The Choir of London have landed in Sydney and rehearsals for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio have begun. But what does it all mean? We explore the story behind Bach’s epic masterpiece.
At almost two and a half hours and split into six distinct cantatas, the Oratorio is a substantial performance by anyone’s measure. Originally each day between Christmas and Epiphany was reserved for the performance of one cantata, and each carry their own part of the story of birth.
PART I - Cantata for Christmas Day
With the chorus calling upon drums, trumpets and strings, the dazzling opening cantata sets a celebratory Christmas scene. Borrowing passages from various other works, Bach artfully weaves together his old ideas with new ones to create a layered, extravagant introduction.
PART II - Cantata for the second day of Christmas
Beginning not with a chorus but a sinfonia, the second cantata tells the story of the shepherd’s arrival at Jerusalem. With oboes playing the role of shepherds, the heavens represented through strings and a simple depiction of the purity of infant Jesus, the cantata offsets the serenity of the manger with the hope and urgency of the shepherds who seek it.
PART III – Cantata for the third day of Christmas
This cantata is the moment of union, with the shepherds hastening their journey and at last finding Bethlehem. This cantata contains details of the discovery, as well as a touching alto aria with violin describing Mary’s innermost feelings on the birth.
PART IV - Cantata for New Year/Feast of the Circumcision
In this cantata the name of Jesus is revealed by the evangelist, and the celebratory feast of circumcision begins. This wonderfully rich work involves highlights from tenors, bass and sopranos that make it one of the more memorable chorale cantatas in the Oratorio.
PART V - Cantata for the Sunday after New Year
The fifth cantata focuses on the transition from Jesus’ arrival to normality. From the celebration of his birth via a cheerful opening chorus to the slow introduction of impurities through human nature, the singers stand at the forefront, exploring these themes.
PART VI - Cantata for Epiphany
Recalling the trumpets and drums of the first cantata, the Oratorio closes on Christmas’ traditional twelfth day – the festival of the epiphany. Beginning with celebration but turning sharply to focus on the treachery of Herod, the Oratorio ends as it begins, with the Passion chorale signifying the full cycle of Christ’s story
Joined once again by the Choir of London, this will be the perfect end to an outstanding ACO season.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio enjoys a strictly limited tour this festive season, visiting Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney from 3-10 December.