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On-line Book Review



Johann Sebastian Bach. Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)
by Ignace Bossuyt

Dimension: 23.3 x 17.6 x 1.4 cm
TITLE Johann Sebastian Bach. Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) by Ignace Bossuyt.
PUBL. DETAILS Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2004. 185 pp; Paperback. Euro 40,00.
ISBN 90-5867-421-5
TO ORDER Universitaire Pers Leuven, Europahuis, Blijde-Inkomststraat 5, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Email:
DESCRIPTION An English translation of his monograph originally published in Dutch, discussing its background and analysing each movement of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Music examples are provided in an accompanying booklet.
WORKS COVERED BWV 1, 4, 11-12, 32, 39, 40, 49, 52, 57-58, 60, 64, 72, 78, 85, 91-92, 104, 106, 110, 140, 170, 172, 175, 184, 208, 213-215, 232-236, 243-245, 247, 248, 249, 439-507, 552, 579, 582, 559-644, 651-689, 769, 802-805, 825-831, 946, 951, 971-988, 1046-1051, 1066, 1068, 1069, 1079
READERSHIP Students studying this famous Christmas work by Bach
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Illuminating observation on individual movements.

B ach’s Christmas Oratoriois gaining popularity in recent years. It was one of the mysteries in my mind for a long time why we did not hear it more often in concerts particularly at the Christmas season. The first part (‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’), in particular, is an excellent choice for any celebratory occasions: its pompous, joyous opening lifts up the listeners’ spirit almost instantly.

Anyhow, this lack of public interest in the past perhaps explains why there aren’t much that have been written about this work, particularly in English. As far as I know, this is the first published monograph on this work in English. Originally published in Dutch in 2002, and this English edition is set to fill this curious vacuum in Bach literature. (For your information, the next substantial commentary on this work in English is by Charles Sanford Terry who published a series of four articles in the Musical Times in 1930.)


Author’s note for the English translation
Foreword (by Philippe Herreweghe)

To the reader



The setting: Leipzig, 1734/1735

The Christmas Oratorio: an oratorio?

The liturgical function of the Christmas Oratorio

The themes and the ‘libretto’: Lutheran orthodoxy and Pietism

The overall structure

The parody ‘problem’


The Gospel text: the story

The Gospel text: direct speech

The chorale

The poetic interpolations


      Recitativo accompagnato


The instrumentation


I.      Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage

II.     Sinfonia – Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend

III.    Herrscher des Himmels

IV.    Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben

V.     Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen

VI.   H err, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben




       Index of names

       Index of works


Musical examples


Johann Sebastian Bach. Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)
by Ignace Bossuyt

well-organised discussion and easy to follow

The book takes the style of a textbook in which the author carefully addresses a variety of issues starting with the historical setting of the work, and goes into explaining some key concepts that one needs to know when studying Bach’s compositional approaches, such as ‘parody’ techniques, the use of chorales, and other conventions of his time. To my liking, the author’s thorough and systematic approach to explaining the subject is sometimes too detailed and laboured, but for those students who are not yet familiar with Bach’s works in general, his methodical approach will be perceived assuring.

The more entertaining part of the book for me is the examination of each movement from page 57 onwards where the author attempts to explain Bach’s main aims in each movements. The author’s observations are all sensible and often very illuminating. His discussions are well organised, and I find his analysis very easy to follow. The English translation is excellent, too. I am sure that this book can also serve as a convenient reference book of the work.

The book is accompanied by a booklet containing music examples. One thing that is lacking from this book is the facsimile reproduction of Bach’s autograph manuscript: the readers may benefit from acquiring a facsimile edition of Bach’s autograph, which is available from both Kassel: Bärenreiter (1960) and Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik (1984).

Published online 11 October 2006