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Systematic Discussions of Bach’s Other Vocal Works
Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 - Cantata 2

Discussions in the Week of October 17, 2004

Neil Halliday wrote (November 7, 2004):
BWV 248: movement 21

This chorus "Honour be to God on high" (near the end of Part 2 of the XO) seems to present something of a performance dilemma.

It's marked 'vivace'.

In the Richter recording, it's so hard-driven as to be almost incomprehensible (the choir valiantly attempting, and almost succeeding, to keep up), except for the music at the words "and peace on earth", where Richter slows the tempo down considerably, allowing a yearning motive on the violins to present itself, with beautiful effect. I note that there is no indication in the score to change the tempo at this point.

Courtesy of the Zale site, I have been able to compare Harnoncourt, Gardiner and Herreweghe (what a site!!!).

Harnoncourt takes the opposite approach to Richter; he seems to ignore the 'vivace' designation, playing the whole chorus at about the same slow tempo that Richter adopts for the section "and peace on earth". This turns the whole movement into quite a weighty chorus, BUT, after hearing Gardiner and Herreweghe, Harnoncourt indeed sounds laboured, as if that 'vivace' marking does need to be obeyed.

But here's the dilemma: Gardiner and Herreweghe, while adopting what seems like an appropriately exciting tempo for this chorus (both being somewhat slower than Richter's frenetic pace), play straight through the "and peace on earth" section, at the same fast tempo as the rest of the chorus, almost entirely missing the special beauty of this section. (And Herreweghe's strings are especially weak at this point).

So, Richter and Harnoncourt seem to have the best tempo for the lovely writing in the "peace" section; while Gardiner and Herreweghe seem to create the excitement that appears to be appropriate for Bach's very different writing in the rest of the score.

Conclusion: A performance of this chorus appears to require the adoption of a slower (not 'vivace') tempo for the "and peace on earth" section.

Neil Halliday wrote (November 7, 2004):
"Conclusion: A performance of this chorus appears to require the adoption of a slower (not 'vivace') tempo for the "and peace on earth" section."
I meant to add: Richter is the only conductor to adopt this strategy, but he fails because his 'vivace' section is too hard-driven, destroying the shape of the music.

As things stand, I would probably choose the Harnoncourt from these 4 examples.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 7, 2004):
Vivace

[To Neil Halliday] Harnoncourt discusses his understanding of the word Vivace in his books, which see. That word is about character and emphasis, not speed! It's about beats and subdivided beats (i.e. the stressing of smaller note-values, so that a prevailing tempo determined by other factors seems faster without being faster). There's time for stronger, clearer articulation. Harnoncourt's not "ignoring" the Vivace marking; rather, he's taking it more prescriptively (and in a way differently from your understanding of the term).

As with the Vivace marking itself, the difference here is one of emphasis: emphasizing that Harnoncourt is well-informed and faithful to the markings, rather than ignorant or cavalier! Harnoncourt's attempt is to read the markings as they meant then to those people, not as they mean generically to modern people, having been trained differently.

In that recording of "Ehre sei Gott", listen especially to the manner in which the bass-line players articulate their line: that's where the "lively" of vivace is located, the character of the bass line, setting the mood and tempo for everybody else. At the "Friede auf Erden" section the character of that bass line changes (thank you, Bach!) for the contrast, and no change of tempo is really necessary.

Conclusion: Bach knew what he was doing in not writing any change of overall tempo there, and Harnoncourt knew what he was doing in bringing out character difference rather than tempo difference.

=====

A further example of vivace is Harnoncourt's recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto, with Gidon Kremer, Teldec 90696, from 1994. The finale, marked "Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell" is another example of a lively-but-not-fast movement, in this case a Polonaise. Indeed Kremer and Harnoncourt play it in a lively manner at a spaciously slow tempo, taking Schumann's additionally clarifying marking of metronome 63 at face value. They manage to hold it in the 58-66 range well, where other players zip through at 80+ changing the character and accentuation of the music
(making it more bravura and hectic, and in some passages scarcely playable).

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 7, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< In that recording of "Ehre sei Gott", listen especially to the manner in which the bass-line players articulate their line: that's where the "lively" of vivace is located, the character of the bass line, setting the mood and tempo for everybody else. At the "Friede auf Erden" section the character of that bass line changes (thank you, Bach!) for the contrast, and no change of tempo is really necessary. >
The problem of heavenly romps and earthly saunters occurs in the Gloria of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) where there are few performances that make the shift from the 3/8 "Gloria" to the "Et in Terra" convincing.

In a similar vein, the tempo changes in the "Confiteor" have always been interpreted in vastly different ways. Is there a 'ritard' lesding into "the middle "Et expecto .. Mortuorum" section. Where does the "resurrection" tempo begin? On the Soprano I entry on "Et expecto"? Or on the beginning of that bar? Or on the next bar when the tutti enters? After listening to all kinds of gear shifts in performance, I tend to the opinion that the changes are one of character -- like 'Vivace' -- and not tempo.

Neil Halliday wrote (November 8, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
<"Harnoncourt's not "ignoring" the Vivace marking; rather, he's taking it more prescriptively (and in a way differently from your understanding of the term)">.
Thanks! This certainly clears up the puzzle I was confronted with; and although I initially had some doubts about Harnoncourt's moderate tempo, mainly because of an attempt to make it fit my understanding of 'vivace', I'm pleased I came out in favour of Harnoncourt's version in the end :-).

Notice also how Harnoncourt articulates the pairs of detached notes (that alternate between the upper strings and woodwinds) by giving more emphasis and shape to the second of the two notes; this is much better than Herreweghe's always pointed staccato on all the notes.

BTW, I checked out Leonhardt's treatment of similar orchestral writing - in relation to alternating pairs of detached notes on upper strings and woodwinds - occurring in the ritornello of BWV 39, and have to say that this is the finest version I have heard. I agree precisely with Aryeh's comments (at the BCW) on this opening chorus; and in relation to the articulation of the detached pairs of notes, Leonhardt is midway between the extremely precise approach of Herreweghe and Rilling, and the somewhat indistinct overlapping of the notes that occurs with Richter. As well, Leonhardt has the slowest tempo, enabling the listener to savour this great music to the fullest.

I'm in the market for this one!

Jason Marmaras wrote (November 9, 2004):
Neil, you write:
>> Courtesy of the Zale site, I have been able to compare Harnoncourt, Gardiner and Herreweghe (what a site!!!). <<
Could you please designate the address of the site?

Thanks,

 

Discussions in the Week of May 17, 2009

Francis Browne wrote (May 17, 2009):
BWV 248/2: Intoduction

This week's cantata is the second part of the Christmas Oratorio. It was first performed on December 26th 1734 and as in the other cantatas in the oratorio Bach made extensive use of music written for secular cantatas.Doug Cowling gave a valuable introduction to the first cantata a few weeks ago and so it does not seem necessary to repeat much basic information Christmas oratorio itself.Doug's introduction is not yet on the website so I shall repeat the general information he gave here:

BACKGROUND LINKS:

Links to texts, translations, scores, recordings and earlier discussions:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV248.htm

PERFORMANCE HISTORY:

Christmas Season 1734

Saturday, Dec 25, 1734 ­ 1st Day of Christmas
Part 1: Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage
Sunday, Dec 26, 1734 ­ 2nd Day of Christmas (St. Stephen)
Part 2: Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend
Monday, Dec 27, 1734 ­ 3rd Day of Christmas
Part 3: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Friday, Jan 1, 1735 ­ Circumcision of Christ (New Yearıs Day)
Part 4: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
Sunday, Jan 3, 1735 ­ Sunday after the Circumcision
Part 5: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
Wednesday. Jan 6, 1735 ­ Epiphany
Part 6: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben

LIBRETTO & STRUCTURE:

The structure of the Christmas Oratorio has both an overall unity as an oratorio and a serial integrity as a sequence of independent cantatas. The whole work is linked by the biblical narrative which is sung by a tenor evangelist as in the Passions. The bulk of the text is drawn from the Lucan infancy narrative, switching to Matthew for the magi narrative. Bach is often selective, not setting all of the verses.

The poetic texts were probably written by Picander (Mvts. 1-5) Since the work is full of parodies from secular cantatas, scholars debate whether the oratorio project was already in mind when those cantatas were written. There are also several unifying features which reenforce the oratorio format: the overarching tonal sequence and orchestration, the use of the chorale ³Herzlich tut mich verlangen² as the first and last chorales in the work,
and the final ³farewell² recitative of the four soloists (as in SMP). At the same time, each part is a fully-contained cantata which stands alone.

Mvt. 1 (10): Sinfonia
Instead of the usual opening chorus this cantata begins with a Sinfonia. Schweitzer's explanation is worth quoting in full:

"No one who knows that the motive in strings and flutes is generally employed by Bach to symbolise angels, and who notices that the movement is performed by two contrasted groups, - the four oboes having a theme of their own and being quite independent of the strings, whether they alternate or join with them - can have any doubt as to the meaning of the sinfonia. It represents the angels and the shepherds making music together. Bach is once more writing music that depicts situation. The shepherds in the fields awake and blow their pipes; over them there hovers already the band of angels that is about to appear to them. Their music blends with that of the shepherds. Bach thus intends the movem­ent to be an introduction to the recitative "And there were shepherds in the same country, abiding in the field ...and lo, an angel of the Lord stood by them". If this be so, we need no longer take all the animation out of the sinfonia by playing it very softly and slowly; we can play t just as it is. The part for the flutes and violins must

come out energetically if it is to suggest the joyous music of the angels. The oboes should play piano throughout, and in a tempo just a shade slower. Where the strings alone are playing, or interrupt the oboes for a moment, a forte is required; the short parentheses in particular must give the effect of a shout of joy. Where the strings play with the oboes, the former should, as a rule, play piano, as if the angels were listening to the pipes of the shepherds. In this way we not only give an admirable and natural variety to the movement, but we make it immediately intelligible to every hearer.

Dürr points out :

The sinfonia is tripartite (A Al A2), with each section in turn subdivided into three according to the unvarying sequence strings (+ flutes)-oboes-tutti Of the three main sections, the middle one is more freely formed, and the third a varied da capo* of the first, so that we may see in this piece a forerunner of sonata form of a classical symphonic movement: exposition* (A), development (A'), and recapitulation (A2). To extend the analogy further, the string the occupies the position of first subject, the oboe theme that of second subject, the tutti that of closing group."

More briefly, this music is sheer delight.Listen to it.

Mvt. 2 (11): Recitative Tenor
The evangelist introduces the cantata with Luke 1:8-10

Mvt. 3 (12): Chorale
The ninth stanza of Johann Rist's 12 stanza poem Weihenachtgesang is sung by the choir. (The texts and translations of chorales used in this cantata will be available this week)

Mvt. 4 (13): Evangelist Tenor Soprano

Luke: 2 :10-12 The angel's words are sung by a soprano

Movement 4/5:
A bass recitative meditates on the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham and leads to an elaborately ornamented tenor aria with flute obbligato. It is adapted from a secular cantata BWV 214.

The two texts can be seen together at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV248-2-Eng3.htm

Movement 6 : Recitative Tenor
Luke 2: 12

Movement 7: Chorale
The eighth stanza of a poem by Paul Gerhardt is sung by the choir. Dürr points out that in this central movement the relatively low pitch(in the key of C major) acts as a symbol of God's abasement.

Movement 8 Bass recitiative
A meditative bass recitiative accompanied by pairs of oboi d'amore and oboi da caccia, with more elaborate continuo bass:the shepherds are told to go and sing a luulaby to the child born in a manger

Movement 9:
The lullaby is an aria for alto adapted from a secular cantata. For parallel texts see: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV248-2-Eng3.htm

It is one of the loveliest arias in all of Bach's work, and nothing I can say can add to its beauty.Many members of the list will not need this, but I did find the following analysis helpful in trying to understand how Bach achieved such beauty :

[This movement]is in the usual ternary or aria form, with the first section A divided into two parts, the first part starting in G major, and the second part starting in the dominant key, D major, at 69. The second section, B, starts at 113 in the relative minor and ends in that key. It is followed by a complete da capo of A.

The aria is really a duet between contralto and orchestra, and is based, as is usual, on a number of short figures which recur fre­quently in different combinations. They can be labelled thus: (a) bar 1; (b) 5 ; (c) 9, which has an affinity with a figure much used in the sinfonia (see the bass of bar 1 and the melody of bars 9, I I, 13, etc.) ; (d) 13 ; (e) 16; (f) 20. All of these are heard in the orchestra alone before the voice enters, and then they continue against soothing, long notes in the vocal part. Notice the frequent use of the flattened leading note, as for example in bars 1 and 3, and in the voice part, bar 32. It has a soothing effect, as has also the tonic pedal which is heard in bars 1-12 and again at 41-52.

At bar 40 the singer begins to use some of the figures that have been played by the orchestra, for example, (c) at 41, (a) at 45. She reaches the dominant key at 56 and the orchestra ends the first part of A with fourteen bars alone, based on (e) (inverted at 56 and in its original form at 58) and (f) (6o onwards).

The second half of A starts at 69 in the dominant key, and is based on the same figures. It returns to the tonic key at 73;.and the singer ends in that key at 96. A is rounded off by a return to the opening sixteen bars in the orchestra.

B starts at 113 in E minor. This section as a whole is quicker than A, so one is glad of the return to the serene first section at the da capo sign.

(Annie Warburton, Analyses of Musical Classics, Vol1)

Movements 10/11:
Luke 2:13-14 the evangelist introduces a largscale setting of the song of the Angels.Dürr gives a useful account:

The most significant movement in Part II is the large-scale chorus, whose form is derived from the motet. The texture is dominated by the choir,for the instruments have an accompanying function. The text is delivered three sections:

a) `Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe';
b) 'und Friede auf Erden'; and
c) 'und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen'.

Thereafter the entire complex is repeated in an abbreviated form. Each of the three sections is founded on a different musical principle, the structural framework being:

a) a passacaglia-like continuo bass, heard three times at various pitches;

b) a pedal point, likewise in continuo; and

c) an imitative theme delivered by the voice parts, mostly in pairs. Thus the compositional principles out of which this chorus was developed are ground bass, pedal, and canon.

Movement 12/13:
A bass recitative introduces a final chorale which uses themes from introductory Sinfonia.The text comes from the second stanza of Paul Gerhardt Wir singen dir ,Immanuel

Don't wait for Christmas !

I know the Christmas Oratorio far less well than the cantatas and passions.This is because of a misplaced sense of propriety - a feeling that I ought to listen to this music at Christmas, when inevitably year after year family circumstances would prevent me from hearing the work. To get to know this oratorio better was therefore one reason why I agreed to take over the introductions from Kim.

Sometimes virtue is rewarded.Preparing the introductions has meant that I finally found time to watch the John Eliot Gardiner DVD of performances at the Herderkirche, Weimar, 1999 at the beginning of his Bach Pilgrimage.For many years I have always preferred to listen intently rather than be distracted by visual images but I would recommend this strongly . The performances are excellent and the DVD captures the delight and dedication of conductor, soloists , choir and orchestra in making joyful music.Gardiner's earlier recording and that by Herreweghe are also excellent, and there is much to enjoy on the Naxos recording.It has beeen most enjoyable listening to these durung the past week.

Don't wait for Christmas -give your self a treat this week by listening to this cantata.

John Pike wrote (May 18, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
< Preparing the introductions has meant that I finally found time to watch the John Eliot Gardiner DVD of performances at the Herderkirche, Weimar, 1999 at the beginning of his Bach Pilgrimage.For many years I have always preferred to listen intently rather than be distracted by visual images but I would recommend this strongly . The performances are excellent and the DVD captures the delight and dedication of conductor, soloists, choir and orchestra in making joyful music.Gardiner's earlier recording and that by Herreweghe are also excellent, and there is much to enjoy on the Naxos recording.It has beeen most enjoyable listening to these durung the past week.
Don't wait for Christmas -give your self a treat this week by listening to this cantata. >
Many thanks, Francis, for this excellent introduction. I agree the Gardiner recording on DVD from Weimar is outstanding and well worth having on DVD as opposed to mere audio recording. Dietrich Henschel is particularly fine.

Jean Laaninen wrote (May 24, 2009):
[To John Pike] I just got my copy of this DVD performance a few days ago, and listened to the first disc as well as the documentary yesterday. What an excellent opportunity this is. As one who is not certain I'll ever travel to Bach's country in my life time, being able to experience the setting was outstanding. And, I did not wait until Christmas...good advice Francis.

 

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248: Details
Recordings: Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Systematic Discussions:
Cantata 1 | Cantata 2 | Cantata 3 | Cantata 4 | Cantata 5 | Cantata 6 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 248 - Collegium Aureum | BWV 248 - H. Christophers | BWV 248 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 248 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 248 - R. Jacobs | BWV 248 - N. McGegan | BWV 248 - R. Otto | BWV 248 - K. Richter | BWV 248 - H. Rilling | BWV 248 - P. Schreier | BWV 248 - M. Suzuki | BWV 248 - K. Thomas | BWV 248 - J.v. Veldhoven
Articles:
A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio [D. Satz]

Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127

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Last update: ŭJune 2, 2009 ŭ16:36:42