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Friday, December 1, 2017

Oratorios and Weihnachts-Oratorium (057)

Welcome back from Thanksgiving! It's hard to believe it, but Christmas is just around the corner again! And what would Christmas be without a little bit of Bach in it?

So for today, I'll talk about Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium. There's at least two groups in our area performing pieces of this work this weekend. There's the Redmond Chorale, conducted by my friend Laurie Betts Hughes. They're doing the opening chorus number from the first part.

There's also the Kirkland Choral Society, which is performing ALL of the Weihnachts-Oratorium over the course of a few years. Last year, they did Part I, and I got to be the bass soloist for it. I made a Singerreise Episode about it: Episode 16, where I covered the aria "Großer Herr, o starker König".

I'll be joining the Kirkland Choral Society again this year to do Parts II and III. There's no big arias this time around, so I'll just be doing a few of the recitatives.

Since there's no aria, I didn't sing in this Episode. So if you want to hear some Christmastime Bach, check out Episode 16 or come to these concerts! Both are this weekend, on Saturday night, December 2nd, and on Sunday afternoon, December 3rd.

There's literally dozens of choral concerts this weekend, so make sure to get out there and support your local singers. Local choir concerts are one of the best ways I know to get into the holiday spirit.

Here, I want to talk about oratorios and about the Weihnachts-Oratorium. I'm not a Bach expert, though, so this is just a bird's eye view of things.

Let's start with oratorios. An oratorio is a large piece of music, usually involving a choir, soloists, and an orchestra. It's like an opera, because an oratorio follows a storyline. Unlike operas, oratorios are performed in a concert setting, without scenery or props.

Also, unlike most operas, oratorios are usually considered "sacred" music instead of "secular." This means they are often retelling Biblical stories. They were originally performed in churches, even in a church service. Today, they can be performed anywhere.

The narrative thread is what separates an oratorio from other major concert works. An example of a non-oratorio concert piece might be a "mass," like Mozart's Requiem or Bach's B-minor Mass. A mass is a type of church service, usually following a standard formula and text. A composer's mass would be a rewrite of the service in musical form. But a mass doesn't really a story element.

Requiring an oratorio to have a narrative thread can be a sticking point. One of the most famous pieces of all time is Handel's Messiah. It is probably the most-performed piece in existence. And Messiah is often seen as the perfect example of an oratorio.

The trouble is, while Messiah does have a certain flow of ideas from one song to the next, it doesn't really have a narrative to it. Because of that, a lot of people say that Messiah isn't an oratorio. It sure does look and sound like one, though.

Oratorios look a lot like operas because, well, operas are a ton of fun. And in Italy, right in the height of opera's popularity, the Catholic Church decided to ban operas during the season of Lent (they were too much fun, apparently). So composers decided to write operas that could be performed in a church, but without the audacious, "sinful" costumes.

Besides looking a little different without costumes, the music in oratorios also tends to sound different than in operas. For example, there tends to be a lot more choral music in oratorios, and fewer solos.

The chorus can become a character in the story - such as an angry crowd. Just as often, though, they are outside the action and commenting as spectators to what is going on in the story. You very rarely see that in opera, since the audience can see the action for themselves.

Opera and oratorios do share recitatives in common. These are semi-spoken, semi-sung parts between "songs" that help move the story along. Most American music theater works this way too, using spoken dialogue between numbers. For oratorios, however, recitatives are more of a descriptive narrative then a dialogue between characters.

And then we have Bach's oratorios. Bach has his own special subset of oratorio. Depending on how you count them, he wrote about five major ones.

Two of them are known as "Passions," a retelling of the last few days of Jesus' life, ending with his death. Bach did one based on the account from the book of Matthew, known as the St. Matthew Passion, and one based on the account from the book of John, called (predictably) the St. John Passion.

The other three works are for Christmas, Easter, and the Ascension (not his most popular one). These, Bach explicitly titled as "oratorios," so we know that, at least in his mind, that's what they were.

As oratorios, though, they are on the curious side. Bach had another compositional structure that he would use all the time called a cantata. These are works 25 minutes long, with some choruses, a couple solos or maybe a duet, and some hymns mixed in. Having hymns meant that the congregation had a chance to sing along - something that was very important to Protestants at that time.

Bach wrote dozens and dozens of cantatas. Some were for special church services, others for ordinary church services. Some weren't meant for church at all. Some were composed to extol the greatness a local monarch, and others were just because he wanted to, like the much-beloved Coffee Cantata.

To create his oratorios, Bach just put a bunch of cantatas together. The Weihnachts-Oratorium, or the Christmas Oratorio, contains six cantatas. Much of the music in it was recycled, too, composed for other cantatas but repurposed with new words swapped in.

When taken together, the six cantatas do tell a story, the story of Christmas. That's the narrative thread that is needed to consider this an oratorio. In this case, though, the cantatas were not composed to be heard in a single sitting.

Each of the six parts is designated to be performed on a specific day in the Christmas season. That's why it's called "Weihnachts-Oratorium." Literally the German word for Christmas, Weihnachten, translates (roughly) to "Holy Nights," plural. Christmas is not just one day, but an entire season.

And it may not be the season you're thinking of. That period leading up to Christmas, between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, is actually called Advent, meaning the Coming.

The real Christmas season starts with Christmas Day. It is twelve days long (thus the 12 Days of Christmas Carol). It ends with Epiphany, a day where the visitation of the Wise Men is commemorated.

Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium was scheduled to be performed on six of the twelve days, each time with a new cantata telling its part of the Christmas story:
Part I: for The First Day of Christmas, recounting Jesus' birth
Part II: for The Second Day of Christmas, recounting the announcement of the birth to shepherds
Part III: for The Third Day of Christmas, recounting the adoration of said shepherds at Jesus' manger-cradle
Part IV: for New Years Day, recounting the naming of Jesus
Part V: for The First Sunday in the New Year, recounting the travel of the Magi (wise men) from the east
Part VI: for The Feast of Epiphany, recounting the adoration of said Magi
Despite its fragmented nature, Bach thought of his oratorio as one continuous work that revealed itself one cantata at a time. Nowadays, the piece is most often done in a single concert, with all the cantatas performed back to back. When done that way, it's a pretty long song, about three hours long if you don't cut anything out.

To resolve this, Kirkland Choral Society has chosen to perform the work over a handful of years. Each year they'll do another part or two, as part of their annual Christmas concert.

Last year was Part I, all about the Birth of Jesus. This year they are combining Part II and III (with a couple of judicious cuts) to cover everything relating to the shepherds. And next year, well, I hope they hire me again so I can tell you more about it then.

Joining me as a soloist this weekend is John Marzano, a tenor based in the Seattle area. There's often two roles for a tenor soloist in Bach's oratorios and Passions. Like the bass, alto, and soprano, tenor soloists often sing solos - called "arias" in oratorio and opera - that step back and reflect upon what is happening in the story.

Another tenor role, however, is the principle narrator. In the Passions, this role is called the "Evangelist," because it is as if St. Matthew or St. John himself were reading passages from his own book.

Sometimes this even means that two tenor soloists are used. For our concert, though, John and I are only doing the recitatives, the narrative parts. The KCS choir and the Philharmonia Northwest are doing most of the heavy lifting for this one.

Come and check out the concert! There's only two performances, and tickets do tend to sell out, so make sure to reserve your spot! To get tickets for the concert, head to kirklandchoralsociety.org or brownpapertickets.com, $20 for students and seniors and $25 for adults. It's just around the corner, December 2nd and 3rd.

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