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Multi-Day Passions and J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, BWV248

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2014


Commentators have long sought models for the decision by Bach and his anonymous librettist to spread the Christmas Oratorio's narration over twelve days. None of the most commonly proposed models can be shown with certainty to have been performed over more than two days; it appears that the supposed tradition of multi-day Christmas oratorios is invented. In fact there were models for this feature of the Christmas Oratorio: Passion settings designed for or adapted to presentation over Holy Week or all of Lent. The practice is documented in five places concentrated in Saxony and Thuringia and involved both newly composed and older works in both liturgical and devotional contexts. A new source reveals a previously unrecognized performance of this kind, of Reinhard Keiser's Brockes setting in Erfurt. Bach is likely to have known of this performance and others of the type, and they were probably a significant influence on the organization and conception of his Christmas piece performed ‘die Heilige Weyhnacht über’ in 1734/1735.

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1 Baselt, Berndt, ‘Der “Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten” des Leipziger Thomaskantors Johann Schelle’, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Gesellschafts- und sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe 14 (1965), 331344Google Scholar.

2 The division is a feature of the work's lone source in Luckau; it is difficult to know how it relates to practice there or in Leipzig.

3 This is the case in J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio as well.

4 Bafflingly, Walter Blankenburg asserts that we must reckon ‘with certainty’ on a division of Schelle's Actus musicus over the three days of Christmas because the work's scope speaks against a continuous performance. Recent modern recordings of this work last about twenty-four minutes overall, and Blankenburg's reasoning is not clear to me. Blankenburg, Walter, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium von Johann Sebastian Bach (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1982), 35Google Scholar.

5 Baselt, ‘Der “Actus Musicus”’, 338, calls Schelle's work ‘the direct link’ between Bach's Christmas Oratorio and the one by Heinrich Schütz.

6 Blankenburg, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium, 35.

7 Blankenburg, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium, 35–36. As transcribed by Max Seiffert (Johann Philipp Krieger, 21 Ausgewählte Kirchenkompositionen, ed. Seiffert, Max, Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1916), volumes 53–54, xxxv)Google Scholar, the entries specifying Christmas historiae are ambiguous at best; the modern transcription lists repertory but the original document is a chronology, so entries made over the years might or might not refer to distinct works. The transcription reads:

  • Die Historia von der Geburt Jesu Christi. a 22. 12 voc. 10 Instr. [Weihn. 84]

  • Die Historia von der Geburt Jesu Christi. a 24. 12 voc. 12 Instr. [Weihn. 91]

  • Die Historia von der Geburt Jesu Christi. a 25. 12 voc. 13 Instr. [Weihn. 96]

  • Die Historia von der Geburt Jesu Christi. a 16. 8 voc. 8 Instr. [Weihn. 17]

  • Die Historia von der Geburt Jesu Christi. a 20 [Weihn. 20]

Note that these pieces are specified for Christmas, whereas other compositions are explicitly described as being for the second or third day; this suggests that the historiae were performed on one day.

8 See Wollny, Peter, ‘Über die Beziehungen zwischen Oper und Oratorium in Hamburg im späten 17. und frühen 18. Jahrundert’, in Il teatro musicale italiano nel Sacro Romano Impero nei secoli XVII e XVIII (Como: Antiquae Musicae Italicae Studiosi, 1999), 172Google Scholar, cited by Snyder, Kerala J., ‘Oratorio on Five Afternoons: From the Lübeck Abendmusiken to Bach's Christmas Oratorio’, in J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition (Bach Perspectives 8), ed. Melamed, Daniel R. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 69Google Scholar, note 1.

9 Printed versions were issued in 1612 (Breslau), 1621 (Goslar) and 1682 (Leipzig, in Gottfried Vopelius's Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch). A modern edition can be found in Handbuch der deutschen evangelischen Kirchenmusik, ed. Konrad Ameln and others (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1930–1980); monophonic portion in volume 1, part 3, polyphonic portion in volume 1, part 4. The claim of a connection to bwv248 appears in Blankenburg, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium, 36.

10 Bugenhagen, Johann, Die historia des leydens vnd der Aufferstehung vnsers Herrn Ihesu Christi aus den vier Euangelisten (Wittemberg: Hans Weyss, 1526)Google Scholar.

11 The source from Grimma, now in Dresden (D-Dl; Mus. Gri.11, a manuscript copy dated 1593), does appear to specify a division over three days, but this is a distant connection to eighteenth-century Leipzig.

12 Baselt, ‘Der “Actus Musicus”’, 338–339.

13 Bossuyt, Ignace, Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio (bwv 248), translated by Bull, Stratton (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2004), 25Google Scholar.

14 Blankenburg, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium, 29. There has been some welcome resistance to this facile view; Günther Massenkeil, surveying German oratorios, is reluctant to see Schelle's work as a direct antecedent of Bach's Christmas Oratorio because of his view that its central textual element is not the gospel text but rather the stanzas of the hymn ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’. Massenkeil, Günther, Oratorium und Passion (Laaber: Laaber, 1999), 193Google Scholar.

15 Christoph Graupner, Ein Weihnachts Oratorium (Ricercar RIC307, 2010). The recording lists the movements of its cantatas as through-numbered, suggesting a continuous whole. The recordings of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, Christmas Oratorio Cantatas 1–5 (CPO 9996682, c2000) and Christmas Oratorio Cantatas 6–10 (CPO 9997352, c2000) even acknowledge the contents as a ‘fictitious Christmas Oratorio’. Compare also the packaging of a CD of Rosenmüller's Christmas music as a ‘Weihnachtshistorie’ (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901861, 2004).

16 For a list of titles see Scherliess, Volker and Schnoor, Arndt, eds, ‘Theater-Music in der Kirche’: Zur Geschichte der Lübecker Abendmusiken (Lübeck: Bibliothek der Hansestadt Lübeck – Musikhochschule Lübeck, 2003), 7375Google Scholar.

17 Snyder, ‘Oratorio on Five Afternoons’.

18 Spitta, Philipp, J. S. Bach, two volumes (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1873–80), volume 2, 357358Google Scholar, cited the typical Protestant division into six parts, referring to the Rudolstadt libretto and to one from Schleiz (see below), and even suggested that in dividing the Christmas Oratorio Bach had done what had been done elsewhere for the Passion story (volume 2, 404). Blankenburg, Das Weihnachts-Oratorium, 36, refers to the practice of dividing the passion and to the Rudolstadt libretto. Scheitler, Irmgard, ‘Ein Oratorium in der Nürnberger Frauenkirche 1699 und seine Nachfolger’, Morgen-Glantz 14 (2004), 183Google Scholar, calls the division of the passion over multiple days ‘usual’ in central Germany.

19 Reproduced in microfilm in Hymnologische Quellen aus Augsburger Bibliotheken (Erlangen: Harald Fischer, 2004). Exemplar in the Universitätsbibliothek Augsburg, BS 4780. All translations are mine. Chorale identifications and other matters discussed here are based on the discussion in Scheitler, Irmgard, Deutschsprachige Oratorienlibretti: Von den Anfängen bis 1730 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2005), 111116Google Scholar.

20 Scheitler, ‘Ein Oratorium in der Nürnberger Frauenkirche’, 183. Scheitler does not cite a source.

21 These and other rubrics were omitted from the 1707 reprint, which is otherwise essentially identical to the 1688 version (exemplar in Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Ts 53 (2)).

22 The Preface to this print evidently confirms Erlebach's authorship of the musical setting. Scheitler, ‘Ein Oratorium in der Nürnberger Frauenkirche’, 185–196. ‘Leidens- und Sterbens-Geschicht / unsers Heilandes Jesu Christi / Aus denen 4. Evangelisten zusammen getragen / in 6. Absätze getheilet / Und mit füglichen Arien hie und da untermengt / wie selbige in der Nürnbergischen Capelle / bey unser Frauen / soll Musikalisch aufgeführet werden’ (History of the suffering and death of our saviour Jesus Christ assembled from the four Evangelists divided into six sections and intermixed here and there with apt arias as it is to be performed by the Kapelle of Our Lady's Church in Nuremberg). I have not seen this source.

23 Scheitler ‘Ein Oratorium in der Nürnberger Frauenkirche’, 186: ‘von Oculi an zurechnen / 4. Sonntage nacheinander / die 4. ersten Handlungen; künfftigen Grünen Donners= und Char=Freytag aber / die letzern zwo’ (The first four parts on four Sundays in a row counting from Oculi; the last two on the following Maundy Thursday and Good Friday).

24 Exemplar in Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, 8. Theol. XXXVIII, 169(5).

25 Braun, Werner, Die mitteldeutsche Choralpassion im achtzehnten Jahrhundert (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1960), 89Google Scholar.

26 At the least, the similarity suggests that the Eisenach passion was old-fashioned in its scheme of interpolations and in its adherence to the use of strophic chorales and arias. It appears unlikely that this work was a concerted passion setting of the kind that had been performed for a decade or so in Hamburg by this time.

27 ‘Graf Heinrich XII. führte in Schleiz ein zwölftheilige Passion ein, deren erster Abschnitt am Sonntage Invocavit und deren letzter am Charfreitage abgesungen wurde. Der Text befindet sich auf den gräflichen Bibliothek zu Wernigerode (H b, 417) … Passionsharmonie’. Spitta, J. S. Bach, volume 2, 358, note 75. Note that this is not the same print as the ORATORIUM Welches aufgeführt wird In der Schloß-Capelle zu Schleiz (Oratorio that is to be performed in the Castle Church in Schleiz) cited by Spitta, J. S. Bach, volume 2, 328; this collection of librettos for the entire church year survives in the same bound collection in Berlin as the 1750 libretto. The ruling family in Schleiz was Reuss, one of whose members commissioned Schütz's Musicalische Exequien.

28 Dates from <> (20 March 2014).

29 Spitta (J. S. Bach, volume 2, 350, note 65) suggested ‘Ruht, ihr heiligsten Gebeine’ as a parallel to ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’, bwv245/39. Because of this claimed connection to Bach's St John Passion, the ‘Schleizer Passion’ surfaces periodically in the Bach literature. Neumann, Werner, Sämtliche von Johann Sebastian Bach vertonte Texte (Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1974), 244Google Scholar, refers to Spitta's ‘Schleizer Passion’ in the notes to bwv245 without giving any hint that he knows what it is. Other writings on bwv245 mention it in the same way, like Mendel, Arthur's critical commentary to the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, series 2, volume 4 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1974), 168Google Scholar, citing Spitta, and Smend, Friedrich, Bach in Köthen (Berlin: Christlicher Zeitschriftenverlag, c 1951), 120Google Scholar.

30 The Stolberg-Wernigerode hymnological collection in which Spitta found the libretto came to the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz in 1930 and is not fully catalogued, according to a personal communication from Roland Schmidt-Hensel of the Staatsbibliothek.

31 Exemplar in Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv, Slg Wernigerode Hb 983.

32 One text is labelled ‘Aria Duetto’, implying solo settings of the others. The printed libretto indicates only the opening and closing words of each narrative section, sometimes to the point of extreme abbreviation; clearly the narrative portion was unambiguously familiar, and the print's emphasis is on the interpolated chorales and poetic texts.

33 Schmidt, Berthold, Geschichte der Stadt Schleiz, volume 3, Von der Burggrafenzeit bis zum deutsch-franz: Kriege (1550–1871) (Schleiz: W. Krämer, 1916), 255Google Scholar.

34 According to the entry on Koch in Walther, Johann Gottfried, Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig: Wolfgang Deer, 1732)Google Scholar.

35 Hans-Joachim Schulze has proposed that this was the occasion on which Bach's lost oboe d'amore concerto, related to the Keyboard Concerto in A major, bwv1055, was performed. Schulze, Hans-Joachim, ‘Johann Sebastian Bachs Konzerte: Fragen der Überlieferung und Chronologie’, Beiträge zum Konzertschaffen Johann Sebastian Bachs (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1981)Google Scholar, especially 14–15, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach's Orchestra: Some Unanswered Questions’, Early Music 17/1 (1989), 10. Koch had been a prefect in Mühlhausen c1709–1711. Bach may already have left town in mid-1708 by the time Koch served, but the dates are ambiguous. Bach returned to perform another town council work the following year and possibly the one after that.

36 Exemplar in Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Will 8 VII 1435b. The reprint was Erbauliche Betrachtungen über die auf jeden Sonn= und Feyer- tag das gantze Jahr hindurch geordnete Evangelien / Wie auch Gottselige Gedancken des bittern und unschuldigen Leidens und Sterbens unser HERRN und Heilandes JESU Christi / Wie solche in der Kirche zu St. Marian alhier in Nürnberg / vor / und zum Theil nach der Predigt / auf dem Music- Chor daselbst / vorgestellet werden. Nürnberg / bey den Felßeckerischen Erben / 1707. Exemplar in Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Will 8 VII 1435c.

37 Mattheson, Johann, Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (Hamburg: author, 1740), 400401Google Scholar.

38 Listed in Max Seiffert[, Kleine Mitteilung. Maximilian Zeidler], Sammelbände der internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft 7 (1905–1906), 483.

39 Scheitler, ‘Ein Oratorium in der Nürnberger Frauenkirche’, 179–211.

40 Exemplar in Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Will II, 1384.

41 See Daniel R. Melamed, ‘Johann Sebastian Bach and Barthold Heinrich Brockes’, in J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition, 13–41.

42 It is not clear whether this symbolic invocation of the church as a sort of allegorical figure was matched by congregational performance of the chorales, as it was in some places.

43 Exemplar in Durham, NC, Duke University Library, Harold Jantz Collection 2398. I thank the Duke University Libraries, particularly Elizabeth B. Dunn of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, for a copy of the print. The entry for the item in WorldCat cites the year 1712 (the date of Brockes's poem), but the print is undated and certainly stems from the early 1730s.

44 There is no mention in Petzoldt, Richard, Die Kirchenkompositionen und weltlichen Kantaten Reinhard Keisers (1674–1739) (Düsseldorf: G. H. Nolte, 1935)Google Scholar; Friedrichs, Henning, Das Verhältnis von Text und Musik in den Brockespassionen Keisers, Händels, Telemanns und Matthesons (Munich: Katzbichler, 1975)Google Scholar; Koch, Klaus-Peter, Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739): Leben und Werk (Teuchern: Förderkreis Reinhard-Keiser-Gedenkstätte, 2000)Google Scholar; Lölkes, Herbert, ‘“… damit ein vollständiges / zur Christlichen Ubung dienendes / Opus daraus erwachse”: Zu den Soliloquiadrucken aus Reinhard Keisers Passionen’, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 54/4 (1997), 299320Google Scholar; and Irmgard Scheitler, Deutschsprachige Oratorienlibretti.

45 Including Engel, Hans, Musik in Thüringen (Cologne: Böhlau, 1966)Google Scholar, and Riedel, Friedrich Wilhelm, ‘Kirchenmusik im kurmainzischen Erfurt’, Kirchenmusikalisches Jahrbuch 86 (2002), 85107Google Scholar.

46 Biographical information on Klöppel is from a personal communication from Helga Brück, to whom I am grateful for sharing her unpublished research on musical figures in Erfurt. Less detailed information appears in Bauer, Martin, Evangelische Theologen in und um Erfurt im 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zur Personen- und Familiengeschichte Thüringens (Neustadt an der Aisch: Degener, 1992), 115Google Scholar.

47 Friedrichs, Verhältnis, 25, calls this a hapax legomenon (a word occurring only once in the writer's work), but here is another instance.

48 That libretto served as an admission ticket for the Frankfurt performance; when the event was moved to the larger Barfüßerkirche from the planned Armen-, Waisen- and Arbeitshaus, additional librettos were needed and a second printing produced. Copies left over evidently also sufficed for a performance in 1717. See Lange, Carsten, ‘Zur Aufführung von Telemanns Brockes-Passionsoratorium in Frankfurt am Main’, in Telemann in Frankfurt: Bericht über das Symposium Frankfurt am Main, 26./27. April 1996, ed. Cahn, Peter (Mainz: Schott, 2000), 142162Google Scholar.

49 This apparent connection to the Frankfurt libretto suggests the possibility that Klöppel was confused about the authorship of his Brockes passion. Keiser was probably the best-known composer of a Brockes setting thanks to the wide circulation of a printed edition of excerpts of his composition, the Auserlesene soliloquia (Hamburg, 1714). But the very familiarity of that print and the arias in it would presumably have confirmed that the setting performed in Erfurt was indeed by Keiser. It is most likely that the Erfurt performers had access to a musical source of Keiser's work but turned to the printed text from Frankfurt, which happened to have been associated with Telemann. The texts of the two settings matched in nearly every detail, so this would not have presented difficulties.

50 Hermann, Karl, Biblioteca Erfurtina (Erfurt: author, 1863), 287Google Scholar, cites Gott geheiligte Kirchen=Andacht oder Texte zur Kirchen=Music, welche auf die gewöhnliche Sonn= und Fest=Tage, in der Prediger=Kirche künfftig G. G. zwey Jahre durch u.s.w. von dem Choro Musico sollen musiciret werden von Johann Martin Klöppel. [Cant.] 1737. Engel, Musik in Thüringen, 94–95, records Klöppel's predecessor at the Predigerkirche, Joh. Fr. Stöpel, as having served from 1712 to 1738.

51 The relationship of various textual and musical sources of Keiser's Brockes setting is not clear. The treatment in Friedrichs, Verhältnis, 30–36, does not help, and the question awaits a thorough study.

52 On Bach family connections see the documents in Neumann, Werner and Schulze, Hans-Joachim, eds, Bach-Dokumente. Band II: Fremdschriftliche und gedruckte Dokumente zur Lebens-geschichte Johann Sebastian Bachs 1685–1750 (Kassel: Bärenreiter and Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1969)Google Scholar, documents 79, 101, 109, 112, 117, 118 and 322. On J. S. Bach's interest in Keiser see C. P. E. Bach's comments in Schulze, Hans-Joachim, ed., Bach-Dokumente. Band III: Dokumente zum Nachwirken Johann Sebastian Bachs 1750–1800 (Kassel: Bärenreiter and Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1972)Google Scholar, document 803. On J. S. Bach's contact with the Brockes Passion see Melamed, ‘Johann Sebastian Bach and Barthold Heinrich Brockes’.

53 See Scheitler, Deutschsprachige Oratorienlibretti, 225, and Herold, Max, ‘Die Passions-Oratorien in der Karthäuser Kirche zu Nürnberg’, Siona 29 (1904), 2530Google Scholar and 45–50.

54 Schabalina, Tatjana, ‘“Texte zur Music” in Sankt Petersburg: Neue Quellen zur Leipziger Musikgeschichte sowie zur Kompositions- und Aufführungstätigkeit Johann Sebastian Bachs’, Bach-Jahrbuch 94 (2008), 3398CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 The repetition of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio's third part was evidently an afterthought, and is not reflected in the printed text; this part was probably intended to end with a chorale, like the others.