Under the Spell of Opera? Bach's Oratorio Trilogy
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1 Under the Spell of Opera? Bach’s Oratorio Trilogy Christoph Wolff T he first summary catalogue of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works from his obituary (1750/54) begins with a listing of the vocal compositions and sorts them into four groups. Whereas the first, third, and fourth consist of clearly defined types of compositions (church cantatas, passions, and motets), the second resembles a catch-all collection that lumps together “many oratorios, Masses, Magnificat, single Sanctus, Dramata, serenades, music for birthdays, name days, and funerals, wedding masses, and also several comic singing pieces.”1 This random mixture of genres and works not only intermingles sacred and secular music, but also quantifies the pieces in a most general way. Beginning with oratorios, the adjective “many” refers equally to Masses, Magnificat, and the rest of the lot. This casual accounting suggests that the compiler of the summary catalogue, in all likelihood none other than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, either had no clear overview and no opportunity of surveying the pertinent repertory more closely, or lacked an interest in presenting a more accurate and differentiated picture. Regardless of the explanation, the above-mentioned catalogue entry does not, in fact, suggest that Bach composed many—in the sense of more than the three extant—oratorios, or that further oratorios, like so many other vocal works, must be considered lost. The three known sacred works specifically designated by Bach as “oratorio” form a coherent and topically interrelated group of oratorios for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Day, the three jubilant ecclesiastical feasts. Bach consistently designed Latin titles for all of them: “Oratorium Tempore Nativit: Xsti” (with corresponding subtitles for the individual feast days “Pars I [II, III, etc.] Oratorii”),2 “Oratorium Festo Paschatos,” 1. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, ed. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, revised and enlarged by Christoph Wolff (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), no. 306. 2. In the Christmas Oratorio Bach fit “Oratorium” into the heading at a later point, making it correspond to the other two. 2 wolff and “Oratorium Festo Ascensionis Xsti.” If one adds to this trilogy of major works for the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Ascension the traditional Good Friday Passion (for which Bach formulated Latin titles, as well: Passio secundum Joannem / Matthaeum), a grand overall design emerges in a musical series for the four principal Christological feast days of the ecclesiastical year, a series comprising large-scale compositions for narration and contemplation. They commemorate the major stations of the biblical story of the life of Jesus Christ that are singled out and emphasized in the Christian creed: his birth, suffering and death, resurrection, and ascension. However, the overall triumphant character of the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Oratorios, musically underlined by the sound of orchestral brass, separates them as a group from the passions and their focus on the suffering and death of Jesus. In addition , there are further reasons to distinguish them: liturgical function, chronological context, and considerations of genre. Liturgical Function The works composed and designated by Bach for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Day deliberately conform to the general function, liturgical place, and proportions of the regular church cantata. Like a cantata, each oratorio was planned to be performed as festive Haupt-Music for the respective feast day at its proper place before the sermon in the principal morning service. Moreover, the Leipzig custom of repeat performances of the principal music on high feasts at the morning service in one church (alternating between the St. Nicholas and St. Thomas churches), at the vesper service of the other,3 and then for the so-called old service of the University Church, resulted in three musical presentations on the same day. The musical passions, on the other hand, had their unique place in the afternoon vesper service on Good Friday in just one of the main churches, alternating annually between St. Thomas’s and St. Nicholas’s. This special service, established in Leipzig only two years before Bach’s arrival, assumed a musical character. Indeed, under Bach, with performances of multiple-hour works, the event turned into the musical pinnacle of the year; it was an absolute exception that a piece of music would dominate the liturgy and take up more time than the sermon, the traditional centerpiece of the Lutheran service. The shorter first part of the musical passion had to be timed in such a way that the sermon could start near the beginning of...


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Subject Headings

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian, -- 1685-1750 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Weihnachts-Oratorium.
  • Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Johannespassion.
  • Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen.
  • Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Oratorios.
  • Oratorios -- Analysis, appreciation.
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