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BACH'S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

Synopsis

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THE WIRELESS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Leader, S. KNEALE KELLEY and THE WIRELESS CHORUS
Conducted by STANFORD ROBINSON
LILIAN STILES-ALLEN (Soprano)
ETHEL WILLIAMS (Soprano) ALICE VAUGHAN (Contralto)
STEUART WILSON (Tenor) ROBERT MAITLAND (Bass)

The B.B.C. gives a Christmas message to its listeners through Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.' This great work which is to be broadcast from all stations on the afternoon of Christmas Day, will help to recall to every listener the story which lies behind our Christmas festivities. Some notes on this great oratorio, designed to help those who are following its progress, are set out below.

Christmas must have been a real time of joy to Bach, the devout Lutheran: and in his Christmas Oratorio he expresses all the various emotions which we experience at this season. Never absent long is the spirit of exultation and deeply felt rejoicing with which the work begins and ends. But there are also less confident thoughts, almost forebodings, about the coming of the Saviour; and the abundance of wistful, tender feelings towards the Child Christ make, perhaps, the greatest appeal of all.

Bach wrote his Christmas Oratorio in six separate parts, to be performed on various days of the old German Festival, but nowadays it is often given (as at this performance) as a whole. Apart from the Orchestra (whose use is full of delightful touches), there are two main groups of performers. The Soloists (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) sing the story as found in the Second Chapters of St. Matthew's and St. Luke's Gospels. The Tenor, as 'The Evangelist,' has the greatest share of this task, binding the parts into a whole.

Both Choir and Soloists sing commentaries and meditations on the story. The Choir also sings the old Lutheran 'Chorales,' sometimes in their plain hymn-tune form (but in Bach's settings), sometimes with elaboration, with, for instance, orchestral interludes between each of the lines of the Tune.

The six parts of the work are described below.

PART I.

There is first an inspiriting Chorus to which the orchestral accompaniment is played by three Trumpets, two Flutes, two Oboes, Strings, Kettledrums, and ' Continue — that is, the keyboard instrument which supported the whole. The Tenor tells in Recitative of Caesar's decree that all the world should be enrolled, and of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for this purpose.

In the next number (a reflection on the mortal birth of our Saviour, and its joyous meaning), two Oboi d'Amore are used in the Orchestra, in addition to the Continuo. (The Oboi d'Amore is a sort of Mezzo-Soprano Oboe. It is prominent throughout this work).

Now the Solo Alto bids Zion prepare herself to receive her Lord and Bridegroom. Follows a Chorale, the tune of which is well known in English churches. One hymn to which it is often sung is ‘O sacred head, sore wounded.' The Tenor in Recitative tells of the birth of the Saviour and His lying in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

A Chorale sings of the wonder of the heavenly love in the King's coming to earth, and a Bass Recitative, in pursuing the same idea, adds a thought of His grief for man, oppressed by sin. Then comes one of the finest Bass Solos in existence - ' Mighty Lord,' to which the Trumpet in the accompaniment adds a brilliant decoration.

Part I concludes with a tender Chorale, praying the Holy Child to make His home within the hearts of believers.

PART II.

THE Second Part, written for the second day of the Festival of Christmas, treats of the vision of the shepherds. It starts with the idyllic Pastoral Symphony - a beautiful orchestral picture of the shepherds 'abiding in the fields.' Flutes and Strings alternate with two Oboi d'Amore and two Oboi da Caccia (the latter practically Cors Anglais, or Alto Oboes).

The incident is told in Recitatives and Airs, with here and there a moment of sweet meditation upon the message and its meaning. Perhaps the tenderest cradlle song ever written is the Alto Air 'Slumber, beloved.' The end comes with the resounding praises of the host of angels, welcoming in a triumphant pæan their long-expected guest.

PART III.

This, written for the third day of the Christmas Festival, tells of the visit to Bethlehem of the shepherds.

There are only, in this performance of Part III, five numbers - a Chorus offering Zion's praises, a Tenor Recitative and a Chorus telling of the shepherds' determination to go to Bethlehem and see the thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has thus made known to them, a Bass Recitative singing of Christ as the Comforter who brings relief to Zion, and finally another Tenor Recitative describing how the shepherds found the Babe, and made known abroad what they had been told of Him by the angels, to the great wonder of all who heard. Last of all is the tender, very human thought of the mother: 'But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.'

PART IV.

This is the Part for New Year's Day, the Festival of the Circumcision. It is largely a meditation. First the Tenor tells of the naming of the Babe. Then Bass and Soprano sing of the saving help of Jesus, and of the believer's rich joy in dwelling with Him. In the Soprano's air there is a hint of the darkness to come-the bitter smart of death.

The Bass, in the Recitative following his second solo portion, sings of Jesus as a strength in time of distress, and of the believer's hope in His name, trusting in which none need fear death. The Soprano follows with an Air of questioning and confident answering, and then both soloists sing a Duet of blissful praise of Him who has won redemption for all men. A Tenor Air, seeking power and skill to praise and serve the Lord, follows, and the last number in this Part is one of the most elaborate Chorale settings in the work, in which the Horns of the Orchestra are effectively used.

PART V.

For the Sunday after New Year's Day. This opens with a prolonged outburst of praise. 'Glory be to God.' Then follow the inquiries of the wise men from the East, who would worship the Babe. Their urgent questionings, 'Where is the new-born King of the Jews?’ are set very realistically for Chorus. After a meditative Chorale, we hear the investigations of Herod whose mind is troubled. The Alto, in Recitative, inquires why he fears: rather should all men greet with thankfulness Him who comes to bless all with healing.

Herod gathers together the chief priests and scribes, and diligently seeks until he hears where the Child is to be found. A meditative Trio for Soprano, Alto and Tenor concludes (in this performance) the Fifth Part.

PART VI.

The last Part opens with a Chorus begging Christ's strong succour in need. Then the story continues with Herod's summoning the wise men (here a Soprano Recitative breaks in, reviling Herod, and declaring that Jesus is ' kept in all His ways '), and their following the star in the East, which went before them, and at last pointed out the place where Jesus lay. Him they worshipped, offering their treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Tenor, in a Recitative, tells of the frustration of Herod's evil purpose, and in an Air defies the foes of Jesus.

The soloists sing their last song of joy that fear, sin and death shall never prevail against the Saviour s power, and then the final Chorale bursts forth-a a massive Chorus, the tune being the familiar one used. as the first in the work The last sentence of all is the firm assurance of man's forgiveness.

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Text: description from RT221 page 27

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BACH'S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

2LO London, 25 December 1927 15.30






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