Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tage!
This is the opening line of one of the most uplifting pieces of baroque music ever written. Probably the most famous work of Johann Sebastian Bach, this piece of pure genius packs Luke's interpretation of the birth of christ into 3 hours of equally rousing and touching music.
An oratorio is of course an epic, dramatic composition for solo-voices, choir and orchestra, composed for an important religious christian event like easter, or, in this case, Christmas.
Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor (head-musician and composer) at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig when he composed the Oratorio to be played on Christmas 1734 and if the legends are true, he probably played the magnificent organ at the premiere himself (according to Bachologists Lore, good old old J.S. was the fastest Organplayer ever, being able to play 32nds on the pedals). Bachs music wasn't particular popular in his time (bit like Ozzy Osbourne) and it took another century for him to become famous, thanks to Mendelssohn-Bartoldy.
The oratorio is divided into 6 cantatas, one for each of the holy days associated with christmas, and that's how it was initially performed: over 2 months between late 1734 and february 1735. In our times, where attention span is not longer than 12 minutes between commercials and films can't be longer than 90 minutes, (otherwise we get itchy bottoms, and the kids 'Ritalin wears off) only the first three cantatas are being played in one night.
The story is carried forward by rezitativa, small biblical monologues held by the tenor, accompanied by the basso continuo. The other soloists contribute personal insights into the minds of the main participants (i.e. the Alto as Maria or the soprano as the angel) in Arias, probably penned by the librettist Picander and are interspersed by choral interludes, reciting christmas standards (we're not talking "White Christmas" or "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer" here).
I have performed this fabulous masterpiece 7 times during the late eighties and the early nineties as the principal oboeist of a medium sized orchestra and even after practising and playing it so many times I still get all foggy-eyed when I hear it.
Since I don't have the time to play it anymore, christmas doesn't feel the same, like a part is missing. These days I have to resort myself to sitting in front of the TV on christmas morning (which is when most stations around the world are showing it), whistling the Oboe part and making a general nuisance of myself.