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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Christmas Oratorio

Dunedin Consort, John Butt (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: September 2015
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: October 2016
Total duration: 141 minutes 19 seconds

Cover artwork: The Adoration of the Magi (1632) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

Following the huge success of their 2015 recording of Bach's Magnificat & Christmas Cantata, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort turn to the wonderful Christmas Oratorio. This revelatory performance is a welcome addition to the group's already enviable catalogue.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The choral sound is pert, sinewy, unforced; the instrumental playing is punchy, broad and charismatic. Butt’s navigation of the sprawling six cantatas is tremendously enjoyable' (The Guardian)» More

'John Butt's Dunedin Consort does it again. This red hot interpretation of the six cantatas that make up Bach's Christmas Oratorio holds the attention from the word go. The opening chorus, Jauchzet frohlocket, hits you like a lightning bolt, Butt's infectious energy and exhilarating musicianship infusing Bach's joyous music with utterly compelling brilliance' (The Scotsman)

'[An] absolutely essential recording' (The Herald)» More

'Were it not too late, this would have been one of my Recordings of the Year. Whatever your reservations about the small-scale approach, set them aside for this release' (MusicWeb International)» More

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J S Bach’s cantatas for every Sunday and feast day of the church year were closely associated with the texts of the readings at the main morning service, and would provide a commentary and reflection on the scripture in question. To many, music had the potential to inspire a depth of emotional engagement as no other art could. Inspired by Luther’s supreme regard for both music and preaching, the cantata provided a focal point in the service that in turn led directly to the sermon. The six cantatas that make up the cycle that is the Christmas Oratorio are no exception to this pattern. Each cantata was first performed separately for the six successive celebrations during Christmas of 1734-5. The printed libretto produced so that the Leipzig congregations could read the text in advance shows that the cycle began with the performance of Part 1 in both main churches (the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche) on Christmas Day, with Part 2 performed twice on St Stephen’s day; Part 3 was performed on 27 December (St John’s Day) and Part 4 on 1 January in both churches to celebrate the feast of the Circumcision (coinciding with New Year); Part 5 was heard on the following day (the first Sunday after New Year) and Part 6 on 6 January, in both churches, for the feast of Epiphany.

While much of the Biblical text in ordinary cantatas is presented in short quotations or paraphrased in modern poetry, the Christmas Oratorio is so called by virtue of its presentation of the Gospel narrative of the Nativity (Luke 2: 1-21 and Matthew 2: 1-12), something that renders the work analogous to other familiar oratorios based directly on biblical stories. Daniel Melamed’s recent work suggests that Bach found the precedent for a cyclic work performed over several days in recent Passion cycles rather than in any piece designed specifically for Christmas. Although none of the Christmas festivals singly permitted a piece much longer than a standard cantata (and, in Leipzig, Passions could only be performed on Good Friday), the range of possible services at Christmas meant that an oratorio could be constructed as six discrete cantatas that together would cover the entire narrative. It may be then that Bach was largely responsible for adapting the multi-part Passion genre for Christmas, although there are obvious precedents for single-occasion settings of the Christmas narrative, such as those by Heinrich Schütz and the former Leipzig cantor Thomas Schelle.

If the biblical story of the Christmas Oratorio is compared with that of either of Bach’s two surviving Passions, it is immediately obvious that the Christmas narrative is far shorter and rather less detailed: there is none of the remarkable range and development of specific characters that is so striking in the Passion narratives. Given that the period 1734-5 contained six feasts between Christmas and Epiphany, Bach had to spread the Christmas narrative relatively thinly, so that for instance the story of Herod and the visit of the Magi is divided between Parts 5 and 6. This meant that he had to find ways to compensate for the relative lack of dramatic action (although he does make the most of the more spectacular events, such as the angels’ chorus ‘Ehre sei Gott’ in Part 2). One strategy was to create a different spiritual theme for each cantata, largely through the meditative arias and recitatives (which thus supplemented the biblical text). For example, Part 1 focuses on the spiritual marriage between the believer and the coming saviour, together with his ultimate kingship (thus developing the vivid image of the triumphant Jesus in Revelation); Part 4 concentrates on the implications of the naming of Jesus and on the many predicates and feelings that his name might carry for the believer; Part 6 concentrates on the inevitable defeat of those who dare oppose the truth brought by Jesus.

Another, complementary strategy was to give a scenic, almost pictorial character to each of the six parts. Part 1 obviously excels in its brilliant orchestration, notably in what is one of the most rousing openings to any of Bach’s works. Part 2, with its large complement of oboes and flutes, emphasizes the rural characteristics of the shepherds’ life. The opening Sinfonia provides a delightful and subtle tableau that seems to capture the very dimensions of the pastoral space, with a dialogue between strings and oboes projected across the performing area. This sonority returns for the closing chorale, thus giving the entire cantata an obvious pastoral framework. Against this cold but comforting scene the exhilaration of the angels’ song is given tremendous relief. Part 3, dealing with the shepherds’ resolve to go to Bethlehem and then to spread the word, emphasizes their humility, which is matched by the boundless love and compassion of Jesus. The second aria, with its solo violin obbligato, models the inner cultivation of faith, just as Mary’s inward contemplation contrasts with the shepherds’ outward proclamation. The opening (and closing) chorus provides a framing device that expresses our humble and incoherent expressions of praise (we are all, seemingly, like the shepherds), which are to be received benevolently by the ruler of heaven.

Part 4 cultivates the most elegant, courtly atmosphere: it opens and closes with suave, dance-like music, characteristically coloured by a pair of horns (those most courtly—and expensive—of instruments, associated as they are with the hunt). The emotional high points are provided by recitatives that combine chorale verses expressing the deepest spiritual affection with the direct address to Jesus in the added recitative text. The two arias provide contrasting vignettes. First is a delightful echo aria, where the answer to the question of security and comfort in Christ is seemingly seeded in the shape of the musical phrases, the godly and natural orders working in indissoluble harmony. The second aria, one of the most exhilarating quartets that Bach ever wrote (two violins, tenor and continuo), focuses on the strength and resolve offered by the meditation on Jesus’ name. Although the last two parts together cover the story of Herod and the Magi, they each cultivate different characteristics: Part 5 focuses on images of light, derived from the star that led the wise men, together with emotions of expectation and the lifting of the darkest spirits; Part 6 returns to something of the brilliance of the opening part, but now coupled with a defiant sense of victory over the forces of darkness. A remarkable contrast is provided by its soprano aria, an unusual courtly dance (containing some of the characteristics of the polonaise) that likens the spiritual ruler to an autocratic ruler who only has to wave his hand or speak one word to defeat any feeble human opposition.

Since Advent was a season of penitence, sumptuous church music was not performed then in the Leipzig churches, so Bach had several weeks to prepare six cantatas for Christmas. When he had first arrived in the city over ten years earlier, in 1723, he composed at a frenetic rate, producing one cantata every week for at least three years. However, by the 1730s he seems to have settled down to a much more leisurely rate of composition (though one that was still remarkable by modern standards). Moreover, he often reused earlier music—not necessarily to save time, but probably as part of a continuing project of perfecting his musical oeuvre. The Christmas Oratorio is largely adapted from four secular cantatas that Bach had composed in 1733-4. Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen, BWV213, was performed on 5 September 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the crown prince, Friedrich Christian of Saxony. The music for all the choruses (except the last) and arias was reused in the Christmas Oratorio: one piece in each of Parts 1-3 and three in Part 4. Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, BWV214, was written for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Electress of Saxony and now (owing to her husband’s recent election to the throne) Queen of Poland, on 7 December 1733. Like BWV213, this was performed by the Collegium Musicum, which Bach had been directing in regular coffee-house concerts since 1729. He reused four movements in the Christmas Oratorio, one each in Parts 2 and 3 and two in Part 1. The first movement of Part 1, with its opening timpani solo and trumpet fanfares, clearly fits the original text more precisely (‘Sound your drums, blow your trumpets’), although it is hardly inappropriate as a more general expression of Christian praise. Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV215, celebrated the first anniversary of the accession of Augustus II as Elector of Saxony and (soon thereafter) King of Poland, and was first performed on 5 October 1734 in the market place in Leipzig, in the presence of the royal family. Politically, this may well have marked the high point of Bach’s entire career, since he was soon to earn the prestigious royal title that he placed before all others on official documents. Cantata 215 provides a single movement for the Christmas Oratorio, the bass aria of Part 5. The fourth cantata parodied in the Christmas Oratorio is known only from incomplete instrumental parts (BWV248a); it provides much of the music for Part 6. It seems that Bach used virtually every movement of this piece, since the recycled instrumental parts show very little alteration (some have suggested that the missing earlier piece may—uniquely among the sources for this oratorio—have been another sacred work).

The recitatives, which propel much of the Christmas narrative, and the twelve chorales, which provide appropriate commentary from the standard Lutheran literature, obviously did not belong to the predominantly secular models; most were presumably composed or (in the case of the chorales) arranged specifically for the Christmas Oratorio. Only five movements remain unaccounted for in earlier works, and it is possible that even some of these may come from pieces subsequently lost. Certainly the topical pastoral Sinfonia to Part 2 seems to be freshly composed, as also is much of the expressive alto aria with violin obbligato from Part 3 (given that it is derived from an abandoned sketch for Cantata 215). Most uplifting among the newly composed movements is the opening chorus of Part 5, the dance-like ‘Ehre sei dir Gott’ (which thus contrasts with the similar opening line in Part 2, as expressed by the angels, ‘Ehre sei Gott’).

Lest it may be thought that Bach was lazy or even sacrilegious in converting music originally conceived for earthly royalty to sacred purposes, it should be remembered that royalty was still often accorded a God-given authority in Bach’s age: it was seen as being a major part of the hierarchical system of authority in which God functioned as the apex. In other words, Bach’s belief in the divine right of monarchs was probably of a piece with his belief and trust in God. Indeed, when many sought to challenge the absolute authority of the monarch in Bach’s environment, Bach very clearly sided with the royalist party, his faithfulness to the royal office even overriding the fact that the electors of Saxony in his time were Catholic and not Lutheran. The three surviving secular models for the Christmas Oratorio celebrate royal birthdays or newly acquired royal authority, so Bach doubtless saw a direct analogy with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Much of the text and music of the resulting oratorio points to the figure of Jesus as supremely ‘royal’.

Nevertheless, the contrast between the texts for which this music was written and some of the new texts can be quite striking. While the fact that the bass aria from Part 1, which celebrates Jesus as a mighty male sovereign, was originally addressed to a queen and thus perhaps complicates certain modern assumptions about ‘male’ music, there are other cases where the implied sense of the music is virtually reversed. The first aria, ‘Bereite dich, Zion’, is based on some of the sensual imagery of the Song of Songs, and views the coming of Jesus almost as that of a lover. The original from Cantata 213, however, expressed Hercules’ defiance of worldly pleasure and is therefore profoundly anti-sensual. Moreover, the alto aria of Part 2, that archetypal lullaby for the infant Jesus, was originally a seduction aria sung by Pleasure in an attempt to encourage the young Hercules to leave Virtue and follow the path of worldly desire, shedding all inhibitions. These reversals may point to the fact that Bach’s listeners in the 1730s found meaning through the context and the counterpoint of music and text rather than through any ‘fixed’ musical meaning. It may also be that Bach developed arias of this kind as self-contained in their internal cohesion and gestural content. Perhaps the development of a more independent musical world meant that such music was more capable of lending authority, emotional content and complexity to a broad range of texts, precisely because it was not so tightly bound to any one of them.

The theologian Robin Leaver notes that Bach links the Christmas celebration with Passion music and theology in the last three parts. First, in Part 4, the bass recitatives (which frame the central soprano aria) are meditations on the name of Jesus, combined with the Passiontide chorale ‘Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben’. Therefore they specifically associate the first shedding of the blood of Christ (his circumcision) with that of the crucifixion. In Part 5 the Magi ask ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews?’ to music that is strongly reminiscent of some of the turba choruses in Bach’s Passions (it has been suggested that this chorus may derive from the lost Mark Passion, BWV247). The finale of Part 6 is a sumptuous setting of the melody ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’, the so-called Passion Chorale; furthermore, that melody has already been heard, as the first chorale of Part 1. Leaver suggests that the fact that this is both the first and the last chorale of the entire cycle could be taken to emphasize the very purpose of Christmas as celebrating the Incarnation, which would eventually lead to crucifixion, atonement and resurrection. Other scholars, however, point out that the melody was regularly used outside the Passion context and that it is only our own familiarity with the Matthew Passion (which in general far surpasses that of Bach’s own congregation in the mid-1730s) that makes the Passiontide connection appear particularly significant. Ultimately though, the fact that Bach most likely found his inspiration for the structure of the work in cyclic Passion settings means that he is unlikely to have ignored the implications of the Passion narrative at Christmas.

When the music of the Christmas Oratorio is compared with that of the earlier narrative oratorios (principally the great Passion settings) it often seems to present a considerably lighter style. Obviously, much of this relates to the difference in subject matter, but it also reflects the new stylistic direction that Bach had embarked upon in the early 1730s. He seems to have made a conscious effort to integrate elements from the more modern galant idioms, characterized by graceful, strongly phrased melodies (as for instance in the alto lullaby from Part 2 and the duet for soprano and bass from Part 3), and lighter, folk-inspired idioms (particularly in Part 2). Also notable is the fact that the trumpet writing is of uncommon virtuosity. It was undoubtedly inspired by the renowned skills of the Leipzig city trumpeter Gottfried Reiche, who in the context of the homage music for the Saxon royal family would have been an important musical ambassador for the city. Unfortunately, Reiche's efforts in playing for the royal celebrations on 5 October 1734 (when BWV215 was performed), together with the effects of torch smoke, proved catastrophic for his health, and he died the following day. The return of the trumpet movements from the secular cantatas in the guise of the Christmas Oratorio only a few months later must thus have struck a particularly melancholy note in Leipzig.

John Butt © 2016

The musical text of the Christmas Oratorio is very clearly documented in the surviving score and original performance parts. The only slight complication is that Bach’s original parts, together with several more copies, were used by the great Bach revivalist Carl Friedrich Zelter for his Berlin Singakademie in the early nineteenth century, but Zelter’s markings (such as his transposition of the very first choral entry up an octave) are very clearly identified.

It seems that Bach was careful not to over-stretch the complement of performers. He has the full team of trumpets and timpani only in Parts 1, 3 and 6 (and only uses flutes together with this team in Part 1, which is also the only cantata to contain a bassoon part); he confines the full four-part oboe choir to Part 2 and horns to Part 4; while Part 5 uses the smallest range of instruments, just strings and oboes. By Bach’s own testimony, in a famous document of 1730, singers and instrumentalists had to share roles from week to week, and his references for pupils and apprentices point to a remarkable versatility on the part of his young pupils and students, together with the professional Stadtpfeiffer. For each of the six sections there are only four vocal parts (plus the extra voice of the echo soprano in Part 4), with no indications of vocal doubling. Recent work by Michael Maul has shown definitively that Bach’s first choir (the ‘Cantorey’) for the Leipzig churches was set at eight singers by statutes that stretched back at least a century (it is also matched in statutes for many similar establishments), though consistency in this matter was already severely eroded by Bach’s time. As Bach wrote in 1730, the eight-part group was absolutely essential for the performance of double-choir motets; but a complement of more singers would help mitigate the effects of sickness and the co-option of singers to instrumental duties. In short, then, Bach could have performed the Christmas Oratorio with eight singers as his chorus throughout, even though the existing parts (which seem complete in themselves) contain no indication of doubling. Given the secular origins of much of the music (originally performed by Bach’s student-led Collegium Musicum), it seems very likely that Bach would have devoted particular attention to the single-voice texture of a great part of the choral writing (there are several places where a single voice is profiled for a while, such as in the opening chorus of Part 3, in which each successive voice entry handles a different part of the text). On the other hand, Christmastide seems to be the time of year when Bach often did add ripienists to the texture (see, for instance, Cantatas 63 and 110). The adding of ripieno parts to sections of the Christmas Oratorio would therefore certainly not have sounded inappropriate in Bach’s Leipzig, even if there is no evidence for it in the parts.

The solution I devised for this recording, then, is one that is based on a range of historical possibilities; it is intended to provide both consistency and variety, but without necessarily corresponding directly with what Bach actually did. First, I have assumed a corpus of eight ‘expert’ singers who shared out the unusually protracted task of singing six cantatas over the short period between Christmas and Epiphany. Therefore, one group of four sings three of the parts (Parts 1, 3 and 6) and the other group the remainder (Parts 2, 4 and 5). For the three parts with trumpets (Parts 1, 3 and 6) I have added ripienists to the choruses and chorales (sometimes differentiating between tutti and solo when the texture seems to call for it, just as Bach seems to have done when he provided ripieno parts). While these four ripienists may have been chosen from the ‘redundant’ quartet, I have assumed that such singers were more likely to have been ‘apprentices’ working towards membership of the principal choir (and it is likely that some of members of each ‘principal’ quartet were playing instruments in at least some of the services). I have therefore used a different set of singers for the ripienists in Parts 1, 3 and 6.

The aim then is to try and present the range of choral scoring that Bach seems to have used, from doubled vocal lines through to single lines for parts 2, 4 and 5. This approach is definitely not meant to provide the model for all possible performances of this work, but rather to realize something of the implications of Bach’s performing conditions and decisions, in which the vocal complement is perhaps closer to operatic, multi-solo practice than to a modern, blended ‘choir’.

John Butt © 2016

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