Listening Guide: A Baroque Christmas

*Fum, Fum, Fum – Catalonia (16th or 17th c.)

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“Mein Gläubiges Herze” (“My Believing Heart”) from Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68 – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arr. David Matthew Brown
text by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler

Described by John Eliot Gardiner as “surely one of Bach’s most refreshing and unbuttoned expressions of melodic joy and high spirits,” this aria is arranged for illumine’s instrumentation from the original soprano, violoncello piccolo, and orchestra score. Listen for:

•The melodic, violin ostinato that continues throughout the aria, following the modulation scheme, but rarely deviating from its original form

•An extended, contrapuntal coda between the violin and piano

•Rhythmic interplay within the ensemble that – in conjunction with the versatile melody – evokes joyousness


My faithful heart,
rejoice, sing, make jokes.
Away despair, away lamentation,
I will only say to you:
My Jesus is near.


*The Coventry Carol – England (16th c.)

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Selections from  The Messiah – George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)
text compiled by Charles Jennens, from the King James Bible

I: But who may abide the day of His coming

Typically performed by either a bass or alto soloist, this aria alternates between the pensive, “But who may abide…” and the impassioned “refiner’s fire” text cues. Listen for:

•Extremely melismatic singing, extending a very brief text into a larger work

•Virtuoso piano-right-hand passagework, reduced from orchestral string tremolo


But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.

II: Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened

This recitative functions to anticipate “He shall feed his flock.” Listen for:

•Harmonic tension building to a cadence that, independently, does not feel resolved

•Optimistic text that enhances the anticipation


Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.

III: He shall feed His flock

This lilting, peaceful melody is one of the most famous arias of The Messiah. Listen for:

•A scalar, stepwise melody that puts listeners at ease (opposite, for example, the leapwise melody of But who may abide…)

•Perpetual quarter-eighth piano rhythm in 6/8 time, furthering the sense of peace

•Vocal ornaments/improvisations, gradually introduced


He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.

Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.


*O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles) – England or Portugal (17th or 18th c.)

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*The Huron Carol – Canada (17th c.)

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Violin Concert No. 4 “Winter” in F minor, RV 297 – Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

I: Allegro non molto

“To tremble from cold in the icy snow, In the harsh breath of a horrid wind; To run, stamping one’s feet every moment, Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold.” Listen for:

•”Trembling” in the opening trill figure – also, played sul ponticello: at the bridge, producing a raspy sound

•Virtuosic arpeggios and runs in the violin part, resembling a “horrid wind”

•A very high register (and generally wide tessitura), uncharacteristic of most Baroque violin music

II: Largo

“Before the fire to pass peaceful, Contented days while the rain outside pours down.” Listen for:

•Phrasing and changes in tone color, executed entirely by the stroke of the bow

•A piano ostinato like rain

•Improvisations and ornaments, increasingly prevalent

III: Allegro

“We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling. Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up. We feel the chill north winds course through the home despite the locked and bolted doors… this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.” Listen for:

•Improvisatory freedom in the violin solo part, generally over foreboding piano figures

•A pervasive synthesis of beauty and trepidation

•A timeless section in which texture is excessively sparse, anticipating:

•A wild coda, played as quickly as possible


*Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella – France (17th c.)

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Selections from Weinachts-Oratorium, BWV 248 – Johann Sebastian Bach
text by anonymous author(s), possibly including Christian Friedrich Henrici

I: Schließe, mein Herze (Keep, O my spirit)

This pensive aria is set from the perspective of the adoring shepherds. Listen for:

•A mysterious melody, rife with syncopation and chromaticism

•Joyous interjections by the violin, despite a generally melancholy affect

•A more grounded, less syncopated melody, reinforcing the reference to one’s strength of faith


Lock, my heart,
this blessed wonder
firm in your belief!
Let the wonder
of the Godly works
always the strength of your
weak faith be!

II: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Slumber, beloved)

At once peaceful and profound, this aria is a lullaby to Christ. Listen for:

•Long, sustained, melodic notes, resembling the hushed affect of a lullaby

•Elaborate melismas that signify “joy” and “gladness”

•An unusually sparse, recurring violin figure – in the absence of singing – that descends, syncopated, and harmonically suspended – perhaps drifting into sleep


Sleep, my dearest,
enjoy the peace,
watch after this
over the well-being of all!
Refresh the breast,
feel the joy,
where we our hearts gladden!

III: Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam

This recitative functions as a first part to the following aria. Listen for:

•Violin double stops, arranged from an oboe duet

Diminished harmonies, engaging the listener for the following aria


Now will my dearest bridegroom,
now will the hero
of David’s stem for the comfort,
and salvation of the world
finally be born.
Now will the star
of Jacob shine,
his radiance breaks forth already;
up, Zion!
and leave now the weeping,
your well-being ascends aloft.

IV: Bereite dich, Zion (Prepare thyself, Zion)

This aria heralds the birth of Christ. Listen for:

•An infectious melody in triple meter, passed between the violin and voice

•A complex continuo part, involving dense, left hand passagework and figured bass improvisation

•Bach’s densely ornamented compositional style, too complex for improvisation


Prepare yourself, Zion,
with tender emotion
the fairest, the dearest
soon with you to see.
Your cheeks must today
with much beauty be resplendent,
hurry, the Bridegroom
longing to love.


*Joy to the World – England (18th c.)

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