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Abstract

It has been recognized since the nineteenth century that most of the poetic arias and choruses in J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 are parodies of music composed to other texts. In the early twentieth century it was claimed that at least one gospel narrative chorus was also derived from extant music, a hypothesis subsequently expanded to include several such movements said to be parodies as well. The claims are flimsily argued and are unlikely on source-critical grounds, but they have stuck, persisting in scholarly writings, reference works, and popular literature.

The origin of this idea is a 1916 article by one Gerhard Freiesleben, a Leipzig lawyer, Thomasschule graduate, and Wagnerite who asserted that the wise men in Part 5 of Bach’s oratorio sounded not like kings but like cacophonous Jews, and that the setting of their words, unbecoming royalty or Bach, must therefore be parody. He proposed that the origin of this music was one of the “Jew choruses” from the lost St. Mark Passion BWV 247. Later authors took up Freiesleben’s results while sidestepping his crazy argument.

In fact the persistence of this theory owes a great deal to an inherited view of the Christmas Oratorio that approaches it primarily in relation to Bach’s passion settings. It is entwined with a scholarly and practical obsession with the St. Mark Passion and to the futile search for its recovery. And it is tied disturbingly to stereotypes of Jews and their musical depiction, even in literature that does not explicitly invoke Jewishness. The claim—the supposed origins of gospel choruses from the Christmas Oratorio in the St. Mark Passion—can safely be set aside as wrong. But its perpetuation calls attention to an unsettling legacy of interpretation of the Christmas Oratorio and other narrative works that we ought to confront, and tainted research that we need to step away from.

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