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Christliche Kunst und Literatur
Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)
Transl. by S. Bull. Leuven: Leuven University Press 2004. 185 S. u. Beiheft m. 41 Notenbeisp. gr.8° = Ancorae, 19. Kart. Euro 40,00. ISBN 90-5867-421-5.
Don O. Franklin
Ignace Bossuyt, a Professor of Musicology at the Catholic University of Leuven, is known primarily as a scholar of Renaissance music, and in particular for his research and publications on the music of Orlando di Lasso. But he also, as he states in his preface to this volume, has had a lifelong interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 2000 he published a study of Bach¹s four Lutheran masses (BWV 233236), followed in 2002 by a study of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). With both volumes, his purpose was to provide critical commentaries of the works for Dutch audiences. In publishing the latter volume in English, where no full-length study of the work is available, his intent remains the same; namely, »to provide the inquisitive listener with a guide to exploring the many layers of meaning« found in the work. He writes further that »some depth of knowledge of the link between the biblical text and the commentary on it is essential to the full enjoyment of a musical masterwork«. To establish this link he draws on the writings, published in German, of Alfred Dürr (1967) and Walter Blankenburg (1982), both based on the results of the »new« Bach¹s autograph score titled »Oratorium tempore nativitatis Christi«, and a copy of the text booklet that was distributed to the Leipzig congregation when the work was first performed in 1734.
B. devotes the first third of the volume to an introduction and overview of the work in which he describes its liturgical function, its musical origins, and its textual and musical components. In contrast to Hamburg, where oratorio performances took place outside of a liturgical context, Bach¹s Oratorio was performed as the »Haupt-Music« during the Morning and Vesper services in St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. Because it was not a through-composed work, like the oratorios of Georg Philipp Telemann, Bach¹s Oratorio took the form of a series of six cantatas, performed on six successive feast days from Christmas Day to Epiphany. He drew the major portion of his cantata scores from works composed earlier, a process described in musical terms as »parody« the same process he used a year earlier in composing the 1733 Missa, now known as the Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor mass. As B. points out, Bach likely had the Christmas Oratorio in mind when he composed a series of celebratory cantatas (BWV 213215) for the visits of the Electoral family in Dresden to Leipzig in 1733 and 1734. As a result, he then was able, for example, to reuse movements from the cantata he composed and performed for the birth of the Crown Prince Friedrich Christian in September, 1733, in the score of the Oratorio, a work that would become part of his permanent repertory of church music.
Another section of the introduction B. titles »The themes of its libretto with reference to Lutheran orthodoxy and Pietism«. He uses the latter term in what I would describe as its generic meaning; that is, not to claim that Bach was a Pietist (which he was not), but to identify pietistic themes in the texts of the six cantatas. Although his use of the term Pietism will be familiar to British and American readers, it will be less so to their German counterparts, who draw a sharp distinction between Pietät or Frömmigkeit, and Pietismus. In contrast to English authors, who use the term Pietism in its broadest sense to refer to the practice of personal piety, German writers restrict the use of Pietismus (Pietism) to the separatist movement within Lutheranism that began with August Hermann Francke.
The remaining portion of the volume consists of a critical commentary of each movement in the oratorio, beginning with a brief overview of each cantata in terms of what B. describes as its »phases«, a term that in English might better have been rendered as a »core set, or series, of movements«. For what B. means by »phase« is a sequence of four contrasting movements that begins with a portion of biblical text set as secco recitative, followed by an accompanied recitative and aria set to a non-biblical text, and concluding with a chorale. As he aptly points out, one or more of these sequences form the structural framework of each of the cantatas. Interestingly, he chooses to view this succession of movements as the »musical realization of what the theologian August Hermann Francke praised as the ideal manner of reading the Bible« (57): namely, exordium, explication, application, and affirmation. The publication B. cites is one Francke published in 1694, shortly after he arrived in Halle.
Particularly illuminating is B.¹s musical delineation between the two recitative styles employed by Bach. In his analysis of the secco recitatives based on biblical texts and set for a solo voice and continuo, B. identifies intervallic and melodic patterns that function as musical conventions throughout the work. In discussing the accompanied recitatives, he illustrates the ways in which Bach¹s settings of the texts written by an unknown poet (likely in collaboration with Bach) show the composer at his most original and inventive. Included among the innovative procedures he describes is Bach¹s alternation of accompanied chorale and recitative within a single movement, as well as his association of particular voices and instruments with distinct theological themes.
Although the Christmas Oratorio is increasingly taking its place alongside the B minor mass and the St. Matthew passion as one of Bach¹s major liturgical compositions, it nevertheless, as B. rightly asserts, remains less understood than its sister works. To explicate its text and music he has provided a complete and concise commentary written in a clear and engaging style, one that will provide a useful guide to both »Liebhaber und Kenner«.