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 for this week is “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from George Frederic Handel’s 1748 oratorio Solomon. The entire oratorio is almost never performed, but “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” which was the opening interlude of Act III, is played quite often. It is a popular wedding recessional and is regularly featured as the background music for luxury car advertisements. It was even played as part of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
As its name belies, Solomon was written about the life and times of the biblical character King Solomon. During this time in history, King George II of England (Handel’s employer) wanted to hold dramatic presentations of biblical stories at his palace, but the Bishop of London disapproved of a public drama based on a biblical subject. Handel was therefore commissioned to write oratorios like Solomon as musical substitutes for the dramatic wishes of the King. They eventually became so popular that Handel stopped writing operas and focused entirely on oratorios.
Listening Tip: It can be helpful to sometimes take a step back and think about where a piece of music fits in the larger historical picture of the development of music. There are generally five periods of music that we will listen to: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and Modern. This music is a perfect example of the Baroque period of classical music, which spans from approximately 1600 to 1750. Some of the primary characteristics of this era include (among others) (1) small ensembles, (2) minimal brass and timpani, (3) period instruments like harpsichords, (4) biblical or mythological themes, and (5) an overall light, airy sound. Other composers who lived and wrote their music during the Baroque era include Bach and Telemann. If you listen to their compositions and keep in mind the characteristics above, you’ll quickly see a multitude of similarities.