December 31, 2018. Christmas Oratorio, three pianists, three Russian composers. We wish a very happy New Year to all our friends, listeners and readers! We often celebrate the New Year by playing a section of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: it was written (or rather compiled – please see a wonderful article “Bach the recycler” in the New York Review of Books) for the Christmas season, which starts on December 25th and lasts for 12 days. Part IV of the Oratorio (there are six parts altogether) was written for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. According to Genesis 17:12, Jewish baby boys should be circumcised on the eighth day, therefore the Feast falls on the eighth day after December 25th, or January 1st. On its premier in the winter of 1734-35, Part IV was performed, on January 1st of 1735, first at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church in the morning, and then at St. Nicholas Church in the afternoon. As we mentioned above, Bach recycled much of his own previously) written music into the Oratorio. Part IV was taken mostly from the secular Cantata BWV 213 Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Let us tend him, let us watch him) which is usually called Hercules at the Crossroads, as it describes the contest of Vice and Virtue over Hercules’s destiny.
It’s rather amusing that Bach took a secular cantata, which he had composed five years earlier for the 11th birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony, as the basis for a piece of church music describing the circumcision of the Savior. While changing the recitatives, he used the music of all main choruses and arias with minimal adjustments. Thus, the polytheistic chorus “Let us tend him [Hercules], let us watch him, This our charge, the gods’ own son” sung by the gods in the “Hercules” cantata becomes a very proper “With gratitude, with praise, fall before the Almighty’s throne of grace!” in the Christmas Oratorio. The wonderful “echo” aria of the Hercules cantata, which starts with “Faithful Echo of these places, …” becomes the “O my Savior, does your name…” in the Oratorio, still retaining all the echo effects of the original. Somehow, it all works, both in the secular cantata as well as in the Christmas Oratorio.
We had already played (here) the introductory chorus Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (With gratitude, with praise) from Part IV, so now we’ll play the rest of it, starting with the recitative Und da acht Tage um waren (And when eight days had passed) and ending with the Chorale Jesus richte mein Beginnen (May Jesus order my beginning). As in all previous excerpts, John Eliot Gardiner conducts Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (here).
Also this week, we celebrate anniversaries of three great pianists of the 20th century: Alfred Brendel, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Maurizio Pollini. We wrote about them last year, so please take a look here. Three Russian composers were also born this week, Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Medtner and Alexander Scriabin, but we’ll find time for them later.
See you in 2019!