An Irishwoman's Diary


BEYOND THE smell of pine trees and spice, beyond the taste of turkey, mulled wine and all that brandy butter, beyond those flashing lights, the images of still, frozen landscapes, white snow, shepherds, angels and Santa Claus with his loyal reindeer, Christmas is best evoked by its music.

And no matter how many times Bing Crosby eases out “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” or someone one else has a go, successful or otherwise, at Jingle Bellsor You Better Watch Outthe modern, secular tunes and jingles invariably end up sounding like supermarket soundtracks, mere music to shop to.

Far more enduring and atmospheric are the 18th- and 19th-century European carols such as Emmanuel, Hark the Herald Angles Sing, O Come All Ye Faithfulor Silent Nightperfected in the churches of Europe and now sung as often in the streets by singers collecting for charity as by choristers in cathedrals.

There is no prize for naming the most popular choral work of Christmas.

Handel’s Messiah, the whirlwind tour of Christ’s life from birth, to death, to resurrection, is familiar, beloved and everywhere. Its great choruses lift the spirits – and the roof. It is performed at Christmas, and also at Easter. Handel the gifted showman knew how to write a catchy tune, and in this, the 250th anniversary year of his death, his glorious music has been celebrated with zeal, and rightly so. Many would agree that Christmas without Messiahsimply isn’t Christmas.

Yet from one great German baroque composer to another; and one for whom writing music was merely part of his church duties, Johann Sebastian Bach, organist, rebel, father of many children and the complete composer. For every Messiah sung at Easter, particularly in Dublin where it was first performed in 1742, there is a performance of either Bach’s St Matthew Passion(1727), or his earlier, more intimate St John Passion(1724). The history of classical music is dominated by masterpieces, Bach created more than his share of them.

Here is a most human composer capable of gestures of subtle grace as well as work of musical power. All of this is leading to an obvious question. Why not look to a work composed exclusively for this season, Bach’s joyful Weichnachts-Oratoriumor Christmas Oratorio(1734) which is capable of making even the most solemn church-goer dance in the aisles? It would be wonderful if some or better still, several of Ireland’s talented choral societies would make a point of performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorioand it could become an anthem, immediately associated with this time of year – the exclusive Christmas sound.

It begins with a dramatic, almost medieval fanfare and an exuberant chorus “ Jauchzet, frohlocket!” (“Rejoice, Exult!“) brilliantly accompanied by kettle-drums. It is thrilling stuff, soaring music that articulates that moment of triumph when the sun bursts into view on the morning of the winter solstice. For the waiting faithful at Newgrange, only Bach has the music to match the moment. The opening chorus of the Christmas Oratoriois the work to express the communal pleasure of celebrating the beginning of the end of winter.

Darkness retreats as if banished by the music of Bach.

So why Messiahand not the Christmas Oratorio? Well, there are technicalities. Small minor details, but we live in a world dictated to by rules and regulations. Purists, who can be annoying, will argue that it is not really an oratorio but rather a series of six cantatas intended to be sung at the six services beginning with Christmas morning and performed in sequence until the Epiphany. It is true that in Bach’s time it would never have been performed as a single work. But then, look at the church music that has been taken from the church and brought to the concert stage. The Christmas Oratoriois capable of elevating the national consciousness. In common with the rest of

Bach’s work, listening to it simply makes us better humans.

The first time this oratorio that’s-not-really-an-oratorio rang forth was during the Yuletide of 1734-1735. It began on Christmas morning and the subsequent five individual yet closely related cantatas were performed in sequence over the next several days. Ironically, so beautifully consistent is their collective sound that it sounds like a complete work unified in both theme and form.

Bach often reused his music and in common with Handel, there are recurring tunes and motifs. The Bach who created the Christmas Oratoriowith all its flourish was the Bach who had composed the great passions as well as a wealth of instrumental music. He was a composer who addressed each instrument, including the human voice, as an individual to be challenged and tested. He is the consummate improviser whose influence is everywhere. Yet in his day, as the cantor of St Thomas’s in Leipzig, the man now acknowledged as the world’s most successful musician was barely tolerated and regarded as a cantankerous rebel. It gives an added energy to the work. He was an artist with a mind of his own and in an age of patrons, multiple financial and administrative problems.

Life is messy but the Christmas Oratoriois not. Nor is it disjointed.

Interestingly, parts 1, 2 and 6 were at first the most performed, often at both services on a given day; whereas parts 3, 4 and 5 tended to be performed during the morning service.

“Fear now abandon and banish complaining/ Join, filled with triumph and gladness, our song” advises the opening chorus. It makes great sense.

Celebration is the theme and Bach’s splendid non-oratorio not only heralds Christmas week, it welcomes the return of the sun: “and glorious light/For evermore may witness.”