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December 27, 2015

Bach Cantatas (61): Second day of Christmas

On this day Leipzig celebrated Christmas and St. Stephen's Day in alternating years, with different readings. St. Stephen has nothing to do with the Christmas story, he was a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings and who was according to the Acts stoned to death (somewhere in or around the year 34), making him the first martyr of the church. St. Stephen's Day is a public holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran.

Thus the second day of Christmas has two different readings: the shepherds coming to Bethlehem from the Christmas story and Jesus' description of the persecution of the prophets by Jerusalem, seen in the light of the story of the stoning of St. Stephen from the Acts. Of the four Bach cantatas for this day, only the second part of the Christmas Oratorio deals exclusively with the Christmas story (about the shepherds), all of the other cantatas contain elements of the persecution trauma inherent in the St. Stephen story.

Readings for Second Day of Christmas and St. Stephen's Day:
Titus 3:4–7, God's mercy appeared in Christ
Luke 2:15–20, The shepherds at the manger
(St. Stephen's Day)
Acts 6:8–15 and 7:55–60, Martyrdom of Stephen
Matthew 23:35–39, Jerusalem killing her prophets


  • Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, BWV 40, 26 December 1723
    Chorus: Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes
    Recitative (tenor): Das Wort ward Fleisch
    Chorale: Die Sünd macht Leid
    Aria (bass): Höllische Schlange, wird dir nicht bange?
    Recitative (alto): Die Schlange, so im Paradies
    Chorale: Schüttle deinen Kopf und sprich
    Aria (tenor): Christenkinder, freuet euch!
    Chorale: Jesu, nimm dich deiner Glieder

    ("For this the Son of God appeared") This cantata contains in only fifteen minutes three beautiful chorale settings, two attractive arias, two recitatives and an upbeat opening chorus. The text combines the Christmas story with the Stoning of St. Stephan, by introducing Jesus as coming down to earth to destroy the works of the devil. The cantata therefore finds Bach in a militaristic mood and is full of battle cries. That starts with the opening music, which with its blaring horns is a great example of Bachian military music. The tenor recitative exhorts the faithful to contemplate the implications of the incarnation in the expression "the Word became flesh." The bass aria with highly rhythmic accompaniment develops the theme of Satan's destruction in the form of an operatic "rage aria," addressing the evil one as a snake. The "twisting whiplashes of the violins" are thought to portray the "serpent's tail." After the alto recitative (reminding us that this is the same serpent that seduced Adam and Eve), the tenor interestingly compares Jesus to a hen protecting her chicks. The horns and oboes here are not used for military music, but for a joyful tune, playing a fine fanfare. The internal chorales which separate these arias are folksy in style and content. In contrast, the final chorale "Freuet euch ihr Christen alle" forms a surprisingly restrained closure after the bravura of the tenor aria.  

  • Christum wir sollen loben schon, BWV 121, 26 December 1724
    Chorus: Christum wir sollen loben schon
    Aria (tenor): O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur
    Recitative (alto): Der Gnade unermesslich's Wesen
    Aria (bass): Johannis freudenvolles Springen
    Recitative (soprano): Doch wie erblickt es dich in deiner Krippe
    Chorale: Lob, Ehr und Dank sei dir gesagt

    ("We should already be praising Christ") Chorale cantata based on the Luther chorale motet "Christum wir sollen loben schon” (itself derived from the famous 5th c. Latin hymn A solis ortus cardine), treated in an archaic manner in the opening chorale fantasia. The text dwells on the wonder of the incarnation, with only a vague relationship to the readings of the day. The first tenor aria. accompanied by a delightful obbligato oboe d'amore, develops the theme. It has been called "off-kilter," expressing confusion and wonder. After a recitative, the bass aria with string accompaniment celebrates Jesus' coming. Text and music apparently reflect "John the Baptist's jumping in his mother's womb during the Visitation of Mary." This is followed by an arioso recitative, with an almost impossible extended range for a boy soprano. The work closes with a beautiful chorale.

  • Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57, 26 December 1725
    Aria (bass): Selig ist der Mann
    Recitative (soprano): Ach! dieser süße Trost
    Aria (soprano): Ich wünschte mir den Tod, den Tod
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Ich reiche dir die Hand
    Aria (bass): Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen
    Recitative (soprano, bass): In meinem Schoß liegt Ruh und Leben
    Aria (soprano): Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben
    Chorale: Richte dich, Liebste, nach meinem Gefallen und gläube

    ("Blessed is the man") This cantata has nothing of the Christmas spirit but is a rather severe dialogue between Christ (bass) and the Soul (soprano) inspired by the story of the Stoning of St Stephen. As in operas of the period, the discourse is carried forward in recitative while the arias expand on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. The first bass aria is dominated by long vocal phrases. In the first soprano aria the longing for death is expressed by an upwards line followed by a wide interval down. Here the Soul sings of the torments to be endured without Christ's love. The central recitative duet provides a pivot point after which the music becomes more upbeat. The third aria shows Jesus as the victor by fanfare-like broken triads, calling on the Soul to cease its weeping. In the last aria the florid line of the solo violin can be interpreted as "the passionate movement of the Soul into the arms of Jesus." The aria ends on the question "was schenkest du mir?" which is answered by the final four-part chorale on the tune of "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren."

  • Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend, 26 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part II) BWV 248/2
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend"
    Chorale "Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Angel, soprano) "Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen"
    Recitative (bass) "Was Gott dem Abraham verheißen"
    Aria (tenor) "Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und das habt zum Zeichen"
    Chorale "Schaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall"
    Recitative (bass) "So geht denn hin!"
    Aria (alto) "Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh'"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und also bald war da bei dem Engel"
    Chorus "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe"
    Recitative (bass) "So recht, ihr Engel, jauchzt und singet"
    Chorale "Wir singen dir in deinem Heer"

    ("And there were shepherds in the same country") The second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio cycle opens with a beautiful pastoral sinfonia. The evangelist relates the story of the shepherds which is followed by the lovely chorale "Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht." The Evangelist then describes the infant Jesus in the manger and tells the shepherds to have no fear. The bass states that this is the fulfillment of the old testament promise. In a gentle aria the tenor urges the shepherds to seek the child. This urging is repeated by the evangelist, after which follows the chorale tune "Vom Himmel hoch." Next comes a gorgeous berceuse for alto, flute, and strings, the center piece of this cantata. Parodied from BWV 213/3, it is transformed into a beautiful and gentle lullaby to the child in the manger. After the evangelist has filled in one more biblical text, the chorus sings the energetic "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe," an original composition for this cantata. The work ends with a straightforward setting of the final chorale, accompanied by motives from the opening sinfonia.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas