Five Things to Listen for in Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Tune in Sunday at 7:30 pm for the Bach Christmas Oratorio

Friday, December 21, 2012 - 12:00 PM

If Handel's Messiah is the quarterback of holiday music, Bach's Christmas Oratorio remains the second-string walk-on. But this Sunday, Dec. 23 at 10 am, WQXR gives Bach's underplayed work a starting spot in the lineup with a complete broadcast of the piece.

Unlike the moody Messiah (whose final third is based on the Anglican burial service), the Christmas Oratorio is completely about Christmas. It is also a sprawling work, comprised of six cantatas meant to be performed from Christmas to Epiphany. The whole runs some two-and-a-half hours, significantly longer than Messiah, and yet it spotlights the German composer at his best, with intimate arias, colorful instrumental pieces and uplifting choruses.

Tune in for a recording by the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin and RIAS Chorushamber Choir led by Rene Jacobs.

Below, host Jeff Spurgeon gives us five things to listen for in the oratorio.

→ Read the texts for Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI (all in English and German).


1. First things first: What's an oratorio? And what makes this one stand out?


2. How – and why
Bach recycled from cantatas in the Christmas Oratorio:


3. What the words mean, and where they come from:


4. The role of the oboe: With all those shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks, the oboe comes in handy, representing the shepherds’ pipes:


5. How Bach used a German baroque cradle song in the Christmas Oratorio. It is the longest single moment in the entire piece, and certainly one its high points.



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Comments [5]

john dunbar from Kitchenr, Canada

Satisfying as Handel's `old chestnut' is as a piece of music, it would be great to hear it one less time this year; commercial radio has acquired a bad habit of playing what isn't even a Christmas oratorio far too much around Christmas; another bad legacy from the English who get to tout the British resident German composer as one of their own.

Bring on the Bach ! - with all his superiority in subtlety and sophistication.

Nov. 30 2014 08:31 AM
suzanne steinberg from new york

Wonderful Verdi Wagner program. However, statement made that Wagner is forbidden from being played in Israel is incorrect. Daniel Barenboim has conducted Wagner with the Israel Philarmonic. It is the "old timers" (subscription concerts) who object to Wagner being included in regular programs, but that too is changing.
Just felt that the record had to be updated!

May. 25 2013 05:01 PM

Thank you so much for reminding us what an exquisite amazing voice Leontine Price gave us! Wow! Super Wow!
It brought tears to my eyes.

Feb. 08 2013 09:21 AM
Joerg Bose from New York

THank you so much for playing Bach's Christmas Oratorio in its entire length.
Such a treat!
Every year I long for it being performed or broadcast , only to run into a multitude of performances of Handel's Messiah

The music of the Oratorio is so glorious and I hope it becomes more and more a staple for American audiences at Christmas.

Congratulations on your great programming,
and a Merry Christmas to All,

Joerg Bose

Dec. 23 2012 11:54 AM
lawrence perenic from Upper Saddle Rvr. NJ

I would greatly appreciate your displaying something like the following:
"It is ,,,, time, date, and you are listening to: ,,,,,,"

I am never be certain what I am listening to at any give moment.

Thank you.
l. perenic

Dec. 21 2012 10:26 PM

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