Markus Rathey, Professor of Music History at Yale University

“Concepts of Time and Music in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio”

Monday, December 3

4:30pm, Woolworth 106


Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, composed in 1734, confronts the modern listener with a seemingly incoherent combination of topics, ranging from love over death to hell and Satan. The reason for this is a specific understanding of the Christmas feast in the early modern period. Christmas was viewed within a three-layered temporal structure, in which the historical event was but one component. The other two layers were the coming of Christ in the present time (envisioned as his dwelling in the heart of the believer) and his return at the end of times. This ‘threefold coming of Christ’, as Bach’s contemporaries would have called it, serves as a backbone for both the libretto of the oratorio and for some of the compositional decisions by Bach. The talk will explore the theological concept, its impact on the libretto, and show how it influenced temporal structures in Bach’s music as well.


Professor Rathey studied musicology, Protestant theology, and German philology in Bethel and Münster. He taught at the University of Mainz and the University of Leipzig and was a research fellow at the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig, before joining the Yale faculty in 2003. His research interests are music of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, Johann Sebastian Bach, and the relationship among music, religion, and politics during the Enlightenment. Recent publications include the books Johann Rudolph Ahle (1625–1673): Lebensweg und Schaffen (Eisenach, 1999), an edition of Johann Georg Ahle’s Music Theoretical Writings (Hildesheim, 2007, 2nd edition 2008), and Kommunikation und Diskurs: Die Bürgerkapitänsmusiken Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachs (Hildesheim, 2009). He was guest editor of a volume of the German journal Musik und Kirche (2005) on church music in the United States. He has contributed numerous articles to Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, the Laaber Lexikon der Kirchenmusik, and the handbook for the new German Hymnal (Liederkunde zum Evangelischen Gesangbuch). Recently, Professor Rathey published a chapter on Bach’s chorale cantatas in the new Laaber Bach Handbuch (vol. 1, pp. 331-450). He has published numerous articles on music by Bach and his contemporaries in scholarly journals such as Eighteenth-Century Music, Early Music History, Bach-Jahrbuch, and Schütz-Jahrbuch. Professor Rathey was president of the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship (2009-2011); currently he serves on the editorial board for the BACH Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute and serves of the board of directors for the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music. Ph.D., Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster.


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