Christmas Oratorio

Sunday, December 18, 2011 • 3:00 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Hans-Jürgen Schnoor, conductor
Maike Albrecht, soprano
Melissa Plagemann, mezzo-soprano
Wesley Rogers, tenor
Steven Tachell, bass


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

About the Concert

Hans-Jürgen Schnoor, who led a memorable account of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with OSSCS last April, returns to the Pacific Northwest from Lübeck, Germany, to conduct this performance of Bach’s glorious Christmas Oratorio, presented in its entirety and sung in the original German.

About the Conductor

Hans-Jürgen Schnoor has served as cantor and organist at the St. Jakobi Church in Lübeck, Germany, where he is a leading performer of early keyboard music and conductor of period-instrument performances of the works of Bach and other Baroque masters. Currently professor for harpsichord, basso continuo, early performance practice and music theory at the Lübeck Conservatory of Music, he directs the Neumünster Bach Choir, Concerto Lübeck and the Hamburg Consort (period instruments) and since 1980 has been music director at the Vicelinkirche in Neumünster.

Mr. Schnoor has given numerous performances of all of the great works of Bach, as well as: Handel’s Messiah; Mozart’s Requiem, Mass in C Minor and Idomeneo; Beethoven’s Mass in C Major; Brahms’ German Requiem; and the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. He has released many solo recordings, including music of Weckmann and Bruhns, and much of the keyboard repertoire of J.S. Bach.

About the Soloists

Soprano Maike Albrecht has performed numerous concerts as a soloist in oratorio and as a member of various ensembles for early music, and sung such opera roles as Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo and Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. She studied piano at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen and voice at the Conservatory of Music in Lübeck and in Salzburg, and particularly enjoys singing the lieder of Mozart, Schubert, Wolf, Mahler and Schoenberg, among others.

Mezzo-soprano Melissa Plagemann has been praised by audiences and the press for her “clear, burnished voice” (Tacoma News Tribune) and “attractively expressive mezzo” (Crosscut Seattle). She performs frequently with the finest musical organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest, and is rapidly becoming known for the passion and musical intelligence she brings to performances on opera and concert stages alike. A first-prize winner in competitions of the Ladies’ Musical Club, the Seattle Musical Art Society and the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, she holds degrees from the University of Victoria and Indiana University.

Tenor Wesley Rogers has been hailed by San Francisco Classical Voice as possessing the “kind of tenor that pours forth powerfully, effortlessly, seemingly for any length of time.” Next June he sings Don Ottavio in a new production of Don Giovanni with the National Theatre Opera Prague and during the 2012–2013 season he will sing Belmonte in Die entführung aus dem Serail with the Opéra de Liège in Belgium. In the spring of 2011, Mr. Rogers made an important debut as Belmonte at the Semperoper Dresden, followed by performances of the Berlioz Te Deum at the University of California, Davis’ Mondavi Center, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with OSSCS, and a concert appearance as Belmonte at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Performances on the Seattle Opera mainstage include roles in Billy Budd, La Fanciulla del West, Salome and Daron Hagen’s Amelia. Previous concert engagements include Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the American Bach Soloists, Britten’s War Requiem with OSSCS and Mozart’s Coronation Mass with EOS Orchestra.

Bass-baritone Steven Tachell studied at the University of Washington and at the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts. His initial professional experience included two summers with the Santa Fe Opera in their Young Singers Apprentice program, and continued with his engagement as resident bass-baritone with the St. Gallen Opera Theater in Switzerland. He appeared as soloist in concerts and operas throughout Bavaria and performed frequently with the Munich Savoyards. In the United States, Mr. Tachell has performed with the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler, Opera New England, Arizona Opera, New Jersey Opera and Chattanooga Opera, among others. He has also performed frequently with Seattle Opera.

Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. He composed his Christmas Oratorio in 1734, drawing upon music previously used in earlier secular cantatas. The composer led the first performances in Leipzig between December 24, 1734, and January 6, 1735. In addition to vocal soloists and chorus, the six cantatas that comprise the oratorio call for various combinations of two flutes, two oboes (doubling oboe d’amore), two English horns, bassoon, two horns, three trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo.

For hundreds of years, Western Christianity celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it not with a single feast day, but with a “season”—a number of special commemorations occurring on various days between December 25 (Christmas Day) and January 6 (The Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus as God’s Anointed One to the Gentiles, personified by the Magi, Persian priests known for their knowledge of astrology and their skills in dream interpretation). Imagine participating in six celebrations of six different events on six different days: First, the birth of the Christ Child (December 25), then the announcement of the birth to the shepherds by a host of angels (December 26), the adoration of the baby by the shepherds (December 27), the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day), the coming of the Magi from the East to find the child “born King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2; the Sunday after New Year’s Day), and finally the Magi’s worship of the Holy Child with their gifts (January 6). On each of these days, you are inspired by a cantata from Johann Sebastian Bach that recounts one of these stories and comments and reflects upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community. Now contract these six days and six cantata performances into a single presentation, on a single afternoon, of the chief events of the Christmas story and their accompanying interpretative meditations, and you have Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio as you will hear it today. Let it introduce you to, and prepare you for, the rapidly approaching season of Christmastide and lead you, as you listen, to ask yourself, “How does the Christmas story really end?”

Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family that had produced church and town-band musicians for over 150 years. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by an older brother who was an organist, and who taught young Sebastian music. The boy was endlessly curious about every aspect of the art: “I had to work hard,” he said. “Anyone who works as hard will get just as far.”

Bach began his professional musical career at age 18, when he was appointed organist at a church in Arnstadt. At 23, he became court organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Weimar; during his nine years in that post (1708–1717), he gained fame as an organ virtuoso and composer. From 1717 to 1723, Bach served the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, producing suites, concertos, sonatas for various instruments, a great amount of keyboard music, and the six wonderful Brandenburg Concertos. Maria Barbara, Bach’s wife and the mother of his seven children, died in 1720, and the composer soon married Anna Magdalena, a young singer who proved to be a loyal and supportive wife, and who provided her mate with 13 more offspring.

At age 38, Bach (considered by the town officials to be only a mediocre musician!) obtained the position of Cantor of St. Thomas’ in Leipzig, one of the most important musical posts in Germany. He taught at the choir school, which trained the choristers of the city’s chief churches (he had to teach non-musical subjects as well) and also functioned as music director, composer, choirmaster and organist of St. Thomas’ Church. In this post, in which he served for his remaining 27 years, Bach produced monumental musical masterworks, including the Christmas Oratorio, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Mass in B Minor, The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue—all while dealing with the cares of his large family and circle of friends, the tasks of a very busy professional life, and ongoing struggles with the officials of town, school and church who never recognized that they were in the presence of perhaps the greatest musical genius of all time.

Although the composer described himself as living “amidst continual vexation, envy and persecution,” he remained in Leipzig until his eyesight failed and he suffered a stroke followed by a raging fever. Bach died July 28, 1750, bequeathing only a very modest material estate, but leaving to us a wondrous wealth of musical treasures of which the Christmas Oratorio is a particularly glittering example.

This joyous work, completed around Christmastime of 1734 when Bach was 49, is not an oratorio in the usual sense (a single work consisting of many contrasting movements for chorus and soloists, based on a dramatic story from the Bible). Instead, it consists of a series of lyrical meditations, unified by recitatives that tell the story of the events surrounding the birth of Christ as it appears in Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12. The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (who employed the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably assembled and arranged the texts.

The oratorio was never performed under Bach’s direction as you will hear it this afternoon—as a whole and in one sitting—but in six individual parts, as described above. To this composition, Bach transferred the greater part of the choruses and arias of two secular cantatas dating from 1733, the year before he produced the Christmas Oratorio: Hercules at the Crossroads (composed for the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony) and Resound, Ye Drums, Ring Out, Ye Trumpets (written to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress). In this manner, he preserved the best movements of these relatively ephemeral secular cantatas and assured their annual performance within the framework of the church year. Bach’s ability to create a new and beautifully unified work of art out of existing “occasional” compositions is truly astonishing!

Throughout the oratorio, texts from the New Testament appear in recitatives (vocal lines that follow the natural rhythms, accentuation and pitch contours of normal speech) by the solo tenor “Evangelist” with continuo accompaniment. Soloists generally present the words of individual persons, while those of a group are assigned to the chorus. The Biblical texts are intermingled with a wonderful variety of pieces: orchestrally accompanied choruses, diversely arranged chorales (mostly familiar Christmas hymns), vocal ensemble numbers (several duets, a trio and a fugal recitative for quartet), an “echo” aria (for soprano, echoing soprano and oboe), and an amazing assortment of solo arias and recitative-like arioso settings of poetic texts that reflect or comment on the narratives. Nearly all of the six cantatas begin with an exuberant introductory chorus in a dance-like triple meter. The second cantata, however, begins with one of the most beautiful of orchestral pastorales, written in a characteristically lilting 12/8 meter and featuring sounds of double reeds that bring to mind shepherds’ pipes, transporting the listener to the fields near Bethlehem, above which the angels are about to astound the shepherds.

The Christmas Oratorio is not simply a holiday entertainment, but true church music, meant to edify and uplift a congregation. Although the overall mood of the oratorio is one of festivity and exultation, Bach stresses the importance of Christ’s sacrificial death through his use of the Passion chorale, “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” (“My heart is ever yearning”), with which the words “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” are usually associated. This “Good Friday hymn” appears in the oratorio as both its first and its final chorale, where Bach transforms it into a triumphant trumpet-studded chorale fantasia, thus presenting, through his incomparable music, his conviction that the salvation of humanity is initiated in Christ’s birth and finally accomplished through His death and resurrection. The story of Christmas does not “end” until Easter!

Lorelette Knowles