The Christmas Oratorio

Title: The Christmas Oratorio

Author: Johann Sebastian Bach

Publication Date: 1734

Genre: Musical Composition/Religious Choral Work

Page Length: N/A


The Christmas Oratorio, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1734, is a magnificent choral work comprising six parts. Each part centers around a specific liturgical occasion during the Christmas season. Written in German, this oratorio brilliantly narrates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, making it a seminal piece in the field of sacred music. Through its profound musical composition and thematic portrayal, The Christmas Oratorio encapsulates the joy, awe, and contemplation surrounding the birth of Christ.

Part I: The Birth of Jesus
The first part depicts the birth of Jesus, beginning with a prelude expressing anticipation. The angel’s proclamation to the shepherds and their journey to Bethlehem unfold, emphasizing the humble and miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. The choral pieces, along with solo recitatives and arias, beautifully illustrate the Adoration of the Christ Child.

Part II: The Annunciation to the Shepherds
Part II expands upon the shepherds’ experience, as the angel announces the birth of Christ. The shepherds’ hastened visit to see the newborn Savior is vividly conveyed through choral movements and expressive solos. Bach skillfully incorporates the shepherds’ wonder and the message of redemption in this section.

Part III: The Adoration of the Shepherds
Building upon the joyful response of the shepherds, Part III portrays their adoration of the newborn Jesus. The choral chorales bespeak universal gratitude for the arrival of the Savior. The integration of vocal and instrumental elements in this part highlights the reverential awe that the shepherds experience in the presence of Jesus.

Part IV: The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
Part IV delves into the Jewish customs surrounding the circumcision of Jesus. This section features a bass soloist singing Simeon’s Song of Praise, often attributed to the well-known “Nunc Dimittis.” Bach’s intricate counterpoint composition not only conveys the fulfillment of ancient prophecies but also the dedication of the newborn child to his divine mission.

Part V: The Journey of the Magi
Part V revolves around the arrival of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men, based on the biblical account. The music captures their travels, their encounter with King Herod, and their unwavering quest to find and worship the newborn King. The interplay between choruses and arias brings forth a sense of expectation, as reflected in both the Magi’s determination and King Herod’s malevolence.

Part VI: The Epiphany
The final part, Part VI, celebrates the Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the world. The jubilant and majestic chorales underscore the significance of this climactic moment in the oratorio. The integration of the entire choir, soloists, and orchestra signifies the universal proclamation of Jesus’ divinity.

The Christmas Oratorio, while a musical composition, draws inspiration from the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus. Consequently, the most prominent characters include Jesus Christ, Mary, the shepherds, the Three Wise Men (Magi), and King Herod. Bach’s musical genius gives life to these characters through his masterful compositions.

1. The Birth of Jesus: The primary theme of The Christmas Oratorio is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, epitomizing the joy and hope brought by His coming into the world.

2. Redemption and Salvation: The oratorio emphasizes the profound belief in the redemptive power of Jesus’ birth, offering solace and hope amidst human struggles and imperfections.

3. God’s Plan and Prophecy: It highlights the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and the meticulous orchestration of divine plans as evidenced by Jesus’ birth.

4. Worship and Adoration: The oratorio portrays the reverence and adoration directed towards Jesus by the shepherds, the Magi, and all those who encounter the newborn Savior.

5. Jubilation and Universal Proclamation: Through exuberant chorales and expressive arias, the oratorio captures the overarching joy surrounding the birth of Jesus and the proclamation of His divinity to the world.

The Christmas Oratorio stands as a landmark musical composition that eloquently narrates the biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ. Bach’s use of polyphonic techniques, expressive solos, and intricate choral movements has established this composition as an emblematic masterpiece of sacred music. It continues to be cherished and performed by countless musicians and choral groups worldwide, capturing the essence of Christmas and inspiring an enduring sense of wonder and reverence for the nativity story.