Donald Macleod focuses on Bach's trinity of oratorios: for Christmas, Easter and Ascension.
As part of Radio 3's Classical Voice season, all this week Donald Macleod explores Bach's vocal music. Today, his trinity of oratorios, for Christmas, Easter and Ascension.
By the mid 1730s, Bach's production of new vocal music had begun to dip. So when in 1734 he came to assemble his Christmas Oratorio - a cycle of six cantatas designed to be performed across six different church feast-days - he drew heavily on music he had composed earlier, for use in other, largely secular, contexts. Why he chose to do this, rather than create new works from scratch, is a matter of speculation. By this time he had been in his job as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig for more than a decade, a period during which his relations with his employers had turned from mildly tart to distinctly sour, and it may simply be that he had lost interest in providing them with new music. For some years he had also had a fresh focus for his energies, in the form of Leipzig's vibrant Collegium Musicum, a largely student concert society of which he became director in 1729. None of this, though, is to denigrate the Christmas Oratorio, a magnificent work that far from betraying signs of its patchwork origins seems cut from a single cloth. The same goes for the Easter and Ascension Oratorios, which both have their roots in earlier work. In Bach's day, there was no shame in recycling old material - what mattered was the skill with which it was adapted to the new context.