These concerts are presented by POWER CORPORATION OF CANADA


Presented in association with the Montreal Bach Festival/OSM: the official symphonic partner

Maison symphonique de Montréal
Ticket Prices
$42* to $200*
Concert dates
Wednesday, December 16, 2015 - 8:00 PM Done
Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 8:00 PM Done
John Nelson, conductorchef d’orchestre
Kathryn Lewek, sopranosoprano
Robin Blaze , countertenorcontreténor
James Oxley, tenorténor
Gordon Bintner, baritonebaryton
OSM chorusChœur de l’OSM
Andrew Megill, OSM chorus masterchef de chœur de l’OSM

Presentation of the concert

Bach, Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
(Cantatas I, II, V and VI)
Part I, For the First Day of Christmas (approx. 27 min.)
Part II, For the Second Day of Christmas (approx. 32 min.)
Part V, For the First Sunday in the New Year (approx. 27 min.)
Part VI, For the Feast of Epiphany (approx. 31 min.)


The Christmas Oratorio is considered one of Bach’s most illustrious compositions. The sparkle and magic of the holiday season will once again fill the air as full chorus and solo performances transport you to an enchanted winter wonderland filled with music.

Born in Eisenach on March 31, 1685 – Died in Leipzig, on July 28, 1750
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (Cantatas I, II, V and VI)

In Johann Sebastian Bach’s time, all six parts of his Christmas Oratorio were not intended to be performed together in the same sitting. Each of these parts functions, in fact, as a relatively autonomous cantata that narrates different Nativity events according to the Gospels, from the Birth of Jesus to the Adoration of the Magi. Nevertheless, Bach strayed somewhat from the prescribed readings of the Lutheran liturgical calendar to create a seamless narrative celebrating these events in the following order:

I. December 25: The Birth of Jesus

II. December 26: Annunciation to the Shepherds

III. December 27: The Adoration of the Shepherds

IV. January 1: The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus

V. January 2: The Journey of the Magi

VI. January 6: The Adoration of the Magi

In the context of a single symphony concert, it is not, therefore, essential nor is it customary to perform the Christmas Oratorio in its entirety, which incidentally would amount to more than two and a half hours of music. Indeed, the program is often circumscribed to a selection among the oratorio’s six cantatas, which has the effect of maximizing the audience’s appreciation of the chosen pieces. In this very spirit, the OSM’s program this evening will feature the two opening cantatas and the two closing cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. The first pair draws from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the only Evangelist to tell of the shepherds by night, while the last two refer to St. Matthew, who alone wrote of the Magi.

As he did with his tragic Passions, whose spirit contrasts with the joy, serenity, and celebration of the birth of Jesus, in the Christmas Oratorio Bach assigns all of the Evangelist’s passages to tenor recitatives, brief moments of declamatory singing with basso continuo accompaniment punctuated by appropriately dramatic chords. The Christmas Oratorio and the Passions also share Bach’s treatment of different biblical fragments, which are set to various vocal movements with orchestra, to accompanied choruses, arias, and vocal ensembles formed by the soloists, as well as to a closing chorale simple enough for the church-going faithful, who would be familiar with the chorale’s traditional words and melodies, to spontaneously join in the singing.

It was for the 1734-1735 Christmas season that Bach wrote this cycle of six cantatas. Unlike his Passions, most of the arias and concerted movements are not original to the Christmas Oratorio, but are taken from some of Bach’s earlier secular cantatas. In December of 1734, as he approached his 50th birthday and with more than 30 years in the music profession behind him, it seems natural that accruing demands of energy and time would have caused him to repurpose earlier works, which in any event was common practice in the Baroque period. What is interesting to Bach scholars, however, is the fact that a very significant number of arias and choruses in the Christmas Oratorio is taken from three festive secular cantatas that Bach had written 18 months earlier, quite possibly with the expectation of reusing them. All three were composed in honor of various members of the royal family of Saxony – of which Leipzig was an important city – after Prince Friedrich August II had succeeded his father in February of 1733.

The three secular cantatas in question are Hercules auf dem Scheidewege (Hercules at the Crossroads), BWV 213, performed on September 5, 1773 to celebrate the birthday of Friedrich Christian, the son of the new prince; Tönet ihr Pauken! Erschallet Trompeten! (Sound the Drums! Ring Forth, Trumpets!), BWV 214, performed on December 8, 1733 for the birthday of Maria Josepha, spouse of Friedrich August II and Electress of Saxony; and Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen (Praise Your Fortune, Blessed Saxon), BWV 215, performed on October 3, 1734 to mark the first anniversary of the Saxon prince’s accession as King of Poland under the name of August III.

With these three circumstantial cantatas, by the autumn of 1734, Bach had amassed a store of choruses and arias that readily lent themselves to celebrating the birth of the Saviour – it was only a matter of changing the text and touching up the scores in appropriating them to this end. We do not know with complete certainty who penned the new verses, but the author was most likely Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764), a state official, poet, and playwright who went by the name of Picander. Picander had previously written the texts to many of Bach’s cantatas, as well as to the great St. Matthew Passion.

Bach’s adaptations are illustrated at the very outset of the Christmas Oratorio, where the chorus that opens the original cantata in honor of the wife of the new King of Poland is transformed to suit the observance of Christ’s birth. The words “Sound the drums! Ring forth Trumpets! Long live the Queen! Shall be shouted with joy,” are substituted with “Celebrate, rejoice, raise up and praise the day, glorify that the highest was done today!”

For the second cantata recounting the appearance of the angels to the shepherds by night, Bach reworked a sumptuous cradle song from Hercules at the Crossroads, an allegory of sensuality designed to lull the young Hercules into a peaceful slumber. The dreams evoked in Hercules are not, however, of the most pious nature: “Sleep, my beloved and cultivate ease, follow the enticement of passionate thoughts. Taste the delight of a sensual nature and own no bounds to it.” In the Christmas Oratorio, Bach used the same music, an aria for alto – the highlight of the second cantata (II, no. 10: “Schlafe, mein Liebster”) – and transformed it into a lullaby in which an angel teaches the shepherds what to sing at the newborn Christ’s bedside. The first part of the verse is virtually identical to the original cantata: “Sleep, my beloved and enjoy Your rest,” but continues more appropriately: “and awaken after it for all the fortunate.”

Also of particular note is Bach’s musical adaptation – as opposed to textual adaptation – of the bass aria at the heart of the oratorio’s fifth cantata (V, no. 5: “Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen”). While the original secular Praise Your Fortune, Blessed Saxon is written for soprano doubled by oboe d’amore in counterpoint with two flute parts and string ensemble, in the Christmas Oratorio Bach transposes the aria to the bass voice in dialogue with the oboe d’amore and leaves out the strings. This transformation has the effect of lending the movement its particular solemnity.

Nevertheless, some movements of the Christmas Oratorio cannot be traced back to any of Bach’s previous works. Such is the case for the sublime orchestral overture to the second cantata (II, no. 1: Sinfonia), the only exclusively instrumental movement in the entire oratorio. This Sinfonia evokes the ethereal scene of a starry landscape in which angels appear to the shepherds, undoubtedly the most spellbinding pastorale of the entire Baroque repertoire. Likewise, the riveting trio at the pinnacle of the fifth cantata (V, no. 9: “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?”), in which the soprano and tenor, who embody the faithful, urgently ask over and over, “When will the time appear…when will the comfort come?” while the alto, representing an angel from on high, perpetually murmurs the answer to their impatient outcry: “Hush, He is truly already here!”

By thus reclaiming and rescoring the magnificent music he had produced as single works to celebrate royal birthdays and anniversaries, and to deliver a series of cantatas to narrate and celebrate the birth of the King of kings, Bach effectively endows the original versions with fresh life and a more universal scope. In their new setting, the cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio can be enjoyed by larger and wider audiences, by people of goodwill throughout the world and for centuries to come…

© Guy Marchand

Translation: Rachelle Taylor pour Le Trait juste

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