Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (originally in German, Weihnachts-Oratorium) was taken from the Bible, texts according to the Gospels of St. Luke (Chapter 2, Verse 1 and Verses 3-21) and St. Matthew (Chapter 2, Verses 1-12); and in addition, texts from church hymns and madrigalesque works, which possibly were written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (aka Picander).

The date of writing was in 1734, Leipzig. The first performance was on the Christmas and New Year holidays of December 24, 1734 to January 6, 1735, in the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicolas in Leipzig.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), was a Baroque German composer and organist, born in Eisenach, Germany. He was a contemporary of George Frideric Handel. Bach’s other oratorios include: St John Passion (1722-23), The St. Matthew Passion (1728-29), and Easter Oratorio (1725).

Structure of Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Oratorio has six individual parts in cantata form, which Bach combined to form a single work, and called “Oratorium”, a total of 64 musical numbers.

  • Part 1 – First day of Christmas (Nativitatis Christi)
  • Part 2 – Second day of Christmas (Nativitatis Christ)
  • Part 3 – Third day of Christmas (Nativitatis Christi)
  • Part 4 – New Year’s day, the day of Christ’s Circumcision (Festo Circumcisionis)
  • Part 5 – The Sunday after New Year (Dominica post Festum Circumcisionis Christi)
  • Part 6 – Twelfth Night (Festo Epiphanias)

Cast of Characters

Evangelist (tenor), Angel (soprano), Herod (bass), four solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), four-part mixed chorus; and the Orchestra.

Brief History

Christian Friedrich Henrici, Leipzig postmaster and tax collector who wrote under the name Picander, was thought to have contacted Bach in 1724, a year after the latter had moved to Leipzig, and arranged to provide a number of librettos, when Bach was the cantor of St. Thomas. Probably the most significant of these is the St. Matthew Passion. It also seemed that in 1734, Bach asked Picander to help him with a large Christmas composition. It’s not certain whether Bach had in mind an oratorio like St. John and St. Matthew Passions, or had planned to compose a loose series of several cantatas for the separate holidays of the Christian holiday season.

Picander arranged the poem in six sections, assigning each to one holiday: 1. the first day of Christmas, 2. the second day of Christmas, 3. the third day of Christmas, 4. New Year’s Day, 5. the Sunday after New Year’s Day, 6. the day of the Epiphany.

According to The World of the Oratorio, by Kurt Pahlen, Bach never performed this oratorio as a whole, but rather divided among the holidays indicated. After Bach’s death, the work was forgotten. It was after the St. Matthew Passion was rediscovered (1829) that the Christmas Oratorio was fully performed, first in 1857 by the Berlin Singakademie, under the direction of Eduard Grell.

Merry Christmas To You All! Hope This Christmas And New Year Brings A Lot of Good Memories To You 🙂