With Christmas right around the corner, this week’s music is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which tells the story of the birth of Jesus as described in Luke 2:1-21 and Matthew 2:1-12. As one of the most famous church musicians in Europe, Bach also wrote an Easter Oratorio and an Ascension Oratorio. The Christmas Oratorio therefore completes the trilogy of major moments in the Christian liturgical calendar.
The Christmas Oratorio includes six cantatas, one for each day of the Christmas feast. The first (to be performed on Christmas Day) depicts the birth of Jesus. This is the cantata you will hear today. The second and third cantatas feature the shepherds and are to be performed on December 26 and 27, respectively. The fourth cantata depicts the naming of Jesus (to be performed on New Year’s Day). Cantatas five and six focus on the Three Wise Men and are to be performed on the first Sunday after New Year and Epiphany, respectively. Each part features a different set of instruments and vocal soloists.
Our music this week is the Aria from J.S. Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, performed by tenor Timothy Mead and La Nuova Musica. This cantata was written for the Sixth Sunday after the Trinity and was first performed on July 28, 1726.
Bach is widely regarded as the father of music, but things weren’t always that good. In fact, during his lifetime, Bach often struggled to find work. One of the few long-term employment situations he found was as the headmaster of the “Thomasschule” in in Leipzig, Germany. He was able to delegate most of his teaching responsibilities to other people so that he could focus on composing. And compose he did! Aside from writing dozens of works for choir, keyboard, violin, and organ, he wrote a full cantata every single week for more than a decade.
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust is one of Bach’s most well-known and beautiful cantatas. Today you will be hearing only the opening Aria (the entire cantata is roughly 20 minutes long), which introduces the thematic material that will be featured throughout the cantata. In addition to being drawn from the scriptures assigned for that day’s service in the liturgical calendar, the text of this Aria is also drawn from Georg Lehms’ Gottgefalliges Kirchen-Opfer (1711), which focuses on the human struggle to lead a virtuous life amidst the trials and temptations of life.