in the form of a singing narrator who stands apart from the “action.” Oratorios sometimes were performed outside the settings of churches. The most famous composer of Baroque oratorios is Händel, who wrote one German, two Italian, and seventeen English-language oratorios.

The opening of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Jauchzet, Frohlocket!, with timpani drums tuned to different notes, is among the grandest music Bach wrote. And the close of part two, Wir Singen Dir In Deinem Heer, seamlessly combining two previous beautiful melodies, is magical. The Sinfonia, a purely instrumental movement, is sublime. Does it advance the “action”? – No, except to set the mood of the peaceful night in Bethlehem, where the shepherds watched over their flocks.

May I invite the uninitiated to this glorious piece, or to Baroque music in general: Let Bach, and the biblical text, carry you on a spiritual trip. The Bible is quoted; the chorus and soloists take the part of Christmas-week players; and the ancient, beautiful music will touch your soul. Give this time… and it will be a special part of your Christmas.

In this video, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists; the setting is the historic Herderkirche in Weimar, Germany, a city where Bach once lived and worked. The Christmas Oratorio originally was performed on six different days, from Christmas to Epiphany. Technically it is six cantatas, a form within the liturgy of which Bach was master.

The small choir… the original ancient instruments… the soloist in the box… the setting of the historic church… bring you close to the music as Bach would have conducted it himself. The first such time was Christmas of 1734.

I am linking you to full-screen downloads of this masterpiece (I daresay many of you will rush to find the DVD version of this to watch on a bigger screen next year!) Of several good versions available on the web, this is the only one with English subtitles; when they don’t appear, it is because singers are repeating passages. ALSO: this is not just “sit back and close your eyes.” Every once in a while a download will end, and a screen will appear with freeze-frame options. Click the largest box, upper right, labeled “Up Next,” each time. (This will give you a chance to take a break if needed – this is more than two hours long, like “Messiah,” so plan some time! – or, you will see, you will want to repeat a passage whose musical beauty and spiritual power has impressed you!

Take time. Make time. Have a merry, and meaningful, and musical, Christmas and then click this link and be blessed:

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