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.
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.