Bach’s Christmastide Reminder

Bach’s Christmastide Reminder January 4, 2013

With the Feast of the Epiphany just around the corner, I complete my whirlwind, inexhaustive journey through the world of Foreshadowy Christmas Music with my favorite example: Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen, the finale of J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”

Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen
An eurer Feinde Schar,
Denn Christus hat zerbrochen,
Was euch zuwider war.
Tod, Teufel, Sünd und Hölle
Sind ganz und gar geschwächt;
Bei Gott hat seine Stelle
Das menschliche Geschlecht.

Now are ye well avengéd
Upon your hostile host,
For Christ hath fully broken
All that which you opposed.
Death, devil, hell and error
To nothing are reduced;
With God hath now its shelter
The mortal race of man.

First, the piece in question:

Next, a series of chorales from Bach’s more famous Matthäus-Passion:

Yep. That’s right. Bach just slapped Hassler’s “Passion Chorale” down smack-dab in the middle of his musical celebration of the Epiphany. Crazy German.

The piece’s bright, brassy setting — the clip above features the legendary Maurice André on the trumpet — is as unfetteredly joyful as anything Bach ever wrote. But the chorale’s somber musical tradition lends the finale a bit of a double meaning, as well: The time for celebration is at hand, but these are only the first steps on a road that must visit the lowest of all lows before reaching its final, victorious destination.

Wonderful stuff.

(The entire oratorio can be found here, performed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists, along with the Monteverdi Choir. I’m planning to leave it on repeat for the rest of the day.)

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