ÜBach’s Christmas Oratorio is now being played everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the place for which it was written in 1734: in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked as cantor. Under his current successor Andreas Reize, they don’t sing “Jauchzet, rejoice!” at the beginning. On, glorify the days” but “Tones, you kettledrums! Sound, trumpets!”. This is the text in the Queen Cantata, BWV 214, composed by Bach the year before and then reused as music for the first part of the Christmas Oratorio, but the text has been changed: a secular cantata intended only for one-off use (birthday of the elector) becomes a cantata spiritual that fits into every church year. And so still today.
Reize does not justify his recourse to the original text with a thirst for originality, but musically: Doesn’t the text describe in words what we hear? But is that a musical category? If Reize had read Angela Steidele’s new novel, he might have reconsidered the matter. And it would not have been necessary to read all six hundred pages for that, it would have been enough to get to page 52. Here we are in the Leipzig apartment of Johann Sebastian Bach. It is shortly before Christmas 1734, and the householder is rehearsing the new text to the old music with his family members, as we learn from his eldest daughter: “Dad played and we sang the interlude. ‘Serve the Highest with glorious choirs.’ ‘The coloratura always on ö, yes, that sounds beautiful, ö is always good to sing. Nice overtones.’ ,She has the choirs invented because the timpani and trumpets no longer appear in the text itself, but only in the orchestra. But that’s how the praise of God through music is back in.’”
Who wrote the text for the Christmas Oratorio?
But who is “she” who is praised by the Bachs as a lyricist? To this day nobody knows who wrote the text for the Christmas Oratorio. A novel, however, can disregard this and simulate certainty: it is Luise Gottsched, and if you have never heard of this name, it says a lot about the gender-unfair tradition of literary history. And about our understanding of that epoch that we now call “Enlightenment”.
This is also the name of Steidele’s novel: “Enlightenment”. And true: Rarely has a title been more appropriate. Because first of all he plays at the time of the Enlightenment, and then he enlightens us. Not only about the rank of that Luise Gottsched, the wife of Johann Christoph Gottsched, who is no longer on everyone’s lips today, but is still present in some minds, who was the most influential German linguist at the time and taught in Leipzig. And was so well acquainted with Bach that he wrote him a few cantatas. But apparently not for the Christmas oratorio.