Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio

For over 100 years, Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio lay in archives. The sheets were rediscovered around 1850. Music historians were amazed and excited, then bemused and dismayed: Johann Sebastian Bach had composed important parts of the work before. At places he plagiarized earlier compositions into the oratorio. The originals, however, had had very different texts, and they hadn't been intended for Christmas recitals.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only one of the greatest composers of all times, he was also one of the most industrious. As prolific as he was, the quality of his pieces always betrays the Master. But is a master composer like him allowed to copy and plagiarize his own work or that of someone else? May music composed for a sumptuous feast at the Royal court be recycled as a Christmas composition to be played in church? These were questions Bach researchers of the 19th century asked. The answers not to their liking.

The questions, however, didn’t come up until long after his death. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio had been composed as a series of six cantatas to be played on the holidays from Christmas to Epiphany in 1734/35. In that sense, the work was not intended to be performed contiguously or as a single concert. The cantatas were played at mass of the respective holy days during worship in one of the two main churches in Leipzig, St Thomas or St Nicholas.

Around 1850 and after Felix Mendelssohn and his contemporaries had brought back Johann Sebastian Bach's great Passions from oblivion, the Berlin Sing-Akademie performed the Christmas Oratorio for the first time. The work had come by way Johann Sebastian's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to their music library. Soon after the discovery, a Bach scholar noticed that the musical score for the triumphant opening chorus "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf preiset die Tage" is identical to a piece set to music with a completely different text: "Tönet, ihr Pauken, erschallet, Trompeten". This text was crossed out in the original manuscript and overwritten with the new.

Johann Sebastian Bach had plagiarized his own composition which wasn’t a sacred work intended for church service. It was festive music written for Maria Josepha, Princess of Saxony and Queen of Poland. On 8 December 1733, she held a birthday celebration for which she commissioned a piece from Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach biographer Philipp Spitta found the common practice of plagiarizing during the Baroque an unpleasant surprise when writing around 1880. He took refuge in a lie and claimed that Johann Sebastian Bach could compose only spiritual works no matter what he composed. Philipp Spitta wrote: "His occasional worldly works were rather unworldly, and (...) the composer gave them back to their original home when he converted them to church music."

What happens during the first bars of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio? True to the original text, the drums open the song and as requested, the trumpets respond. Then the violins join in and the high winds form a veritable confetti parade bringing in the whole orchestra to play; it is still the festive music intended for the Royal birthday.

Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t hold with the idea of letting his music gather dust in a collector's cabinet or to let it end on the trash heap of a noble court. Any instrumental concerto could be used all over again. A narrowly defined musical composition like a birthday cantata would be irretrievably lost. The Royal court in Dresden would not have approved of the recycling of the musical score and text. Johann Sebastian Bach therefore asked his librettist Picander to write a new text for the Nativity of Christ. He then added the new text in his own hand to the original score while crossing out the old words.

That his courtly triumphal music would become a "Concert of Angels" for posterity would not have bothered him in the least; after all, Johann Sebastian Bach had much to do. Very much indeed, considering the amount of compositions he had to churn out for the city notables of Leipzig while running the famous boys’ choir at St Thomas at the same time. And he was nothing if not practical. Add economy at work to a king's God-given right to rule, and you might see that Philipp Spitta was on to something, if for all the wrong reasons. The staging for sacred and for profane power were intimately related to legitimacy and, consequently, very similar forms were in use in all their emanations.

Prince Elector Frederick August I of Saxony (and as King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania August II) died in 1733. Among the Baroque princes in Europe in the age of absolutism, he was one of the most ostentatious. That Johann Sebastian Bach would compose for his court (and his successor’s, too), made financial sense. The concrete practical reasons behind his cantatas to pay homage to the Royal family were a necessity to insure his future. Some relatives and colleagues of Johann Sebastian Bach’s were employed at the important and art-loving court of the Saxon electors and kings of Poland in Dresden. Johann Sebastian Bach himself hoped and worked to attain the title of court composer. Should he run into problems in Leipzig, and he had quite a few run-ins with civic and church authorities there, he could then defend his position with greater authority than as the mere choir master of St Thomas Church. At a later date, he received the title of court composer to the Electoral and Royal Court at Dresden.

Further reading
Christmas The Royal Way
Christmas Trees Through History
Wine For Christmas: The Gum Arabic Vintages