Welcome to the official Singerreise webpage! Join in the discussion as we talk about the life of an opera singer, and as we learn about Schubert's masterpiece Winterreise.

Entertain, Educate, Encourage

Friday, December 23, 2016

Großer Herr, o starker König (016)

Merry Christmas!

First a quick message - If you haven't heard, Singerreise is now on Patreon. You can check out this video to find out more about Patreon. I hope that you'll take a few minutes to watch at it, and that you'll consider financially supporting this Singerreise project. And if you have any questions about how Patreon works, send me a message!

So - the life of a singer is filled with more than just Winterreise.
While I'm learning Winterreise, I'm also rehearsing La Traviata for Seattle Opera, singing Christmas concerts, and working at my church. One of the things that I am getting to do this season is sing some Bach (no Messiahs this year!), once for a Christmas concert and again for church directly after the holiday: Großer Herr, from the Weihnachts-Oratorium, the "Christmas Oratorio," by Johann Sebastian Bach.  It's Christmas - so we'll take a quick break from Winterreise. You can consider this as a Christmas present from Sarah and me to you!

First up - the title Großer Herr. For those who don't do much German, that funny-looking B-thing is called an "eszett" (Alt-225 from my handy chart!). It functions exactly the same as a double-S. They generally don't bother with it in modern German. In Winterreise number 7, "Auf dem Flusse" I made an executive decision that in the title of the piece I would use two s's, but when I was talking about the word in the text of the piece, I would use the ß. That's mostly an arbitrary decision, though.

Großer Herr is distinctly not German Lieder. Winterreise is. Even though the word Lieder simply means songs, we (at least those of us in America) only use Lieder to describe "art song." Usually, art song involves a solo singer and some accompaniment, most often just a piano. They are often short, and they either stand alone by themselves or are grouped with other songs in a set or a cycle for a single performer to perform.

Instead, this is a German "aria." The main way to determine this is by where the piece comes from. Arias typically come from an opera or an oratorio. They are selections from a larger work, usually with a full orchestra as accompaniment. Our orchestra today, of course, is Sarah Silvia - but you can imagine there being strings and trumpets and timpani.

It's called the Christmas Oratorio, but it's really a collection of cantatas. Cantatas are like church services and oratorios in miniature, and Bach wrote a ton of them. For this "oratorio," there's a full six cantatas, with scripture readings, chorales, fancy choir numbers, solos, duets, and the like, all mixed together. The intention was that the cantatas would be performed on different days following Christmas -- you knew there were 12 days of Christmas, right? Not just one?

Großer Herr is in the very first cantata, meant to be sung on the First Day of Christmas. Most of the soloists in Bach cantatas are more like commentators than actual characters. The bass soloist comments on how ironic it is that such a mighty Lord, the creator and sustainer of the whole world, would come down and sleep in a hard crib. Overall, it's pretty joyful and regal - with trumpets and drums playing out a fanfares to our King to and Savior.

I could also talk about da capo arias, about ornamentation, about whether the second section should be fast or slow, and more about the accompaniment, but maybe we'll do that another time. One last reminder, though - please consider supporting Singerreise through Patreon. Help make sure Singerreise continues long into the next year, and beyond!

Let me know if you want to know more than I was able to fit in here! And enjoy this presentation of Großer Herr. Merry Christmas!


  1. Another enjoyable blog entry -- thanks!

    ß is an interesting letter with an interesting history, and it is still the source of plenty of discussion and debate among German language speakers:


    Its origin is as a ligature of s and z (which is what "Eszett" means in German: "s-z") and as a ligature of two different forms of s.

    ß has also been used in English and other languages, specifically in italic fonts. Scroll down to "Rules for long s in early printed books" at this site, for example:


    However, in this context it was used as a ligature (for ss) in particular fonts rather than as a letter.

  2. Thanks for the follow-up! I can't get everything into these videos -- they are quite long enough already! -- so this is exactly the sort of info I like to see in the comments. :)