Cantata 63 was written for the morning service on Christmas Day, 1723, in Leipzig. This was Bach’s first big holiday at Leipzig, and no doubt this work helped make a very big and positive impression. Yet, Bach’s choice of text makes no mention of the shepherds, the angels, or the wise men who are so associated with the Biblical versions of the Christmas story. Instead, Bach focuses on the joy that Christians must feel upon realizing that Jesus was born onto this world to save us from our sins.
The scoring is once again brilliant and celebratory, using this time four trumpets, timpani (often used in conjunction with trumpets, but rarely without them), three oboes, bassoon, strings, continuo, and soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts in the choir. The vibrant, lilting triple meter almost gives this first movement a dance-like feeling.
Cantata 63 uses a familiar device of Bach’s, which is to set up a symmetrical arrangement to the movements. (One can, incidentally, see the same procedure at work in Cantata 140). The movements are as follows:
|1. Chorus||7. Chorus|
|2. Recitative (for low female voice)||6. Recitative (for low male voice)|
|3. Duet||5. Duet|
|4. Recitative (for high male voice)|
If you invert the chart above, you see that the form of Cantata 63 is not only symmetrical, but arch-shaped, like a rainbow.
The middle movement, a recitative for tenor solo, is very short, a mere 12 measures, and has the smallest scoring (the accompaniment is only continuo). Thus, the attention of the audience is focused clearly on the tenor’s every word in this central movement. By repeating one phrase, Bach places the word “Gnaden”, meaning “grace”, at exactly the half-way point of the movement, and, by extension, at the mid-point of the entire cantata. It was through God’s grace that Jesus Christ came to earth on Christmas. Could Bach’s emphasis of this word and placement of this word at the heart of the cantata have been coincidental? Not likely, given how carefully he composed, how important words and symbolism were to him.
Missing from this cantata are solo arias. The soloists instead are featured in recitatives, as in the central movement discussed above, or in duets. Both duets feature a male and female soloist; perhaps this is Bach’s indication that men and women alike are to celebrate the coming of Christ.