Baroque Christmas Music

Johann_Sebastian_BachWhile Handel’s “Messiah” rightly holds its place as this country’s classical musical soundtrack for the holiday season (quibble if you will about its Easter message;  there’s nothing wrong with talking about Easter at Christmas – just ask Bach!), it’s J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” that rings through concert halls throughout Europe at this time of the year.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio, for the Christmas season of 1734.

The oratorio is in six parts, each part being intended for performance on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period.

  1. The first part (for Christmas Day) describes the birth of Jesus.
  2. The second (for December 26) the annunciation to the shepherds.
  3. The third (for December 27) the adoration of the shepherds.
  4. The fourth (for New Year’s Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
  5. The fifth (for the first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi.
  6. The sixth (for Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi.

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Renaissance Christmas

Nativity-29While Christmas today is considered one of the primary holidays of the Christian faith, it was not always this way. During medieval times, Christmas was a much more solemn affair. It was a day of prayer and reflection, and was observed primarily with a special mass – the “Cristes Maesee,” or the “Mass of Christ.”

By the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.

This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany, and other European countries.

Twelfth Night

The biggest celebration of the season during the Renaissance, was Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany. It was held that the Epiphany marked the date, twelve days following Christmas when the Magi found the newborn Christ child and presented him with gifts. The modern custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas is generally believed to be a continuance of the tradition started by the three Wise Men.

The so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas” began at sundown on December 24th and lasted until Epiphany, on January 6th. During the Renaissance, Twelfth Night marked the ‘official’ end of the Christmas (or winter) holiday season and was the traditional day for taking down Christmas decorations.

From Twelfth Night During the Renaissance

Christmas Music Hits the Streets

During the Renaissance music was taken outside the walls of the church and into the streets. Christian music was translated from Latin to the language of the common people.

What other important change do you notice when you compare Renaissance music with the music of the medieval ages? Enter your observations below.

One of the earliest and best-known carols of the Renaissance era is “In Dulci Jubilo.” It is a traditional Christmas carol whose name means “In sweet rejoicing.” In its original setting, the carol is a macaronic (mixed language) text of German and Latin dating from the Middle Ages. Subsequent translations into English, such as J.M. Neale’s arrangement “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” have increased its popularity, and Robert Pearsall’s 1837 macaronic translation is a mainstay of the Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols repertoire. J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude based on the tune (BWV 729) is also a traditional postlude for Christmas services. (Wikipedia)

In Dulci Jubilo

Good Christian Men, Rejoice


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Christmas During Medieval Times

FQ480344_942longThe music of Christmas has always brought joy, awe, and festivity. Christmas music has evolved as traditions have changed. However, the meaning of the holiday has remained. Here is a short history of Christmas music from the Middle Ages.

The first specifically Christmas hymns that we know of appear in fourth-century Rome. Like all Christian music of the Middle Ages, these were Latin hymns. Specifically, they were used for liturgical purposes. Instruments were never used. Therefore, all songs were performed a cappella. Christmas music was not sung outside of churches.

St. Ambrose of Milan wrote Veni Redemptor Gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the nations”), in the fourth century. He composed it for the Advent season. Accordingly, it especially signifies the holiness of Jesus of Nazareth.



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