Bach Perspectives, Volume 8: J.S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition

Bach Perspectives, Volume 8: J.S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition

by Daniel R. Melamed

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Bach Perspectives, Volume 8: J.S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition by Daniel R. Melamed

As the official publication of the American Bach Society, Bach Perspectives has pioneered new areas of research in the life, times, and music of Bach since its first appearance in 1995. Volume 8 of Bach Perspectives emphasizes the place of Bach's oratorios in their repertorial context.   These essays consider Bach's oratorios from a variety of perspectives: in relation to models, antecedents, and contemporary trends; from the point of view of musical and textual types; and from analytical vantage points including links with instrumental music and theology.  

Christoph Wolff suggests the possibility that Bach's three festive works for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Day form a coherent group linked by liturgy, chronology, and genre. Daniel R. Melamed considers the many ways in which Bach's passion music was influenced by the famous poetic passion of Barthold Heinrich Brockes. Markus Rathey examines the construction and role of oratorio movements that combine chorales and poetic texts (chorale tropes). Kerala Snyder shows the connections between Bach's Christmas Oratorio and one of its models, Buxtehude's Abendmusiken spread over many evenings. Laurence Dreyfus argues that Bach thought instrumentally in the composition of his passions at the expense of certain aspects of the text. And Eric Chafe demonstrates the contemporary theological background of Bach's Ascension Oratorio and its musical realization

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252090219
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Series: Bach Perspectives , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Daniel R. Melamed is a professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.  Coeditor of the Journal of Musicology, his books include Hearing Bach's Passions, J. S. Bach and the German Motet, An Introduction to Bach Studies, and Bach Studies 2.

Read an Excerpt

J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03584-5

Chapter One

Under the Spell of Opera?

Bach's Oratorio Trilogy

Christoph Wolff

The 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."

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"), "Oratorium Festo Paschatos," 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, 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 the second hour of the service, whereas there were no time restrictions for the longer second part.

Because the principal feasts of the ecclesiastical calendar from Christmas to Ascension focus on the main stations of the life of the biblical Jesus, Bach's oratorio trilogy and his passion settings are interrelated despite their differences in liturgical function and musical design. The oratorios originating in the 1730s correspond to, continue, and complement (on a lesser scale) the role of the musical passions from the 1720s. In fact, Bach's work on the oratorios may also have prompted the major revisions to which he subjected the passions in 1736 and later, not only the two according to St. Matthew and St. John, but apparently also the St. Mark Passion.

The question of why Bach did not plan a three-part oratorio for the three-day festival of Easter, analogous to the multipart design of the Christmas Oratorio, can easily be answered by the brevity of the biblical story of the resurrection. The traditional gospel reading for Easter Sunday consists of only the short lesson from Mark 16:1–8. However, Bach's Easter Oratorio compensates for its limitation to a single feast day by exceeding the ordinary half-hour limit adhered to by all six parts of the Christmas Oratorio and by the Ascension Oratorio, as well.

Chronological Context

Bach's Leipzig passions according to John, Matthew, and Mark were composed and presented between 1724 and 1731, that is, well before his oratorios originated. However, all three passions were slated for thorough revisions: the St. Matthew in 1736, the St. John in around 1739 (incomplete), and the St. Mark by 1744. Bach's schedule for passion performances after 1733, when the performance was cancelled because of an official state mourning period, remains sketchy. However, Bach's only passion presentations documented by printed texts and other corroborating external evidence are his performances of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's "Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld" in 1734, the second version of the St. Matthew Passion in 1736, and the expanded St. Mark Passion in 1744. Beginning with the first Sunday after Trinity in 1735, Bach apparently performed the entire annual cantata cycle "Das Saitenspiel des Herzens" by Stölzel in 1735-36. The extended pattern—uncovered by recent research—of Bach performing music by other composers during the mid-1730s may have implications for a better understanding of the composer's creative activities in the same period, notably in regard to his liturgical music projects. He may have wanted to free up time to focus on revising and updating older large-scale works, as well as on borrowings and reworkings of extant compositions. Works in this category include his passions, the five Kyrie-Gloria Masses BWV 232–36, and the three oratorios.

The first of these is the Christmas Oratorio from 1734–35, spanning six feast days from the First Day of Christmas 1734 through Epiphany 1735. The Christmas Oratorio was followed within the same ecclesiastical year by the Ascension Oratorio, first performed on May 19, 1735. Nothing indicates that the Easter Oratorio belongs between the two in narrative-liturgical sequence (Easter Sunday 1735). Source evidence rather points to a later year, most likely 1737 or perhaps also 1738. At the same time, there can be no doubt about a relatively narrow time frame for the origin of the oratorio trilogy. In particular, the titles of the three works suggest that Bach intended a close interrelationship, as is obvious not only from a consistent linguistic phraseology, but also from a close match of the autograph handwriting.

Considerations of Genre

By focusing on the biblical narrative of the life of Jesus, Bach's oratorios offered an alternative to the regular cantatas composed for the same high feast days but based on non-narrating texts and ordinarily beginning with biblical verses containing theological messages related to the prescribed liturgical readings or, in the case of chorale cantatas, consisting of the appropriate seasonal hymns. Biblical narrative as structural backbone links Bach's oratorio trilogy with his passions, even though the traditional historia format is far more pronounced in the passions because of their extended scriptural texts. Nonetheless, Bach's renewed interest in the historia concept that began with the Christmas Oratorio of 1734–35 may well have prompted his subsequent major revisions of his passions to complete and unify the large-scale musical cycle on the story of the biblical Jesus.

At any rate, the historia tradition in sacred music provided a strong common denominator, and hence passion and oratorio represented for Bach essentially the same genre with respect to both text and music. The differences in their liturgical function pertained primarily to their assignment to different worship services in Leipzig. However, the term Passion or Musicalische Passion had long been firmly established in Lutheran Germany, whereas Oratorium, derived from the Italian oratorio, was (as the more modern term) only rarely applied and remained loosely defined for a long time.

The literary and musical genre of oratorio was, of course, familiar to Bach. To mention but one specific example, Christian Friedrich Henrici (alias Picander) published in 1725 a passion libretto under the heading Erbauliche Gedanken ... über den Leidenden Jesum, in einem Oratorio entworfen von Picandern (Edifying reflections ... on the suffering Jesus, drafted in an oratorio by Picander)—a publication well known to Bach, for it influenced the text of his St. Matthew Passion and perhaps encouraged his collaboration with Picander that began in 1725, if not before. However, Picander's passion oratorio did not make use of biblical narrative but, like most modern passion librettos, paraphrased it poetically. Another example of a similar libretto is found in the oratorio Joseph performed in Leipzig by the Collegium musicum under Georg Balthasar Schott prior to 1729, when Bach took over the directorship.

Independent of the Italian oratorio tradition of the seventeenth century, the term oratorio came into use in protestant Germany after 1700, specifically in Hamburg and promoted there by Christian Friedrich Hunold and Erdmann Neumeister. Texts by these two prolific writers and leading exponents of sacred poetry were set to music by many composers, including Bach. From the very beginning, the term oratorio was not specifically defined by its German users and generally applied to various types of church composition. Telemann occasionally used it for regular cantatas. Even Johann Christoph Gottsched remained vague when he wrote in his Versuch einer Critischen Dichtkunst:

Church pieces generally called oratorios—that is, prayer pieces—resemble cantatas in that they, too, contain arias and recitatives. They also generally introduce various speaking personae so that there might be variety amongst the singing voices. Here now the poet must introduce biblical persons, from the gospels or other texts, even Jesus and God himself, or allegorical figures representing religious functions such as Faith, Love, Hope, the Christian Church, Sacred Bride, Shulamite, Daughter Zion, or Faithful Soul, and the like in a speaking manner so that the outcome corresponds to purpose and place.

As this passage makes clear, however, oratorio was generally understood as a work of narrative or dramatic content based on a text that introduced dialogue of biblical or allegorical persons. Hence, opera invariably served as a point of reference. Accordingly, Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach's distant cousin, defines oratorio in the following way in his influential Musicalisches Lexicon:

Oratorium ... a sacred opera, or musical performance of a sacred historia in the chapels or chambers of great lords, consisting of dialogues, duos, trios, ritornellos, big choruses, etc. The musical composition must be rich in everything that art can muster in terms of ingenious and refined ideas.

Oratorio as sacred opera—this definition posed a direct problem with respect to Bach's contractual obligations as cantor of St. Thomas's. Prior to his election as cantor, Town Councilor Steger had the town scribe record in the minutes of the meeting that he "voted for Bach, but he should make compositions that were not theatrical." Moreover, and not surprisingly, Bach's final pledge to the town council of May 5, 1723, included a paragraph that specified that "the music ... shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion."

How could Bach resolve this conflict? In passions, for example, there had been a tradition from medieval times, and continuing after the Reformation, of presenting the story of Christ's passion in dramatized form, with the Evangelist as musical narrator; the roles of Jesus, Peter, Pilate assigned to soliloquentes; and the crowds of the High Priests, the people, and soldiers as turba choruses. Bach's passions strictly adhered to this tradition by making use of the biblical narrative as structural backbone and by adding contemplative sacred poetry and congregational hymns. Therefore, the overall shape and character of the musical passion was clearly different from that of an opera. It is clearly for this reason that Walther modifies his definition by expressly adding to "sacred opera" the reference to "sacred historia." Bach's use of the term oratorio for his trilogy of the 1730s goes in the same direction by conceptually adhering to the biblical historia tradition. However, as the genesis of the Easter Oratorio demonstrates, he originally came from someplace else and by no means drew a strict line between opera and oratorio.

The Experimental Background of the Easter Oratorio

What eventually became the Easter Oratorio in 1737–38 had first been performed—with the same number of movements, yet in a slightly different configuration—as a cantata on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725. However, the Easter cantata of 1725 represented an arrangement of a secular piece, a "dramma per musica" commissioned by the court of Saxe-Weißenfels and presented as Tafel-Music for the birthday of Duke Christian and performed in Weißenfels on February 23, 1725. The time between the duke's birthday ceremony and Easter spanned not quite six weeks. On Palm Sunday, celebrated that year also as Annunciation Day, the last piece of the chorale cantata cycle, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" BWV 1, had its premiere. A few days later, on Good Friday (March 30), the performance of the second version of the St. John Passion with the new opening movement of "O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde groß" took place. Considering this tight schedule, it seems plausible that adapting an occasional work of substantial proportions, performed out of town for a secular event, into a festive liturgical repertoire piece was premeditated by the composer and was neither an accident nor an emergency solution.

The libretto for the Weißenfels dramma per musica, a theatrical Arcadian scene involving four mythological characters (Doris, Sylvia, Menalcas, and Damoetas), was provided by Picander and marked the beginning of his collaboration with Bach. In the work the pastoral characters playfully serenade the duke. Its opening movement begins with the line "Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen" (Flee, vanish, yield, ye sorrows), and the finale starts with the words "Glück und Heil, bleibe dein beständig Teil" (Luck and health will be steadily with you).

References in the text to the honored duke as "Großer Fürst" and "Großer Herzog," as well as the overall congratulatory quality and celebratory nature, made the piece entirely suitable for conversion into festal music in praise of the risen Lord. For the Easter cantata, the roles of the four pastoral characters were changed to fit the image of biblical figures—the disciples and their followers—running to the empty grave of Jesus risen from death: "Kommt, fliehet und eilet" (Come, flee and hurry) is now the opening line, and the entire text is adapted to the biblical early-morning scene after the resurrection. The roles of the four mythological characters are exchanged for the biblical figures of Mary, wife of James; Mary Magdalene; Peter; and John. All four voices maintain the vocal ranges of their models (see Table 1).


Excerpted from J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Under the Spell of Opera? Bach's Oratorio Trilogy BY CHRISTOPH WOLFF....................1
Johann Sebastian Bach and Barthold Heinrich Brockes BY DANIEL R. MELAMED....................13
Drama and Discourse: The Form and Function of Chorale Tropes in Bach's Oratorios BY MARKUS RATHEY....................42
Oratorio on Five Afternoons: From the Lübeck Abendmusiken to Bach's Christmas Oratorio BY KERALA J. SNYDER....................69
The Triumph of "Instrumental Melody": Aspects of Musical Poetics in Bach's St. John Passion BY LAURENCE DREYFUS....................96
Bach's Ascension Oratorio: God's Kingdoms and Their Representation BY ERIC CHAFE....................122
General Index....................149
Index of Bach's Compositions....................151
Index of Other Compositions....................153

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