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The Unusual Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach

Choral Arts Philadelphia presented Bach's six-cantata Christmas Oratorio in 2016 on New Year's Eve in West Philadelphia.

J.S. Bach’s unconventional Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), composed in 1733 and 1734, is less known than his other major works, and it showcases the composer's innovation and resourcefulness. WRTI's Susan Lewis reports.

WRTI is broadcasting the individual cantatas of Bach's Christmas Oratorio over the course of the Christmas season. 

Choral Arts Philadelphia Artistic Director Matthew Glandorf talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the joys and challenges of performing Bach's complete Christmas Oratorio. Choral Arts performed the complete oratorio in one performance in December 2016.

Radio script:

[MUSIC: Cantata 1 from Bach's Christmas Oratorio]

Susan Lewis: In 1734, Bach wrote a different dramatic cantata to be performed on each of the six feast days over the Christmas period. Together they make up his Christmas Oratorio. Temple University music history professor Steven Zohn says it’s a novel way to construct what is usually one long narrative.

Steven Zohn: So it's not a typical oratorio in the way that his St. John’s Passion or his St. Matthew’s Passion are.

SL: It makes sense to hear the cantatas together, says Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of the Philadelphia Bach Festival, and Choral Arts Philadelphia. But it’s not easy to prepare or perform, as the orchestra for every cantata is different.

Matthew Glandorf: So, for example, cantata 1, 3, and 6 have trumpets and timpani. Cantata 2 has four oboists, paying various instruments. Cantata 4 has two horn players and that’s the only appearance they make. You realize he’s just using the resources he had available on any given day.

SL:  Bach used those resources to break new musical ground. As in the story of the shepherds watching their flocks.

[MUSIC: Cantata 2]

MG: This very, very pastoral scene, Bach sets unusually, he has four oboe soloists, and that is not something you ever encounter...the sound of the oboes, the way Bach uses them is so obviously evocative of a pastoral nature, and just beautifully pulls you into the drama of that story.

SL: The complete Oratorio tells the Christmas story, from the birth of Jesus to the visit of the Wise Men.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.