Bach clearly designed the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio to be a unified cycle but it seems fair to include them in this survey on two grounds: As far as original performance is concerned it was presented as six separate cantatas, one each on the festival days at Christmas and the New Year; Also, the vast majority of the musical material was parodied from cantatas. One may present a further argument, of course: These are very fine works and it gives me the excuse to write about them!
The final part of the Christmas Oratorio opens in grand festive spirit with a glorious chorus complete with full orchestra, trumpets and drums pounding and leaping over the top! The immediate question may be asked, in the light of the parody nature of most of the rest of the Christmas Oratorio as to whether the music in this fine cantata is borrowed from elsewhere. Most seem to think that it is but, alas, the model for such a parody is lost. Nonetheless, the evidence seems so compelling that there is even a catalogue number BWV 248/VIa for this hypothetical work.
The first recitative sees Herod calling the Wise Men before him to order them to seek out the Messiah so that he may worship Him, and the immediately subsequent recitative reflects accusingly on Herod's false motives. The elegant triple time soprano aria which follows expresses well the power of God's hand. The next recitative sees the Wise Men departing, following the star and finding Jesus. They worship him and the chorale which follows offers a crib-side prayer to the new born. The next recitative tells of the dream warning the Wise Men to avoid Herod and of their flight. The long and fine recitative which follows reflects on the relationship between the soul and Jesus and leads into the final tenor aria in which the strength of faith is celebrated. Perhaps this aria is too low key at this point in the cycle, something more upbeat and splendid would be more structurally satisfying. A final recitative, involving all of the soloists in turn, leads into the outstanding final chorus. What a way to end the cycle! This is one of Bach's most splendid creations and easily his best and most exciting chorale setting. The Passion Chorale is turned into a song of triumph. When I die, should I be granted the choice, the last thing I wish to hear is Ich habe genung (BWV 82) and when I get to the Pearly Gates (even if I'm refused admission!) I want to hear this playing!
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.