Music
1:26 am
Thu December 22, 2011

A Church, An Oratorio And An Enduring Tradition

Originally published on Thu December 22, 2011 11:17 am

Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio was first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day in 1734. In Germany, no matter what the economic and political times, it's the Christmas work. In the oldest functioning church in Berlin, the 13th-century Saint Mary's, performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is a fixed tradition.

St. Marienkirche, built around 1290, suffered damage — like most everything in this city — from allied air raids during World War II. But it survived. Today, the gothic church sits in stately, if jarring, contrast next to the giant, kitschy TV tower built by the East German regime on the concrete expanse of Alexanderplatz.

This time of year, to get into the church you have to push your way through the packed Christmas market just outside, with its Ferris wheel, mulled wine, holiday sweets and lively crowds. But when you step inside, the church for the annual performance of Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium, you quickly forget about the bustle outside. A Berliner and longtime member of St. Mary's church choir, Christian Beier attempts to explain the mystique and tradition behind this piece of music.

"It was the first CD my father bought when in the '80s we bought a CD player," Beier says. "So this piece of music was the first CD we had in the family. Even if you play it every year, it is always an emotional moment staying up there singing Jauchzet, frohlocket. That is just more or less like doing the service itself; it is a service, basically.

"It makes Christmas Christmas," he adds with a chuckle.

But as gorgeous as the music is for Beier, the core of this yearly event is something deeper.

"It is getting into some dialogue with God. It is being moved by whatever is around us," he says. "That's the point, and it's about making music together. And I don't know many pieces of music that bring that out like this. Being part of it and enjoying the music and doing it with the others together, and just let the music flow through you and be a part of it and sing."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Germany, the music of the season is Johann Sebastian Bach's "Christmas Oratorio." The masterpiece was first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day, 1734. This year, NPR's Eric Westervelt went to a performance in Berlin, in that city's oldest functioning church.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: St. Mary's Church, built around 1290, suffered damage - like most everything in this city - from Allied air raids during the Second World War. But it survived. And today the gothic church sits in stately if jarring contrast next to the giant, kitschy TV tower built by the East German regime on the concrete expanse of Alexanderplatz.

This time of year to get into the church you have to push your way through the packed Christmas market just outside, with its Ferris wheel, mulled wine, holiday sweets, and lively crowds.

But when you step inside the church for the annual performance of J.S. Bach's "Weihnachst-Oratorium," you quickly forget about the bustle outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

CHRISTIAN BEIER: My name is Christian Beier and I've been now for eight years with the Marienkantori in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

CHRISTIAN BEIER: It was the first CD my father bought in the '80s when we bought a CD player. So this piece of music was the first CD we had in the family. I mean even if you play it every year, it's always an emotional moment, staying up there and singing Jauchzet, frohlocket. And that's just more or less like doing the service itself. It is a service, basically. So it makes Christmas Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

BEIER: It is unbelievable. It's not explainable what happens there. What is the core(ph) issue of having a service? It's getting in some dialogue with God, it's being moved by whatever is around us. That's the most important point and that's all about making music together. And I don't know many pieces of music that brings that out like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

BEIER: Being part of it and enjoying the music and doing it with the others together and just let the music flow through you and be a part of it and sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

WESTERVELT: Berliner Christian Beier, a longtime member of St Mary's Church choir on J.S. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio."

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEIHNACHST-ORATORIUM")

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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