Cantata for Christmas Day
J.S.Bachs Christmas oratorio is without doubt one of his most popular and most often performed work. He wrote it for the Christmas season 1734/35. The work consists of six cantatas:
- First Day of Christmas 1734
- Second Day of Christmas 1734
- Third Day of Christmas 1734
- New Year’s Day (Feast of the Circumcision) 1735
- First Sunday in the New Year 1735
- Feast of Epiphany 1735
Even though Bach did not perform the cantatas alltogether as it is often the case in our times, but one cantata for each feast, the work is grouped together through its biblical libretto Luke 2,1 & 2,3-21 and Matthew 2,1-12.
The first cantata tells the story of the birth of Jesus. It starts with a great chorus, which is based on the congratulation cantata BWV 214 „Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!“ honoring Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony for her 34th birthday.
It is followed by a recitativo for the tenor evangelist, telling the biblical libretto. Before the first aria „Bereite dich Zion“ comes an accompagnato recitativo for alto, two oboi d’amore and basso continuo. The aria is based on BWV 213’s 9th movement: „Ich will dich nicht hören“. Through the so called parody-technique (which was very common in the baroque times) Bach reuses his wonderful music from the anniversary cantatas (BWV 213 & 214), which are otherwise bound to the specific occasions of the birthdays (the 11th birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony in BWV 213 and Maria Josepha in BWV 214).
The 5th movement is a chorale with the first verse of Paul Gerhards „Wie soll ich dich empfangen“ on Hans Leo Hasslers „Befiehl du deine Wege“ melody (which was the common melody for that chorale in Leipzig at Bachs times).
The 6th movement is a recitativo advancing the biblical story. In the 7th movement Bach alternates between a chorale (performed by the soprano) and a recitativo (bass). The singers are accompagnied by two oboi d’amore. The chorale is the 6th verse of Martin Luthers „Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ“ (see BWV 91).
In the 8th movement Bach transformed an aria from BWV 214 (its 7th movement for bass „Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen“). The cantata closes with the 13th verse of Martin Luthers famous song „Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her“.
The score is based on Bachs autograph score and parts. The complete score is more of a sketch (as in most of his scores), his main copist Straube seemed to know his musical ideas very well and added the articulations. Whenever Bach was explicit, I took his articulations, otherwise the scores have the articulations from the autograph parts (when missing, as in the 4th or 7th movement, I added them in a dashed style).