Handel and Bach together – A Christmas Pageant for the Time of a Pandemic
(or: “A monster mashup for the season”)
The first thing we need to say is that, if you want to listen to Handel’s Messiah or J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio this season, this “mashup” probably isn’t for you (but we figure you already have your favorite performances of these cued up on whatever device you use to listen to music).
So, then, what should you expect in our mashup”? Our “re-imagining” of Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio is built on a couple of key ideas:
- In the years before the early music revival took hold and pushed most groups to follow original scoring, a common tradition in churches across the United States was to present choral masterworks of the 18th and 19th centuries with “reduced” forces, such as organ (only) accompaniment or organ with small ensembles. That approach works beautifully in this time of social distancing and restrictions around the number of people allowed in a building at one time. Additionally, these works most often were presented in English to allow congregations easy access the text – thus emphasizing liturgical use over pure musical performance.
- That same idea was important in the presentations of Nativity pageants. A popular way to celebrate Christmas in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Nativity play or Christmas pageant revolved around a series of real-life “tableaux,” often acted by members of the community, depicting key scenes relating to the biblical stories. These were usually accompanied by popular musical selections of the season. Thus, in this presentation, we’ve organized our music to highlight similar scenes: The Prophecies of Isaiah, the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, and Christ as Healer and Redeemer. The “playlist” from both Messiah and The Christmas Oratorio has been carefully selected to highlight the arc of the Christmas narrative, with some additional musical commentary on the action.
- And, finally (but, perhaps most important) St. Anne’s is such a wonderful space for singing and playing that the building becomes a key part of the performance. We wanted to take advantage of the loft, the sanctuary and the nave as part of this effort. And this also allowed us to safely include a vocal consort (soloists), a small number of instrumentalists, our tech team and Annapolis Chamber Chorus members (who you will see singing outside in Church Circle).
The result is a fresh, live performance. With minimal editing (mostly reserved for layering of tracks that had to be recorded separately due to social distancing) this is no studio recording. We are thrilled to have been able to rehearse and perform this gorgeous music and we hope that it helps you enjoy this unusual Christmas season by joining us, even if virtually.
Scene 1: The Prophecies of Isaiah
Charles Jennens, who provided the text for “Messiah” (and who, in fact, sponsored the whole endeavor), uses scriptural allusion throughout the entirety of the oratorio to present the story of God’s redemption of humankind through the Messiah. In this first scene, we keep with Jennens’ use of the words of the prophet Isaiah. This also provides a nice connection to the structure of the traditional Christmas “Lessons & Carols,” which starts with story of the fall of humanity and the prophecies relating to its redemption.
Scene 2: The Nativity
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, six cantatas for the Christmas season starting with Christmas Day and ending with the first day of Epiphany, presents a rich theological framework describing the relationship between the Christian believer and Jesus Christ. In our very spare use of Bach’s work, we focus more on the surface narrative. In this scene, the primary focus is on the Christmas story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2 and used by Bach in Part One. You may hear the chorale tune commonly known as the “Passion chorale” (from the St. Matthew Passion). It will also be used at the very end of Part Six. In fact, that particular tune supported diverse texts for across the liturgical year (not just Lent), including the one used by Bach in Part One. Regardless, for today’s listener it forms a nice bridge between the Christmas story and the coming seasons of Lent and Easter.
Scene 3: The Annunciation to the Shepherds
For Scene 3, we focus on that section of Messiah that describes the manifestation of the Messiah to all members of the Jewish community, represented by the shepherds. It is one of the few places in Part One of Messiah (often referred to as the “Christmas portion”) where Jennens uses texts from the New Testament. And he uses the same chapter of Luke that was employed by Bach in our Scene 2, thus forming a nice continuation of the Christmas story. Our Scene 3 ends with the aria “Happy shepherds, hurry” (Frohe Hirten) from Part Two of Bach’s oratorio in order to complete the story of the shepherds hastening to the manger.
Scene 4: The Adoration of the Magi
Bach’s texts and musical settings in Parts Five and Six of his Christmas Oratorio are incredibly nuanced and complex, emphasizing the presence of Christ in the life of the listener as well as His triumph over evil at the end of time. In our Scene 4, we simply focus on the narrative of the Epiphany—the manifestation of the Messiah to the rest of the world as represented by the Magi—in order to follow the patterns of Christmas pageants and the traditional texts used in Lessons & Carols. We end with Bach’s final chorale of Part Six, a bright and triumphant setting of the tune made famous as the “Passion chorale.” Here it signifies the triumph of Christ over sin and death, and also makes a nice connection to the Hallelujuah chorus of the next scene.
Scene 5: Christ as Healer and Redeemer
We end our “mashup” in a way that acknowledges the structure of both Christmas Pageants and Lessons & Carols, with an emphasis on the Messiah as redeemer. The traditional texts used in Lessons & Carols is the prologue to the Gospel of John, in which the author describes the incarnation of Christ as the fulfillment of prior prophecy, the Redeemer of the world and the manifestation of the eternal glory of God. In this scene, we use Jennens’ texts depicting the healing and redeeming presence of the Messiah (“Rejoice, greatly” and “He shall feed his flock”), which appear near the end of Part One. And, of course, we finish with the triumphant Hallelujah chorus, pulling the thread of Christ’s rule over all of creation through to the very end. Because how could you not end with “Hallelujah?! Other than to say “Merry Christmas” from Live Arts Maryland and Bach+!