July 9, 2020

Exuberant Easter!

Easter Oratorio, BWV 249
J.S. Bach

The soundtrack in my mind during the Easter season is all Bach, timpani and trumpets, and bright celebration. These days I have been listening to a shimmering 2011 recording of the JS Bach Easter and Ascension Oratorios by the Retrospect Ensemble.

Easter Oratorio is one of five works by Bach that we have to mark Easter Sunday:

  • BWV 4: “Christ lay in the bonds of death”
  • BWV 31: “The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices!”
  • BWV 249: Easter Oratorio — “Come hasten and run”
  • BWV 15: “For you will not leave my soul in hell”
  • BWV 160: “I know that my Redeemer lives”

The Oratorio is counted among Bach’s cantatas, though it has different features than most works bearing that designation. Its music was based on a secular cantata Bach wrote for a birthday celebration, and he revised it for other occasions as well. In service of telling the Easter story, it becomes an intimate yet exhilarating testimony to the emotional transformation in the first witnesses of the risen Christ. The text was likely written by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), whose words Bach used in many cantatas and the Passions.

The two-part opening has a Sinfonia: an exuberant movement featuring a festive trumpet trio, and then an Adagio: a richly expressive movement that encourages contemplation. From that point, the race is on as the trumpets resound once more and the enthusiastic, up-tempo chorus is raised:

Come, hurry and run, you swift feet
Get to the cave that covers Jesus!
Laughter and merriment accompanies our hearts
Since our Savior is risen again!

The heart of the Easter Oratorio is composed of an alternating series of recitatives and arias that track the movement from grief to the realization of hope in the risen Lord. The arias include the voices of Jesus’ mother Mary, the apostle Peter, Mary Magdelene, and John, who completes the transformation by singing:

We are delighted that our Jesus lives again
And our hearts, which first dissolved and floated in grief
Forget the pain and imagine songs of joy
For our Savior lives again!

Finally, celebration ensues with a hymn of praise that “hell and devil are destroyed,” and the choir shouts for heaven to open its magnificent drawbridges to welcome the triumphant Lion of Judah.

THIS is the spirit of Eastertide!

• • •

Here is another rendition of the opening Sinfonia, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:

 

Comments

  1. petrushka1611 says

    Thanks for posting the Bach! The Brandenburg Concertos were what got me hooked on classical music when I was about 12.

    And the trumpet players in that video are amazing…I can’t believe how much better period-instrument performers have gotten. 20 years ago, they would have sounded pretty rancid.

  2. Beautiful!

  3. They’re not writing music like that any more! The Easter joy jumps out of the screen at you….