J.S. Bach Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV248 Parts 1-4 Programme Notes

And is it true? And is it true, this most tremendous tale of all?
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea become a child on Earth, for me?

Sir John Betjeman

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before Thee was any like unto Thee,
nor shall there be any after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Antiphon for Christmas Eve

The Context

(N.B. Specific details in these notes refer only to the words and music of Parts 1 – 4, that being performed in December 2013, unless otherwise stated.)

Following the death in 1722 of Johann Kuhnau, Kantor of the St Thomas School, Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was one of six applicants for the vacancy. The appointing council considered the most outstanding candidate for this prestigious post was the highly respected musician, already well known in Leipzig, Georg Philipp Telemann. He was elected unanimously by the council members, but, to their great disappointment, turned down the position, and so they turned to their second choice, Christoph Graupner, a virtuoso violinist and former pupil of Kuhnau. He was unable to secure his release from his current position as Kapellmeister at Darmstadt, and therefore had no alternative but to withdraw his application. In desperation the council offered the job to Bach, who, at the time, was hardly known in Leipzig. One official observed: “as the best musicians were not available we had no option but to take one of the mediocre ones.”  Whilst Telemann was renowned for his numerous instrumental compositions, as well as a string of cantata and passion settings which were written for the church at the University of Leipzig, where he had been a student, and Graupner was the Nicola Benedetti of his day. Neither, however, possessed the devout affinity with the Lutheran church and its overriding Protestant doctrine, which demanded that sacred text be set to the Glory of God but yet remain accessible to the common man – a feature which is perpetually evident in the sacred music of Bach.

So, Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, to take up what was to be the final appointment of his life. The city had six main churches: the Neuekirche, St Paul’s, St Peter’s, St John’s, St Nicholas’s (the Nicholaikirche), and St Thomas’s (the Thomaskirche). Today, of these only the last two remain, the others having been reduced to rubble by allied bombing in the early 1940s. Bach’s position as Thomaskantor, coupled with the post of Civic Director of Music for the city, was one of the most notable musical positions in Germany. The financial security of a municipal employer, as opposed to a private patron, and access to the city’s sixty or so professional, salaried musicians, and the boys of the Thomasschule (the boarding school adjacent to St Thomas’s), for whose musical education and training Bach was responsible, would have been significant attractions. The pupils of the Thomasschule, to whom he gave singing, instrumental and Latin lessons, were aged between 12 and 23. Given that, at this time, boys’ voices were not expected to break until they were 17 or 18, Bach could count on solo trebles and altos with a good amount of maturity and musical experience behind them.  In the early eighteenth century Leipzig was a thriving city and a hub for commerce and music. It was the centre of the printing and book industry in Germany and had a renowned and established university. With the city being a strong and uncompromising seat of protestant Lutheranism, many of its activities were focused on the church.