Embarking on Time Travel to put things into context

JS Bach Christmas Oratorio

In 1954 the Great British public was introduced to the front room of 23 Railway Cuttings in East Cheam. Here they found one Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock.  The Hancock character is in many ways the model of a dyspeptic, status anxious, petit bourgeois suburbanite who stomps grumpily around the lower reaches of Middle England.  Geographically the writers, (Ray Galton and Alan Simpson) have placed Hancock’s character on the tantalising edge of respectability. Cheam is a relatively middle class town in the London suburbs, but Hancock is placed in East Cheam in a house one assumes to be next to the railway line.

In 1960 Hancock performs a sketch entitled the Missing Page. In brief, he borrows a book from the library, the murder mystery Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sarto.  His partner, Sid James, to whom the book is being narrated as Hancock reads it is anxious to know ‘who did it’.  Hancock tells him not to fuss this is always revealed on the last page.  However, when Hancock reaches the end he finds the last page has been torn out.

Returning the book to the library – and angrily denying the librarian’s suggestion that Hancock himself is the vandal – Hancock finds out the address of the last reader to borrow the book several years previously, a Mr Procter, hoping that he will know the answer. However it transpires that the page was already missing from the book when Procter read it, and Procter becomes agitated on being reminded of the unsolved mystery.

Still undeterred, Hancock visits the author’s house, only to find a plaque stating that Darcy Sarto has died. Finally he visits the British Museum, reasoning that they must have a copy since every book published in the United Kingdom is stored there. At the Museum a copy of Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards is found with all of its pages intact – however, the last page contains not the end of the story but instead a note stating that Sarto died before completing it, and that the unfinished book had been published anyway as being of interest to Sarto’s fans. Disgusted, Hancock declares he will never read a book again and will instead take up a new hobby – the gramophone.

All of which brings me to the following question, which was posed to me earlier today by a close friend. If you could attend any musical performance, past or present, what would it be and where?   To answer this question, we need to go on a trip back in time to Christmas 1734.

In the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Christ, and the events surrounding it, not with a single feast day, but with six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany. These comprise:

  • 25 December – The birth of Jesus
  • 26 December – The announcement to the shepherds by a host of angels
  • 27 December – The adoration of the baby by the shepherds
  • 1 January – The circumcision and naming of Jesus
  • Sunday after New Years Day – The coming of the Magi from the East to find the child “born King of the Jews”
  • 6 January – The Magi’s worship with their gifts

 

The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense, but adopts the format of a cantata. Similar to the Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in Luke 2:1–21 and Matthew 2:1–12. In order to keep clear what is narrative and what is commentary, all the Evangelist recitatives (the Gospel texts) are accompanied with simple chords from the cello and organ, while the other recitatives have obbligato instruments or string accompaniment.

The ten chorales were designed to reflect the voice of the people, as they were hymn tunes mostly well known to Bach’s congregation. The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (under the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably gathered and arranged the texts.

By the time Bach came to assemble the Christmas Oratorio he had written virtually all his cantatas.  And because of this it is hard to say whether Bach viewed the work as a single entity.    There is some sense of unification in that the same choral is used in the first and last cantata and the entire work both starts and finishes in the key of D major.  The 3 opening movements are in 3, which is usually claimed to be a reference to the Holy Trinity.  Despite this, there is no consistent structural pattern which unifies the cantatas.

My time travelling meander back to 1734 would therefore be for 2 reasons. Firstly I think it would cast a whole new light on the Christmas Oratorio to hear it performed in its proper context as scholars believe Bach conceived it.  And secondly I would like to ask Herr Bach his thoughts on the Oratorio being performed in the context of a concert.  I suspect he would be horrified!

However the fact remains that, like Hancock with his missing page, the authors in each case are no longer around to give us the answers to these eternal questions.   So for now I will continue to object to concert performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and for similar reasons will usually stop listening to Mozart’s Requiem after the first 8 bars of the Lacrymosa, although there is some suggestion that Mozart wrote this movement after sketching out the 8th and 9th movements. That, however, is a discussion for another day!


Jules Addison is a slightly obsessive (pedantic) muso who thinks that music should only ever be performed in its original context, but despite this is not a fan of period instruments!