For me nothing is more majestic, or better conveys the sheer joy of Christmas, than the opening chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. And it sounds especially well on a new Hyperion offering conducted by the hugely talented Stephen Layton, with the drums and brass of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment hammering out one of Bach’s greatest celebratory melodies.
And then the light, bright tones of The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge enter, calling upon us all to ‘Rejoice, exult… Praise what the Most High this day has done’. It’s impossible to resist.
Beyond doubt, one of music’s most spine-tingling moments. And even more extraordinary when you think that this great inspiration flowed from the pen of a composer who wasn’t a believer, but just a professional musician doing his job. And what’s more, he produced an enormous amount of similarly inspired stuff without, during his lifetime, receiving much in the way of recognition. Yes, he held important jobs, not least as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where you can still sit, as I have done, and look at Bach’s grave in the middle of the main aisle. It was here that the Christmas Oratorio—a half dozen motets for each of the significant days of Christmas—was composed in 1734. But did his music set Europe alight the way that, say, his near contemporary Handel’s did? Absolutely not. He had a purely regional reputation, with the realisation that he was perhaps the greatest of all composers lying many decades in the future.