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!
This second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio cycle opens with a wonderful sinfonia: How is it possible to resist a pair of oboes d'amore and a pair of oboes da caccia in the same pastoral gentleness? In fact, the whole atmosphere of this part of the holy drama is suffused with calm contemplation and the opening sinfonia plays a major part in establishing that feeling. The evangelist relates the story of the shepherds and a lovely chorale (by Johann Rist) follows. The angel tells the shepherds to "fear not" in the following recitative and the bass relates that what is coming to pass is in fulfilment of old testament scripture. The tenor aria, parodied from BWV 214/5 urges the shepherds to seek the child. Another gentle piece beautifully accompanied by the flute. The evangelist tells the shepherds to seek a child laying in a manger and another lovely chorale (by Paul Gerhardt) follows. In the next recitative the bass urges the shepherds to sing the child lullabies when they get there. In the background, the continuo supplies a suitably cradle-rocking bass line. The following alto aria is one of the glories of the Christmas Oratorio. Parodied from BWV 213/3, where it appears as a somewhat erotic temptation to Hercules, it is transformed here into a beautiful and gentle lullaby to the Christ-child. The next recitative gives the biblical text leading into the chorus Ehre sei Gott, an original composition for this work that has the character of a turba chorus. A final recitative leads into the final chorale, a straighforward setting with interlinear contributions in the style of the opening sinfonia.
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.