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Bach's Christmas Oratorio
December 24, 1996
(HARPSICHORD:OPENING NOTES OF ORATORIO, SLOW)
GK: It was December, 1734, a cold one across Germany, and in the City Of Leipzig, the Shops (HORSE HOOVES, WHINNY, PASSING) were full of Christmas anticipation. Children (FOOTSTEPS) stood and gazed at the toys in the bright windows- The houses were filling up with Christmas smells and Christmas secrets, the spirit of Christmas was in the air---
WP:Fruliche Yule, Hans!
TX:Danke schoen, Heinrich. Giddup. (HORSE WHINNY)
GK:There was Christmas joy everywhere except in the old gray stone house behind St. Thomas Church where the church music director, Johann Sebastian Bach, paced up and down (FOOTSTEPS.- SLOW, OF A FURIOUS MAN) the kitchen floor.
JM: Oy. (A GROAN. A SIGH) What in the name of heaven am I doing in this backwater! (HE KICKS A PAIL) In this--- (HE MUTTERS)--- this fetid swamp of ignorance--- (HE CRIES OUT, GLASS BREAKS) --- and these dull........... inanimate..... potato-faced KNUCKLEHEADS who I work for! (HE CRIES OUT, PUNCHES FIST THROUGH WALL).
JM:0 dear. Oh no. Shh-shh-shh. Hush, hush. Hush, lammykins. (BABY CRIES LOUDER) Shhh-shh. Oh dear. (HE PICKS HER UP, SHE SOBS) Papa's sorry. (HE SINGS A LULLABY: BYE BABY DOZING, DADDY'S GONE COMPOSING, GONE TO WRITE A NICE ETUDE, TO BUY A BUNCH OF BABY FOOD.) There there there. (BABY SNUFFLES, WHIMPERS). (HE WALKS THE CHILD, HUMMING TO IT).
GK: Spread across the kitchen table was a musical score and on the score were ketchup stains and raisins and crayons and a child's sock and orange peels --- It was the score of a Christmas cantata, (A HARPSICHORD WORKING OUT A THEME FROM THE ORATORIO PASTORALE), one that Bach liked so much, it was growing into an oratorio
JM: This oratorio is some of the best stuff I,ve ever written, Anna. I swear.
GK: Bach told his wife that evening.
JM:I only regret that it will have its Premiere in Leipzig. It's like performing for trees. Listen to this. (HARPSICHORD PLAYS SOME OF THE PASTORALE)
IA:(SHE LISTENS) Is that the Pastorale?
JM:(PLAYS MORE) Yeah. The Pastorale.
IA: It's nice, Jack. In fact, it's great.
JM:(PLAYING) You really like it?
IA: It sure beats Corelli. In fact, I think it's better than Handel.
JM:Better than Handel?
IA: Much. Those cantatas of Handels? Ha. What a bunch of woofers they are. No, this leaves Handel in the dust, Jack.
JM: Listen to this part here...... (HE PLAYS, THEN STOPS, AND SIGHS) Who am I trying to kid? What's the use? (HE GROANS)
JM:Everything. I hate music, Anna. I HATE MUSIC! It's useless. People don't care.
JM: It's a dinosaur profession, Anna. I don't know why I didn't become an innkeeper. A sausagemaker. Anything but a musician.
JM: I'm forty-nine years old, Anna, and I've spent my entire adult life being useless, and now I'm unqualified to do anything else. What a joke. (HE GROANS)
IA: What happened today, Jack?
GK: So he told her. Bach had been fighting for years with the Town Council, his boss --- they thought he was irresponsible and he thought they were--- a bunch of blathering idiots who wouldn't know art if it walked up and bit 'em in the hinder.
GK: Bach's main job, as the Town Council saw it, was not to compose music but to teach the boyschoir at St. Thomas School,
IA: (TEEN BOY) Mister Bach? What does it mean if there's a dot after the note?
TX:(TEEN) Mister Bach? can I go to the bathroom now?
JM: GO. (UNDER BREATH) And I wish you'd stay there.
GK: Bach taught the boys' choir, he directed his church choir and hired musicians, but the Council was stingy. It--saw no reason to pay money just for music.
WP: Pay fifteen groschen for somebody to toot on a horn? Why? Use your students. They'll do it for free.
JM:Ch boy. Not this again.
WP:Speaking of which--- you missed class again last week. You sent a substitute. Without permission.
JM:I was busy writing the St. Matthew Passion!
WP: Maybe so, but you have to take care of your duties!
JM: I have a duty to music.
WP: Be that as it may, it's no excuse for missing class.
JM: The substitute teacher is fine.
WP: We're paying you to teach.
JM: Have you ever tried to teach 13-year-old boys to sing, Herr Schmidt? Thirteen year old boys want to sing like a fish wants to walk.
WP: You have to follow the established procedures, Bach. You must teach unless you have permission to be absent.
JM: Then I want permission.
WP: Permission denied.
GK: So the Council voted to reprimand him for not doing his job. He was late, he didn't get his reports in on time, he didn't attend all the meetings. And poor Bach, doing the best work of his life and all of it unappreciated, could think back to happier days.
(CHORAL NUN DANKET HUMMED BRIDGE AND UNDER...)
JM: Ah, the days when I was in the court of Prince Leopold. What an intelligent and generous man. Everything I wrote for him --- concertos, trio sonatas, sinfonias, fugues --- he enjoyed all of it. Such a sensitive spirit. And then, unfortunately, he fell in love with Frederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg, who didn't give a fig for music, and after awhile he lost interest himself. Such a shame. Dreadful Woman. He died six years later, at the age of 34. He was starved for beauty. (HARPSICHORD)
GK: The next day, Bach began to rehearse his Christmas Oratorio.
JM: (RAPPING ON MUSIC STANDS) Ladies. Gentlemen. (HEN CLUCKING) Your attention, please. Will someone please throw the chicken out the window? (CHICKEN FLURRY, WINDOW OPEN, CLOSE) Thank you. Now, if you will turn to page 4 of the Oratorio.,.. (WOOF)
JM: Whose dog is this?
JM: Whose dog is it?
TK:(TEEN) Mine, Sir. Should I put it outside?
JM: No, we may need it to sing tenor. (RAPS MUSIC STAND) Ready? From the top. And--- (MUSIC STARTS, BADLY) (HE RAPS ON MUSIC STAND) No, no, no. Does everyone have the right Oratorio? This is the Christmas Oratorio. Okay? Not the Halloween Oratorio. Hans, you play like you're driving a beer wagon. Please. A little lyrical. Let it sing. Okay? Once more. (MUSIC STARTS, BADLY AND TRAILS ALONG FOR A LITTLE WHILE) Hey, hey, hey. (MUSIC STOP). Ladies and gentlemen. Please. It is only a little music. Have mercy on it. Don't torture it. Please. Once more. (MUSIC STARTS AND CLUMPS ALONG BADLY). Okay, okay, okay. That's enough. (MUSIC STOPS) Thank you. We'll try again tomorrow. And please--- don't eat so much sauerbraten for lunchr okay? Otherwise, we'll have to rehearse in an open field. (WOOF) Okay. That's all.
CK: Discouraged, Bach picked up his music and walked home where Anna Magdalena waited for him with a pot of coffee and a sweet cake.
IA: Sit down, Jack. Take Off your boots. Care for cream7
JM: Yes. Thank you. (HE HEAVES A SIGH)
IA: Let's not talk about music for ten seconds, okay?
IA: Good. Nice weather, isn't it.
IA: Sure is exciting, Christmas coming, huh?
IA: Boy a boy a boy, I wonder what St. Nicholas is going to bring us.
JM: Uh huh.
IA: Okay. How did rehearsal go?
JM: It was terrible. Choir can't carry a tune in a paper bag. The orchestra can't count, can't play, no intonation. Violinist sits there and hums while he plays, and the humming is better than the fiddling. I'm going to quit. What's the point of it?
IA: You can't quit, Jack.
JM: I'm going to die in this city. I just know it. This city is my grave. Leipzig. I've wasted my life writing music for a bunch of flatheads. Morons. Lutherans. They love whatever is bland and flabby and easy and puts them to sleep. --- Do you think I write too many chorale preludes? Maybe I ought to be writing more waltzes, like Chopin.
IA: I don't think you're a waltz type of guy, Jack. I've been married to you for twenty years. You're a prelude guy.
JM: I could write opera. We could go to Naples and write a hit opera and earn a million lire and hang out with Vivaldi.
IA: What would you ever write an opera about?
JM: It could be about us.
IA: An opera about a middle-aged Lutheran married couple in northern Germany?
IA: People in opera aren't married, Jack. That's why people pay to see it. If the people are married, you don't call it opera, you call it psychology. Listen to me, Jack.
JM: I'm listening.
IA: Look at me.
JM: I'm looking at you.
IA: Jack, you're going to finish this oratorio for God. God expects you to finish it.
JM: But, maybe God isn't---
IA: Shhh. Hush. It's going to be a magnificent Oratorio. People will want to hear it over and over, every Christmas. For hundreds of years. Jack--- this Oratorio is like a jobs program for musicians. Singers, violinists, harpsichordists --- they'll get work from this Oratorio and be able to support their families. Thanks to you.
IA: Look at it that way. You're providing for the families of the. future, Jack.
JM: I'm tired.
IA: I know.
GK: With her help and encouragement, he managed to finish the Christmas Oratorio, and make many copies of the whole manuscript- -- (QUILL PENS)
JM:(GROAN) Oh, if only they had a machine that would do this.
IA:(TEEN) A copying machine?
JM:Yes, a copying machine.
IA:(TEEN) How would it work, Dad?
JM: Maybe there could be these long metal rods attached to your wrist and as you copy this page, your wrist moves the rods which are attached to pencils which copy what you're doing on these---I don't know. We could figure it out.
GK: And they rehearsed it over and over and they performed it on Christmas, and the day after Christmas, and the day after that, and Anna Magdalena and all the children were there in the front pew to hear it.
IA:. Shhhhh. This is my favorite part.
(PASTORALE. TENOR RECIT & CHORUS)
GK: Bach did die in Leipzig, a city he didn't care for, in a job he didn't care for, music director in a church that didn't appreciate him, and a few days after he died, on July 28, 1750, the Town Council met and looked at the accounts and discovered that, when they had hired Bach 27 years earlier, they had paid him for the full year though he didn't start work until February, so after his death they deducted one manth's pay from his widow, Anna Magdalena's, pension. But all the musicians mourned for him. And his wife was right: the Oratorio kept singers and orchestras busy for many years to come. (THEME)