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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 4

Bach's Christmas Oratorio: an Operatic Expression of Faith

by Bernard Labadie and Lucie Renaud / December 1, 2002

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The Maestro's Choice

Music critics and music fans alike admire Les Violons du Roy for their noted performances of Baroque landmarks such as Handel's Messiah, or Bach's St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass. Now the ensemble is attacking Bach's little-known Christmas Oratorio, hoping to establish a new tradition for the holiday season. Here is what conductor Bernard Labadie had to say.

A mad project

Bach has always been one of my favourite composers. I couldn't live without his music. The Christmas Oratorio is absolutely fascinating, but the full work isn't heard much in concert for two reasons. The oratorio is made up of six cantatas, which makes a very long evening for audiences and musicians. Then the overall instrumentation is very rich and varies from one section to another: three trumpets, kettle drums, two French horns, four oboes, two flutes, a bassoon, strings, and continuo, in addition to the soloists and choir. Production costs soon mount. In North America it's frequently presented in separate sections. You might call our project mad! But the Violons du Roy often take on such challenges--I wouldn't say it's our speciality, but there's some truth in that.

A youthful love

I've been familiar with the Christmas Oratorio since the age of thirteen. I can sing it for you backwards and forwards. I discovered it long before Handel's Messiah. It was one of the first of Bach's great works that fascinated me. I'd go so far as to say that the first cantata is partly responsible for my musical vocation. I well remember a concert given by the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec that I attended when I was twelve. It began with the first cantata of the Christmas Oratorio. My Road-to-Damascus revelation came with the first choral section. I left the concert completely bowled over – hooked. Since that day I've never looked back. After the concert I asked my music teacher what Bach works I should listen to. A few weeks later, he gave me the B Minor Mass as a Christmas present.

As the Christmas Oratorio has been so close to my heart for so long, my vision of it has had plenty of time to develop. There is a naïve aspect to the work (I'm thinking of the second cantata) and a freshness to the narrative side of the music that always moves me, although it's still Bach with all his sophisticated musical invention and orchestration. The orchestral colours are extraordinary. For example, each time you hear a chorale for four voices in the first three cantatas--those for Christmas itself--the flutes play the melody along with the singers, which adds an unusual sparkle.

The rule of six

Choosing to write six cantatas wasn't a mere whim. Bach liked to group his work by sixes: six concertos for several instruments (which became the Brandenburg Concertos), six suites for solo cello, six works for solo violin, six keyboard partitas, six French suites, and six English suites. Although the cantatas are distinct, a clear key structure is evident. The first, third, and sixth cantatas are written in D major, a key associated with trumpets, royalty, and the baroque idea of power and jubilation. His choice of keys is also significant in terms of affect theory, a language code easily accessible to musicians and even to Bach's audiences. The second, pastoral cantata, which focuses on the shepherds, is in the key of G major, a restful, sub-dominant key. The second-to-last cantata moves back to the dominant, much more assertive key of A major. Bach leaves nothing to chance: everything proceeds according to a careful plan. I'm convinced that, at the end of these six cantatas, listeners will feel as though they've been on a journey and completed an itinerary, rather than having heard a sequence of movements.

An operatic expression of faith

My approach to this work doesn't necessarily differ from what I might have done for the Easter Oratorio or another cantata. These works are based on the chorale (I'm not talking about the masses or the Magnificat), and feature a great variety of texts and an extraordinary sense of drama in the key changes. For example, the first cantata has the superb chorale with recitatives built in, sung by the soprano with oboe d'amore and continuo. A recitative for bass is inserted between each strophe of the chorale. It's the type of highly original form that Bach perfected to a degree not found in other composers. Immediately after comes the majestic bass melody with the trumpet underscoring the royal subject of the text. Bach uses combined trumpets and kettledrums to suggest this royalty, interwoven with touches of sweetness, naïveté, and sensuality that are all the more effective for being inserted between moments where the traditional language is more prominent.

What I find striking about this work, as in all Bach's great choral works of Germanic inspiration, is the fantastic use he makes of the chorale, always very theological--and this is something to bear in mind, even if today's audiences don't have the same reading background as the composer's contemporaries. The first chorale of the first cantata, for example, comes right after the Evangelist's announcement of the birth of Jesus. Everyone associates the melody of this chorale, repeated five times in five different ways in the St. Matthew Passion, with the theme of Christ's passion. For audiences of Bach's time it was a signature tune, a theme that couldn't be associated with anything else. There is a further consciously theological element in choosing this chorale: the newborn child will die for us. Hardly has he been born, than his death is talked of. In the same way, at the end of the St. Matthew Passion when Christ's body is placed in the tomb, the bass sings the wonderful aria, "Make yourself clean, my heart, I will myself entomb Jesus, for He shall henceforth in me, for ever and ever, take his sweet rest." The music is a lullaby that we associate with the birth of a child. For Bach and for all Lutherans, the image of the link between birth and death resonates strongly. Birth must always be seen through the prism of death. The image occurs in the first cantata, after ten minutes of music.

All this creates a highly dramatic, extremely varied texture. We regret that Bach didn't compose opera, but he had no need to: he presented one every Sunday! The Christmas Oratorio has a genuinely dramatic construction and was a truly operatic expression of faith for the Christian of Bach's time. Therein lies its strength today: it doesn't try to convert the world, but touches a deep human chord that vibrates forever. In our day, the message behind the word goes far beyond religion.

I feel as though I were going on a journey leading straight up to Christmas. I have only one thing to do: open the score and immerse myself in it.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Les Violons du Roy will perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio in Quebec City on December 20 at the Grand Théâtre de Québec (418 643-8131); and in Montreal on December 22 at the Salle Claude-Champagne (514 343-6427).


It's always an exhilarating, demanding, and exhausting experience to mount a work of this size. It can't help being a very special time. In order to get completely into the work in the space of four days (rehearsals begin on December 16), we need a large dose of faith and must surrender ourselves to the music. However, I have a wonderful team--I'm very fortunate. If anyone hears me complain, I give him or her permission to shoot me on the spot!

Some of my tempi are perhaps a bit subdued, but I still favour a very "dancing" approach. I will try to highlight the naïve aspect of the work. I want to avoid a complex reading of it, so as to keep its freshness and let the narrative qualities come through. Everyone knows the story by heart, but the marvellous music that accompanies it makes you feel you're hearing it for the first time.

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