A Wondrous Holiday Experience

“Christmas Oratorio”: Bach’s Six-Part Classical Masterpiece

Listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is a holiday experience like no other.

Consider this text from part one (written in reverence to a new religious or secular prince) instead referencing the work itself:

How shall I embrace you?
and how encounter You?

How should we embrace this 18th century German masterpiece: as six separate cantatas or as a single-setting whole?

First, listen to each cantata individually, as it was originally performed.

Bach composed the six-part “Christmas Oratorio” (“Weihnachts Oratorium”) in 1734 for two Leipzig churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, for which he served as music director.

Each part is a cantata for 1 of 6 feast days within the 12 days of the Christmas season:

The story begins with the birth of Jesus (for Christmas Day). The second and third parts feature the shepherds (for December 26 and 27). The fourth part describes the naming and circumcision of Jesus (for New Year’s Day). The fifth and sixth parts describe the Three Kings, or Magi (for the first Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany).

Bach used the parody technique to integrate his music from previous cantatas.

“Each of the six… has its own story… and its own sound”

John Harbison, who describes Bach’s Christmas masterpiece as Germany’s “seasonal equivalent to the English-speaking world’s Messiah,” says that listening to “all six cantatas” in one evening is tough: “each of the six cantatas has its own piece of the story and its own sound, although one, three, and six — however nuanced their D major trumpet-drum celebrations — can seem close cousins on first hearing.”

Harbison recommends listening to each cantata separately: “Having first experienced them one a week, I feel fortunate to retain distinct, independent impressions of the pastoral, truly angelic Cantata two, the tonally-fresh horn-colored world of four, the adrenaline shot of five, smallest orchestration and hottest music dealing with the harshest drama in the story.”

“Unabridged presentation… gripping… whole”

Did Bach envision — or perhaps hope — that the work would be performed someday as a whole?

Absolutely, says Christoph Wolff, Bach scholar and Harvard professor emeritus: “It almost seems as if Bach had meant to override given conditions [the separation of six parts over twelve days] and anticipate a non-liturgical concert performance.”

Wolff, award-winning biographer of Bach, concludes Bach deliberately composed the work “as a self contained whole”:

only an unabridged presentation of all six parts… makes it possible fully to realize how ingeniously the composer managed to create a work of such gripping intensity, with a structure so remarkably unified, despite considerable odds: a liturgical calendar and local conventions dictating partition and performance at alternating locations.


While you may find one way of listening more suitable than the other, try both!

Brian McCreath, host of The Bach Hour on WCRB in Boston, suggests starting with these recordings of “Christmas Oratorio”:

  1. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Vienna and Arnold Schoenberg Choir “After decades of pioneering work in historically informed performance, the late Harnoncourt ignited an incredible variety of vivid imagery and drama in Bach’s masterpiece in this 2006 recording of concert performances at the Musikverein in Vienna.”
  2. Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Dresden Chamber Choir “During Chailly tenure as Leipzig’s Kapellmeister, he forged what he called a ‘third way’ with baroque music, combining the sparkling, secure projection of modern instruments with interpretive lessons from the early music movement. This 2010 “Christmas Oratorio” recording is perhaps the most fulfilling of the several releases of Bach’s music he made during that time.”
  3. Jos van Veldhoven, Netherlands Bach Society “The warm, relaxed embrace of this historically informed performance is luxurious and beautiful. Unfortunately, while the currently available re-release will offer that lovely sound, the adventurous and enterprising listener will want to wade into the vast landscapes of online auctions to find a used copy of the original 2003 release, complete with a hard-bound book that intersperses the notes and translation of Bach’s masterpiece with a variety of visual representations of the nativity from over four centuries of art history.”

Listen for each part of “Christmas Oratorio” on our “Classical Christmas” stream. And, if you have the opportunity: listen to a live performance of the full work.

Text and translation

“Christmas Oratorio,” BWV 248, German text and English translation by Pamela Dellal for Emmanuel Music.

  1. Part I: Cantata for the First Day of Christmas, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
  2. Part II: Cantata for the Second Day of Christmas, “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
  3. Part III: Cantata for the Third Day of Christmas, “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
  4. Part IV: Cantata for New Year’s Day, “Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
  5. Part V: Cantata for the First Sunday in the New Year, “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
  6. Part VI: Cantata for the Feast of the Epiphany, “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben

Post updated December 15, 2018. 

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