Bach's Christmas Oratorio: an Operatic Expression of Faith by Bernard Labadie and Lucie Renaud
/ December 1, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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.