It is a number of years since The Hong Kong Bach Choir and Orchestra have presented a concert dedicated to a particular occasion, without a musical connection. Although we have commemorated the centenary of the death of Brahms with his Ein deutsches Requiem, and anniversaries of the Choir itself, there is always the danger that the occasion will be heard as a representation of the day rather than as the transcendental thing-in-itself. Although the pieces we present this evening share an association with the Christmas festival, each is chosen for its musical merits alone. Their sequence, however, may suggest a progression from the birth of Jesus, through his family's escape into exile, to his mature life-work, rounded off with a return to the jubilation of his birth.
Bach compiled the Christmas Oratorio in 1734, mostly from secular cantatas he had composed during the previous year (principally, BWV 213 and 214), to which new texts were put. Having written three complete cycles of cantatas for the ecclesiastical year during his first years in Leipzig (1723-25), Bach no longer felt an urgent need to create new material for regular Sunday services. By the 1730s, he was able to turn his attention to larger projects requiring longer gestation periods, such as the B-minor Mass and the Passions, in addition to the Christmas Oratorio.
The cantatas on which the music of the Oratorio was based were written for specific, singular occasions such as Electoral birthdays, and were unlikely to be repeated; Bach's rehabilitation of them in this work, which was performed again several times during his life time, was the action of an eminently practical and economical musician and craftsman.
Although Bach evidently considered the six parts of the Oratorio to be one large work, this does not mean that it was planned for performance on a single occasion. Christmas in Leipzig at that time was a season rather than a single day; the six parts, each equivalent to a cantata, were performed in church on the first three days of the holiday, on New Year's Day (the Feast of the Circumcision), on the first Sunday of the New Year (2 January in 1735) and on Epiphany (6 January), respectively. Each part is given a character appropriate to the day: for example, the Second Day of Christmas, associated with the announcement of Jesus' birth to the "shepherds abiding in the fields", is celebrated in Par II with a pastoral movement in 12/8 time, traditional for Christmas music since the early Baroque period (as in Corelli's Christmas Concerto).
The focus of Christmas Day itself is the joy and exhilaration inherent in Jesus' birth. Part I of the Christmas Oratorio, as a result, is framed by a magnificent opening chorus and final chorale, featuring trumpets and drums playing in the brilliant key of D major, and includes a solo aria with virtuoso trumpet accompaniment. The other prevailing colour of this part of the Oratorio is the oboe d'amore (the "oboe of love"), appropriate to texts that apply the metaphor of bride and bridegroom to the faithful multitudes' welcome of the baby Jesus.
Hector Berlioz's oratorio L'Enfance du Christ (The Infancy of Christ) had a lengthy and convoluted genesis. It began as an organ solo in 1850, music that evolved into what is now the central Shepherds' Farewell. After adapting the organ piece as a chorus, Berlioz surrounded this threefold farewell (wishing the baby Jesus a prosperous life, offering him refuge should he ever nee it, and praying for heavenly protection for him and his family) with an orchestral prelude, as if in an opera giving time for the chorus - the shepherds - to assemble on stage and gather around the manger, and with a narration telling of the Holy Family's stop at an oasis s they fled to Egypt from the murderous paranoia of King Herod. As they sleep, angels worship the child with an Alleluia.
This triptych was performed as a cantata entitled La fuite en Égypte (The Flight into Egypt). It was not until 1854 that Berlioz composed opening and closing sections, creating a larger three-part structure, that provides a frame for the Flight with, first, scenes of Herod coming to his pharaoh-like decision to kill all new-born babies, and, finally, a portrayal of the Holy Family's reception in exile.
Like others of Berlioz's large-scale works, L'Enfance du Christ is a hybrid, part drama, part static oratorio, part symphony. The original portion, La fuite en Égypte, however, is more purely a concert piece: the tenor soloist is a narrator, and there are no voices playing individual roles. Nevertheless, its structure is awkward, and it is easy to understand Berlioz's urge to add to it to make a full-length oratorio. Whether those additions amount to a more coherent structure is a question for another time.
The history and genesis of Veni Sancte Spitirus (Come Holy Spirit) is more straightforward. Approximately 12 minutes long, the work was commissioned by the Hong Kong Bach Choir and Orchestra for this very concert, the work's world première. Scored for narrator, chorus and orchestra, the chorale text is taken directly from the Latin Veni Sancte Spiritus of the liturgical Liber Usualis. Towards the end of the composition, the original Gregorian chant itself is paraphrased. The English narration follows the story of Christ (as told by the books of John and Matthew) through his teachings, struggles to be understood, and his solemn fate (Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" John 12-24). It is meant by the composer both as a tribute to and a reminder of one who above all others of his day possessed the wisdom and the courage to act always with religious conviction and in harmony with the Holy Spirit (however one may come to know it) despite the inevitable consequences.
Christopher Keyes (b. 1963) began his career as a pianist, winning many competitions, and later making his double-début in Carnegie hall as both soloist and guest composer with the New York Youth Symphony. In 1986 he continued his musical training at the Eastman School of Music, completing his doctorate in 1992. He has since toured the US and Asia playing concerts of 20th century music. As a composer, Mr. Keyes has received over a dozen awards for woks in almost every genre, including computer-generated compositions. His 1989 orchestral work Gaia Symphonia received the Eastman Szernovsky Award, an ASCAP Grant to Young Composers, and the Rudolf Nissim Award for best orchestral work written by a living ASCAP member. He has been featured in radio broadcasts from most major American cities, the Peoples' Republic of China, and Europe. He has taught composition at the Eastman School of Music, theory at the University of Rochester (NY), and most recently joined the faculty of the Hong Kong Baptist University. His solo CD can be heard on the Centaur label, CRC 2377.
Bach's Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens ("Let our mouths be filled with laughter") is a relatively unknown work, though it is hard to understand why. The answer may lie simply in the existence of other Christmas works by Bach that became known earlier, such as the Christmas Oratorio itself. It was composed for Christmas 1725, Bach's third year Leipzig, when his focus was still on amassing fresh material for weekly church services. (In his previous posts, in Weimar and Cöthen, it was more important for him to produce, first, organ works, and then, instrumental pieces, because the Reformed court at Cöthen did not permit elaborate music in church.)
Like the Christmas Oratorio, Cantata 110 employs parody, at least in part. Parody not in the modern sense of satire, but meaning the re-use of existing music set to new texts. In the case of the Oratorio, this was evidently done in the spirit of conservation, to make full use of topical music unlikely to be performed again in its original guise. In the Cantata, the economy was of another nature: working on an almost-unbelievable schedule of creating, weekly, an entirely new cantata, Bach looked to his files for music appropriate to the texts he was setting.
The magnificent opening chorus of the Cantata will be familiar to some listeners; it is a transcription of the Overture from Bach's orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, a work from the Cöthen period. As in Part I of the Christmas Oratorio, the brilliant key of D major is apt, and, like the Oratorio's first movement, this one also features trumpets and drums. The Cantata's fifth movement, a duet for soprano and tenor, is based on a movement from the original version of Bach's Magnificat, composed originally as a Christmas piece, but later revised for more general use, through the removal of interpolations pertaining specifically to the holiday.
- Jerome Hoberman and Christopher Keyes -