Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s oratorios are his most important vocal compositions, in terms of both genre and reception history. In the eighteenth century the term oratorio did not represent a technical term with a fixed meaning.1 Bach’s oratorios are based on biblical subjects, from the Old and New Testaments, and employ vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. His Passions and church cantatas are distinct from the oratorios, not primarily because of their smaller scale or less “dramatic” character, but rather because of their placement within regular church services. The oratorios, on the other hand, could be performed as concert pieces outside of the church service and in other venues.
In addition to Bach’s twenty-one Passions, which form a separate genre associated with particular local traditions and their specific function in the liturgical year, series IV presents only those large vocal works with orchestral accompaniment that Bach himself viewed as repertory pieces; that is, works he gave to others in authorized copies, either in print or in manuscript, for study or public performance: Die Israeliten in der Wüste, Wq 238; Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu, Wq 240; and the Passions-Cantate, Wq 233. These three oratorios, along with the Magnificat, Wq 215, shaped public opinion of Bach as a vocal composer not only during his lifetime, but into the nineteenth century as well and even up to the present day.2 Besides these works, only three others—the Easter cantata Gott hat den Herrn auferweckt, Wq 244; Klopstocks Morgengesang am Schöpfungsfeste, Wq 239; and Heilig mit zwei Chören und einer Ariette, Wq 217—ever attained wide recognition. These compositions are included in series V and VI, together with the remaining large-scale choral works that were intended only for local use and thus were not widely distributed.
Decisions made regarding series in which works are published within the edition are pragmatic and not meant to suggest any fundamental differences in quality between the groups of choral works. In fact, all three of the oratorios in series IV originated as occasional pieces: the Passions-Cantate is based on the St. Matthew Passion of 1769;3 Die Israeliten in der Wüste was first used in 1769 as consecration music for the Lazareth church in Hamburg; and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu was first performed during Easter 1774.4 Nevertheless, these repertory pieces are distinct from the other occasional pieces in their somewhat demonstrative character. In its initial form as the St. Matthew Passion, the Passions-Cantate represented Bach’s first Passion music for Hamburg and was therefore given special attention by the composer; in a similar vein, Die Israeliten was his first major composition in Hamburg not limited to liturgical constraints.5 It is significant, however, that all of these oratorios underwent substantial revision, usually before they were distributed beyond his immediate circle. As part of this revision process, borrowings from his own and other composers’ works were removed, so that after these revisions Bach could claim each work to be an entirely original composition. In the case of Die Israeliten and Die Auferstehung, Bach himself published the music (not without considerable financial risk), thereby securing their wider transmission.
1. Howard E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio, vol. 3, The Oratorio in the Classical Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), discusses the various types of oratorio and includes a section on Bach’s Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu.
2. The Magnificat is included in series V, despite evidence that it was gradually assimilated into the concert repertory, in addition to serving its original liturgical function as celebratory music for high feasts and Marian feasts.
3. According to the entry on the 1769 St. Matthew Passion in NV 1790, p. 59: “Aus dieser Passion ist, nach Weglassung des Evangelisten und verschiedenen gemachten Veränderungen, die Passions-Cantate entstanden.” (From this Passion, by omitting the Evangelist and various changes, the Passions-Cantate originated.) The St. Matthew Passion (1769) is published in CPEB:CW, IV/4.1.
4. Barbara Wiermann, “Werkgeschichte als Gattungsgeschichte: Die ‘Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu’ von Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,” BJ (1997): 117–43, esp. 122–23.
5. Wiermann, 371.