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Pianist Alex Taylor recording the keyboard pieces in the Radio 3 In Tune studio
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Easter Oratorio, BWV249 (1725, revised.1735)

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1 Sinfonia
2 Adagio
3 Chorus: Kommt, eilet und laufet
4 Recitative (soprano, alto, tenor, bass): O kalter Männer Sinn!
5 Aria (soprano): Seele, deine Spezerein
6 Recitative (alto, tenor, bass): Hier ist die Gruft
7 Aria (tenor): Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer
8 Recitative (soprano, alto): Indessen seufzen wir
9 Aria (alto): Saget, saget mir geschwinde
10 Recitative (bass): Wir sind erfreuet
11 Chorus: Preis und Dank

Although we tend to think of Bach's large-scale choral-and-orchestral works such as the B minor Mass or the Passions as being rather loosely part of the 'oratorio' repertory, he himself only used the term on three occasions. That the three works in question - the Christmas Oratorio , the Ascension Oratorio and the Easter Oratorio - a re for the most part indistinguishable in style from his many church cantatas, and indeed occupied the same slot as them in the Lutheran service, suggests that by naming them thus Bach was attempting to conjure up a whiff of novelty. In truth it was a novelty that was only partly there.

By the time he wrote them for the 1734-5 church year, there had been a slowing of the creative flood which, in the period immediately following his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, had seen him compose five cycles of cantatas for the complete church year; now he was satisfying himself with fashioning old works into new. This was the period of the four short 'Lutheran' Masses and the Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor Mass, all of which, like the three oratorios, adapted previous compositions to a new purpose in a time-honoured method often referred to as 'parody'. The advantages were not just the saving of time and composing effort, but also the salvaging of music that would otherwise have largely gone to waste. The sources for Bach's church 'parody' works were often secular one-off cantatas for occasions such as the birthday of a local grandee or the celebration of the inauguration of the town council; their enshrinement in a more timeless sacred context ensured their longevity, both in Bach's time and (though he was not to know it) for posterity.

Yet for all their similarities to the cantatas, Bach's oratorios are just about different enough to merit their separate category. They share with the cantatas the overall mixture of recitatives, arias and choruses, but they also have an underlying narrative flavour which links them to the genre's origins as a semi-dramatic treatment of a sacred subject. In the Christmas and Ascension oratorios this is made explicit by a tenor soloist singing lines from the Gospels; in the Easter Oratorio there are no Biblical texts, yet the sequence of movements at least hints at a narrative account of the Resurrection story.

That it does so probably owes much to the ingenuity of the poet Picander, librettist for many of Bach's Leipzig sacred works, who, having in February 1725 written the words for a cantata for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, produced a completely new text when Bach recycled the work in August 1726 for the birthday of Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming. In between, however, the music had also been used as the church cantata for Easter Sunday 1725, and there seems little reason to doubt that it was Picander who again provided the libretto. Here the text consisted of a sketchy narrative of the events and emotions surrounding the discovery of Christ's empty tomb, articulated by a cast of four soloists identified as Mary Mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, the whole framed by more generally celebratory verses. But Bach had not finished with the piece yet. In the mid-1730s he got it out again, changed the first vocal number from a duet to a chorus, made alterations to the instrumentation, and removed the characters' names. In this version, renamed Easter Oratorio , it probably received its first performance on Easter Day 1735. 

The Easter Oratorio opens with a Sinfonia in two sections, the first coloured by the festal sound of trumpets and drums and featuring joyfully dancing interludes for solo violin and a pair of oboes, and the second a melancholy flute solo over an agonised string accompaniment. Leading out of this, the first chorus restores the jubilant mood of the opening, as we are urged to hasten to the 'cave that conceals our Lord' and rejoice at the news of his resurrection. There is now a narrative flashback and a change of tone, as the first recitative exhorts us to mourn Jesus's death, and a slow soprano aria with flute obbligato expresses the restless emotions and loss of direction this has caused. In the next recitative, however, we are shown the empty sepulchre, after which the tenor, in a tender rocking aria gently attended by recorders, declares that henceforth death will be no more painful than sleep. Another recitative and an alto aria (this time with oboe obbligato) excitedly contemplate the prospect of meeting the risen Jesus, and finally a contented bass recitative leads to a final choral gigue of thanksgiving.

Programme note © Lindsay Kemp/BBC

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