And the Angels Sang
By Peter Rutenberg
Bach Christmas Oratorio
The title of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is something of a misnomer, albeit one the composer chose to group his cycle of six cantatas for the Nativity, conceived in 1733 and completed the following year. They were ascribed respectively to the first three days of Christmas (corresponding to the 25th, 26th and 27th of December), New Year’s Day (the Circumcision), the Sunday after New Year’s Day, and the Epiphany, and were first performed on those days in 1734-35. Bach was in his fiftieth year, but the youthful spirit of these works suggest a man half that age.
The Oratorio’s libretto, attributed to frequent collaborator Picander, comes from a variety of sources. Most of the texts would have been known to the congregants of St. Thomas in Leipzig: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide the ‘Christmas Story’ itself; Lutheran hymns or ‘Chorales’ comment on the action, underscore its mood, or punctuate it; and other texts contribute relevant ideas for meditation. Some of the music also comes from other Bach sources, historian Albert Schweitzer tells us — most notably, The Choice of Hercules and the Dramma per musica, both from 1733 — not for lack of invention, but to preserve their significant accomplishments for a greater public forum.
Bach Christmas Oratorio, Cantata II
The Cantata on the Second Day of Christmas is distinct in topic and tone. The story picks up with “shepherds abiding in the fields,” the angel’s proclamation of “glad tidings,” the invitation to the manger, and the sudden appearance of the heavenly host singing “Glory to God.” While the first cantata was in the regal key of D major, with trumpets and timpani in addition to winds and strings, the second is in G major. Flutes — and oboes in three keys (soprano, alto and tenor) — offer a more bucolic palette. Bach’s system of structure and symbolism is based on his clear understanding of music’s power to communicate. The medium carries the message. For example, flutes and strings depict angels while oboes depict shepherds. Before a word of text is uttered, Bach sets the scene with an exquisite Sinfonia. The heavenly presence is felt first, then the earthly shepherds, and a musical dialogue ensues. By the time the tenor intones the scripture, we’ve already heard the story in music. Of special note are two appearances of the well-known Christmas hymn, Vom Himmel hoch: first, to echo the angel’s message of the babe in the manger; then, as the cantata’s finale, an earthly response of praise to the preceding angels’ chorus. In one of many clever strokes, Bach arranges this second version of the hymn in the Sinfonia’s dotted rhythm and interpolates orchestral responses, phrase by phrase, to restate its theme. In this way, he brings both the story and the music full circle.
Bach Christmas Oratorio, Cantata III
The Cantata on the Third Day of Christmas returns to D major, calling on trumpets and timpani to continue the celebration. Gone is the meditation provided by the previous Sinfonia. In its place, a joyous, fugal, choral paean of thanksgiving in triple dance time, followed immediately by another equally energetic chorus. For the departure to Bethlehem, the composer erects a double fugue, with rising and falling lines to visualize traveling over hill and vale, and quick scale passages to illustrate haste. All this activity comes to sudden halt at the manger. The bass narrator directs our attention to the miracle, and the chorus sings a hymn of supplication, set to the very familiar chorale tune (to Lutheran audiences of the time) Be thou praisèd, Jesus Christ. The shepherds’ further hesitation and awe are mirrored in the soprano-bass duet, tenor recitative, and alto aria — an exact paradigm for the moment when Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” The shepherds return to their fields, singing hymns of wonder and praise. A reprise of the ‘traveling’ chorus provides a jubilant close.
In his thirty-seventh year, Francis Poulenc came face to face with his own mortality as a result of a serious automobile accident. Shortly thereafter, he visited the famous cliff-hung fortress town of Rocamadour in southwestern France and experienced an epiphany in its medieval chapel. It marked a turning point of critical proportions, for the composer returned in person as well as spirit to the Church and began to write sacred choral works of all shapes and sizes — a focus that would last for the remainder of his life. The Gloria took shape between May and December of 1959, on a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky music foundation in the Library of Congress, and was dedicated to the memory of Serge and Nathalie Koussevitzky. Charles Munch directed the world premiere in January 1961 with the BSO and Chorus Pro Musica. The third, fifth and final movements feature the soprano soloist.
It is safe to say that Poulenc’s Gloria has little in common with much of sacred literature. To waylay a current axiom, it “talks the talk” through its liturgical text, but its walk has more in common with the cosmopolitan swagger of the then-nascent 1960s. If the Poulenc of earlier times was given to a bright and somewhat edgy palette, with a tendency to playfulness, here those attributes take on the character of a solar flare, prone to outlandish jocularity. If there was, before, a penchant for brief, recurring ostinatos, here such things are driven home with an almost relentless insistence. No disrespect… This is a work full of charm and wit, yearning, supplication and, in the most direct sense, ingratiating grandeur. But to deny that it has ”attitude” is simply to not listen. The predominant harmonic color is the major-seventh chord and its ‘“sting” can be felt from start to finish. Rhythms are precise and pointed. Poulenc often set the natural cadence of sacred texts contrary to the metric accent of the music, so the strong beat falls on the weak syllable and vice versa. As an example, the opening text would scan: Glo-ri-A in ex-cel-SIS De-O ET in ter-RA pax ho-mini- BUS. The purist might be tempted to take this for sacrilege. Rather, it must be seen as simply another tool in Poulenc’s ample craft-chest. It works quite well, underscoring the melodies’ brash angularities and drawing attention to, rather than away from, the text. There are many lovely, dashing and even poignant melodies in the Gloria — short, sweet or tart, and sure to linger in the mind — none more so than the soprano’s soaring Domine Deus, Agnus Dei.