Last night I went with friends to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Originally the six cantatas which comprise the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ were designed to be performed one at a time, in one or other of the two Leipzig churches with which Bach was associated, on the major feast days of the Christmas season (in Bach’s time: 25, 26, 27 December; 1, 2 and 6 of January). Each feast day would have brought half an hour of music taking listeners through the Biblical story of Christmas and the devotional thoughts that it inspires.
Alas, I have never had the chance to hear the six cantatas spread out across the festive season and performed in context. Today the Christmas Oratorio is more often done as a ‘secular’ concert performance. Last night all six of the cantatas were performed in a concert lasting three hours. Even for a ‘professional listener’ like me, it is frankly a challenge to concentrate for that length of time, especially when sitting on hard wooden pews on a winter’s evening. In retrospect I found that most of my favourite music had occurred in the first cantata, though perhaps that simply reflected my diminishing levels of energy.
At the interval there was some discussion about the wisdom of performing all six cantatas in a ‘block’. We all agreed it would be preferable to hear them singly, on different days over Christmas and New Year, but we also agreed that in today’s speeded-up world there is very little chance of getting an audience to turn up six times, and even less of getting the performers to gather up on six different occasions. To gather and rehearse the expert solo singers, chorus, orchestra with unusual instruments (‘natural’ trumpets, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia etc) is a huge undertaking. Logistically and economically one can see why it makes sense to use this grand assembly on a single evening. It is, of course, always wonderful to hear Bach’s incredible musical tapestries performed ‘live’ and to witness his endless spirit of invention, so we were glad to have the chance.
I’m sure that many people in the audience were, like me, still thinking about the dreadful attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin the day before. Our screens were full of the images and there were news updates on people’s phones during the evening. I could see people looking at them. It was the strangest feeling to superimpose those images on the lovely concert scene before us and to ponder sadly on the changes that have come about since Bach wrote his joyful music for the Christmas season of 1734.