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Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture
by markus rathey
oxford university press, 432 pages, $65

Centuries before we instituted our yearly squabble over the phrase “Merry Christmas,” some people worried that Christmas had become too merry. In colonial America, Puritans prohibited the public celebration of Christmas. Lutheran Germany modified its Christmas rituals so that the Christkind (Christ Child) or Heilig’ Christ (Holy Christ) replaced St. Nicholas and came to visit homes on December 24 or 25, instead of January 6, bearing gifts for children and examining their behavior over the past year. But popish saturnalia endured, as Johann Gabriel Drechssler described in his treatise (1674) against the rites:

Long before [Christmas] masked persons run around with jingling bells, pretending to be a servant of the Holy Christ, Saint Martin or Nicholas, scare the children, admonish them to pray, and give them little gifts. When Christmas draws nearer, the number of crazy spirits increases until finally on Christmas Eve the whole heavenly host (which is probably sent out by the black bogeyman) fills the streets. Then one enacts the newborn Jesus, the Holy Christ, ornate with crown, scepter, and beard, as if the dear Christ-Child had come into the world that way. He is accompanied by angels, St. Peter with the key, other apostles, then several Ruprechts or damned spirits.

Such a holy company is led in front of little children, who are nearly dead of fear. The arch-villain, Knecht Ruprecht, begins accusing them. The Holy Christ, being upset, wants to go; however, the angel Gabriel as well as Peter and the other companions intercede and placate the Holy Christ, after which he makes them bring in plenty of gifts and promises mercy and kindness to the little idols. The little children, who were cheated, are meanwhile full of devotion which is directed toward this visible mercy. The Holy Child is worshipped with prayers because of the gifts; the surrounding saints because of their intercessions; and Ruprecht because of the mercy and only light punishment.

Sixty years later, when Johann Sebastian Bach began composing in Leipzig, a print depicted a smaller crowd, with Jesus asking St. Peter to give him the rod to punish the children—increasing theological accuracy, if not consolation. By this time the Christmas revels were much diminished. Piety in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries rejected physical, outward religious practices and became more internalized and spiritual, while seeking a firm scriptural foundation.

Markus Rathey of the Yale School of Music previously treated the Christmas Oratorio as part of his introductory Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (which I reviewed in First Things earlier this year). Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a denser, more scholarly work. Rathey argues that Bach’s Christmas Oratorio stands at the end of the shift away from outward practice, realizing the internalization of devotion “in an almost radical fashion as it remains faithful to the characterization of the biblical narrative.” While Bach does recount the story of Christmas, he offers meditations instead of dramatization. These reflect the new interpretation of Christmas, which was in fact a retrieval of Bernard of Clairvaux’s trope of the three-fold coming of Christ—in history at Christmas, in the present in the hearts of the faithful, and in the future at the Last Judgment. (It is ironic, as Rathey notes, that medieval theology turned out to be the cure for Papist devotional abuses.)

The Christmas Oratorio recounts the coming of Christ in history in order to help bring about the coming of Christ in the hearts of its hearers, while pointing them toward the final coming of Christ at its end. The Oratorio has six parts, to be played during services of the major feasts of Christmas. Part I opens with regal, ringing praise and then explores the dichotomies of the season: God and man, heaven and earth, faith and reason, royalty and humility. It also introduces the mystical imagery that pervades the Oratorio: the bride and bridegroom, the heart as the place of divine dwelling. Rathey reads Part II as an essay on music as a means of communication between heaven and earth, present from the dialogue between angelic and pastoral music in the opening sinfonia.

Part III interprets the physical movement of the shepherds towards the manger as the spiritual, internal movement of God towards man. The turning point in the Oratorio is the aria “Schließe, mein Herze” (My heart, embrace this blessed marvel), the only newly composed aria in the entire Oratorio. The text of the aria urges the heart to embrace the miracle and establish a unity between Christ and the believer. Rathey observes: “Only when this urgency has found its completion can the heart rest, and the aria return to the music (and the key) of the beginning. The music is never cyclical … but instead drives forward to embrace him in the believer’s heart.” Part IV, for New Year’s Day, meditates on “the meaning of the name of Jesus as the essence of his divine and human nature.” The last two parts of the Oratorio recount the story of the three wise men. The work concludes by looking from the past and present to the future, where Christ will be victorious over his enemies (death, the devil, sin) as he was victorious over King Herod.

The Christmas Oratorio was written in 1734, but it became famous only in the nineteenth century. Then as now, many listeners truncate it to their understanding of Christmas. Rathey concludes: “The Christmas Oratorio has been converted into an un-theological work; an expression of joy, simplicity, and family values. By tuning out its theological profile, it was prone to become a representation of the same kind of religious and secular sentimentality that was then, and is now associated with Christmas.” With his rich, comprehensive exposition of Bach’s theology, historical context, and musical technique, Rathey keeps us from watering the Christmas Oratorio down. When taken neat, the Oratorio’s musical beauty and theological simplicity drive home the power of Christ’s coming in all its forms.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

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