Christmas cantata

A Christmas cantata or Nativity cantata is a cantata, music for voice or voices in several movements, for Christmas. The importance of the feast inspired many composers to write cantatas for the occasion, some designed to be performed in church services, others for concert or secular celebration. The Christmas story, telling of music of the angels and suggesting music of the shepherds and cradle song, invited musical treatment. The term is called Weihnachtskantate in German, Cantate de Noël in French. Christmas cantatas have been written on texts in several other languages, such as Czech, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish.

Christmas cantata can also mean the performance of the music. Many choirs have a tradition of an annual Christmas cantata.


Different from Christmas oratorios, which present the Christmas story, Christmas cantatas deal with aspects of it. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, written for performance in Leipzig in 1734/1735 touches many of these themes. It consists of six parts, each part is a complete work and composed for the church service of a specific feast day. Bach structured the report from the Gospels which connects the parts to a whole, as told by the Evangelist, in six topics. In Parts I to IV he followed the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:3–21), in Parts V and VI the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1–12). In some instances he deviated from the prescribed readings, rather continuing the tradition of older works by Heinrich Schütz and others.[1]

These themes appear also in cantatas of later composers.


Many Christmas cantatas – as cantatas in general – were written in the Baroque era for church services, related to the prescribed readings of the liturgical year. Cantata texts frequently incorporated Bible quotations and chorale. Chorale cantatas rely on the text of one chorale only. Later composers also set free text, poems and carols.

Italian baroqueEdit

The cantata form originated in Italy, alongside the oratorio. Carissimi's pupil Marc-Antoine Charpentier brought the small-scale Latin Christmas oratorio to Paris (In nativitatem Domini canticum), while the vernacular Italian Christmas cantata was developed by composers such as Alessandro Stradella (Si apra al riso ogni labro 1675), Francesco Provenzale[2] (Per la nascita del Verbo 1683) and Alessandro Scarlatti in Naples, Antonio Caldara in Vienna (Vaticini di pace 1713).

German baroqueEdit


The best known Christmas cantatas today are those of Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed several cantatas for the three days of Christmas in his three annual cantata cycles (1723 to 1725), also before and afterwards:

In the works of Bach's second cycle of chorale cantatas (1724), the text of the chorale is kept for the outer stanzas, but rephrased in poetry for arias and recitatives in the other stanzas. His late cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo is derived from the Gloria in his Missa in B minor, which he had composed for the court of Dresden in 1733 and would later incorporate in his Mass in B minor. Therefore, the cantata is for five parts and in Latin. The text of the liturgical Gloria begins with the angels' song, as a link to the Christmas story.

Other German Baroque composersEdit

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel composed for the season 1736/1737 a structure of six cantatas for six feast days around Christmas, similar to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, including Kündlich groß ist das gottselige Geheimnis.[3] More of his Christmas cantatas were published in 2007 by Hofmeister.[4] Christmas cantatas were also composed by Georg Gebel, Christoph Graupner, Andreas Hammerschmidt, Arnold Brunckhorst, Johann Samuel Beyer, Philipp Buchner, David Pohle, Johann Hermann Schein and Thomas Selle, among others.

Classical periodEdit

During the Age of Enlightenment, church music was less prominent. In 1796 Jakub Jan Ryba wrote Česká mše vánoční, which tells within the frame of a Mass a Christmas story in Czech, set in pastoral Bohemia.

Romantic periodEdit

During the romantic era, Felix Mendelssohn composed the chorale cantata Vom Himmel hoch [de] based on Martin Luther's song, and Josef Rheinberger wrote Der Stern von Bethlehem [de] (The star of Bethlehem) on a text by his wife Franziska von Hoffnaaß. Christmas cantatas were also composed by Gerard von Brucken Fock (1900) and Charles H. Gabriel, among others.

20th centuryEdit

In the 20th century, Benjamin Britten set in 1942 a sequence of carols as A Ceremony of Carols. His cantata Saint Nicolas, written in 1948, after World War II, has also been termed a Christmas cantata. Rudolf Mauersberger composed for the Dresdner Kreuzchor which he conducted, Eine kleine Weihnachtskantate (A little Christmas cantata). Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Hodie, and Arthur Honegger composed as his last work Une cantate de Noël for the Basler Kammerchor and their founder Paul Sacher.[5] He began his work with a setting of Psalm 130 and continued with carols.[6] Christmas cantatas were also composed by Geoffrey Bush, Steve Dobrogosz, Geoffrey Grey, Iain Hamilton, Julius Harrison, Hans Uwe Hielscher, Mathilde Kralik, Ivana Loudová, Daniel Pinkham (1957),[7] Ned Rorem, K. Lee Scott, Otto Albert Tichý and Arnold van Wyk, among others. A Christmas cantata outside the classical music tradition was the 1986 project The Animals' Christmas by Jimmy Webb and Art Garfunkel.

In 1995, Bruckner's Fest-Kantate Preiset den Herrn, WAB 16, has undergone an adaptation as Festkantate zur Weihnacht (festive Christmas cantata) for mixed choir with Herbert Vogg’s text "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe".[8][9]

21st centuryEdit

In the 21st century, new Christmas cantatas have been written among others by Toshio Hosokawa[10] and Graham Waterhouse.[11]


All Christmas cantatas consist of several movements, most movements include solo and choral singing. The scoring can be chamber music to be performed by single singers and instruments, choir a cappella, and works for soloists, choir and orchestra. Several composers specifically asked for a children's choir. Trumpets feature prominently in many Baroque cantatas as the Royal instruments.


The table uses abbreviations: S = soprano, MS = mezzo-soprano, A = alto, T = tenor, Bar = baritone, B = bass, childr = children's choir, Str = strings, Instr = instruments, Tr = tromba (trumpet), Co = horn, Cn = cornett, Tb = trombone, Ti = timpani, Fl = recorder, Ft = flauto traverso, Ob = oboe, Oa = Oboe d'amore, Oc = Oboe da caccia, Vn = violin, Va = viola, Vc = cello, Fg = bassoon, Org = organ, Bc = basso continuo

Composer born Cantata title No. Text composed Scoring Premiere Notes
Francesco Provenzale 1624 Sui palchi delle stelle 1689 S
2Vl Bc
Cristoforo Caresana 1640? L'Adoratione de' Maggi 1676 6 voices [13]
(unknown) Uns ist ein Kind geboren BWV 142 Erdmann Neumeister 1711–56 A T B SATB
2Fl 2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
first attributed to Bach
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow 1663 Uns ist ein Kind geboren S A T B SATB
Ob Fg 2Vl 2Va Bc
[14] and others
Arnold Matthias Brunckhorst 1670? Nun zeiget der Himmel die schönsten Gebärden / In festo nativitate Christi S A T B SATB
6 Instr Bc
Georg Philipp Telemann 1681 Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe[15]
In festo nativitatis
TWV 1:412 S A T B SATB
3Tr Ti Str Bc
Georg Philipp Telemann 1681 Uns ist ein Kind geboren[16][17] TWV 1:1451 Erdmann Neumeister S A T B SATB
3Tr Ti 2Ft 2Ob Str Bc
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV 63 Johann Michael Heineccius? 1713? S A T B SATB
4Tr Ti 3Ob Fg 2Vl Va Bc
First Day
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget BWV 64 1723 S A B SATB
Cn 3Tb Oa 2Vl Va Bc
27 Dec 1723
Third Day
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BWV 91 "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" 1724 S A T B SATB
2Co Ti 3Ob 2Vl Va Bc
25 Dec 1724
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Christum wir sollen loben schon BWV 121 "Christum wir sollen loben schon" 1724 S A T B SATB
Cn 3Tr Oa 2Vl Va Bc
26 Dec 1724
Second Day, chorale
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Ich freue mich in dir BWV 133 hymn by Caspar Ziegler 1724 S A T B SATB
Cn 2Oa 2Vl Va Bc
27 Dec 1724
Third Day, chorale
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens BWV 110 Georg Christian Lehms 1725 S B SATB
3Tr Ti 2Ft 3Ob Oa Oc Fg 2Vl Va Bc
25 Dec 1725
First Day
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Selig ist der Mann BWV 57 Georg Christian Lehms 1725 S B SATB
2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
26 Dec 1725
Second Day
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 Gloria, Doxology 1745 S T SSATB
3Tr Ti 2Ft 2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
25 Dec 1745 First Day
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel 1690 Kündlich groß ist das gottselige Geheimnis 1736 S A SATB
Ob 2Vl Va Bc
27 Dec 1736 Third Day
Christian Heinrich Rinck 1777 Weihnachtskantate op. 73 [18]
Felix Mendelssohn 1809 Vom Himmel hoch MWV A 10 "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" 1831 S Bar SSATB
Josef Rheinberger 1839 Der Stern von Bethlehem Franziska von Hoffnaaß 1891 soli choir
John Henry Maunder 1858 Bethlehem Catharine Morgan 1939? in the manner of the medieval miracle play
William Reed 1859 The Message of the Angels 1910
Felix Woyrsch 1860 Die Geburt Jesu op. 18 Bible 1910 soli choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872 Hodie Ursula Vaughan Williams[19] 1953–54 S T Bar choir
Ottorino Respighi 1879 Lauda per la Natività del Signore Jacopone da Todi? 1930 S MS T SSAATTBB
woodwinds, piano 4 hands
Walter Braunfels 1882 Der gläserne Berg, Weihnachtsmärchen op. 39 1928
Walter Braunfels 1882 Weihnachtskantate op. 52 1934–37 S Bar
Rudolf Mauersberger 1889 Weihnachtszyklus der Kruzianer [de] 1944–46 soli choir SATB SATB a cappella (piano)
Rudolf Mauersberger 1889 Eine kleine Weihnachtskantate 1948
Frank Martin 1890 Cantate pour le temps de Noel 1929–30
Gerald Finzi 1893 Dies natalis Thomas Traherne 1939 S (T)
Arthur Honegger 1893 Une cantate de Noël Ps. 130, Lieder 1952–53 Bar choir childr
Org orchestra
18 Dec 1953
Kurt Hessenberg 1908 Weihnachtskantate op. 27 Matthias Claudius 1950–51 S A SSATBB
published by Schott[20]
Benjamin Britten 1913 A Ceremony of Carols op. 28 1942 boys' choir
William Lloyd Webber 1913 Born a King soli choir
Lee Hoiby 1926 A Hymn of the Nativity Richard Crashaw
Gilbert Bécaud 1927 L'enfant à L'étoile 1960
Ariel Ramírez 1927 Navidad Nuestra [de] Félix Luna 1963 S T choir
South American instr
Malcolm Williamson 1931 Adoremus 1959 A T SATB
Nils Lindberg 1933 A Christmas Cantata 2002 S Bar chamber choir
big band
St Matthew and carols, recorded[21]
Gerhard Track 1934 Festkantate zur Weihnacht Herbert Vogg 1995 SATB choir
Wind Instr, Org
29 April 1996, Vienna Adaptation Bruckner's Fest-Kantate
Thomas Oboe Lee 1945 Christmas Cantata 2001 MS SATB
2Tr 2Tb Ti Org
Peter Skellern 1947 The Nativity Cantata 2004 2004
Otomar Kvěch 1950 Vánoční chvalozpěv 1973 soli choir
Mark Carlson 1952 A Wreath of Anthems various American poets 1990 SATB
Toshio Hosokawa 1955 Weihnachtskantate anon. 2002 S A choir
20 Dec 2002
published by Schott[10]
Maria Newman 1962 A Little Book of Southern Carols 2008 SSA (treble or boy's choir) treble vocal soli
piano, handbells (or chimes), percussion, and violin (or flute/recorder), and viola
2008 published by Montgomery Arts House Press
Graham Waterhouse 1962 Der Anfang einer neuen Zeit Hans Krieger 2011 S Bar choir childr
Str (Org)
3/4 Dec 2011
Frederik Magle 1977 A newborn child, before eternity, God! 1996 soli choir
brass band, Org, percussion


  • Alfred Dürr: Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kantaten. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1999, ISBN 3-7618-1476-3
  • Werner Neumann: Handbuch der Kantaten J.S.Bachs, 1947, 1984, ISBN 3-7651-0054-4
  • Hans-Joachim Schulze: Die Bach-Kantaten: Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt; Stuttgart: Carus-Verlag 2006 (Edition Bach-Archiv Leipzig) ISBN 3-374-02390-8 (Evang. Verl.-Anst.), ISBN 3-89948-073-2 (Carus-Verlag)
  • Christoph Wolff/Ton Koopman: Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten Verlag J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart, Weimar 2006 ISBN 978-3-476-02127-4


  1. ^ Walter Blankenburg: Das Weihnachtsoratorium von Johann Sebastian Bach. 2003, pp. 34–35.
  2. ^ Dinko Fabris Francesco Provenzale 2007
  3. ^ David Vernier (2005). "Stölzel: Christmas Oratorio – Epistle Cantatas" (in German). ArkivMusik. Retrieved 16 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ "Edition Denkmäler Mitteldeutscher Barockmusik" (in German). 2011. Retrieved 31 August 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e Benjamin G. Cohrs (2 December 2002). "Weihnachtskantaten – einmal anders" (in German). Retrieved 8 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ "Une Cantate de Noël". Hyperion Records. 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ "Daniel Pinkham, Christmas Cantata",
  8. ^ Cornelis van Zwol, Anton Bruckner - Leven en Werken , Thot, Bussum (Netherlands), 2012, p. 713-714
  9. ^ Uwe Harten, Anton Bruckner. Ein Handbuch. Residenz Verlag [de], Salzburg, 1996, p. 152-153
  10. ^ a b "Weihnachtskantate Komponist: Toshio Hosokawa". Schott. Retrieved 8 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ a b "Der Anfang einer neuen Zeit". Graham Waterhouse. Retrieved 7 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  12. ^ Dinko Fabris (2007). Music in seventeenth-century Naples: Francesco Provenzale (1624–1704). Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 9780754637219. Retrieved 14 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^ "L'Adoratione de' Maggi". 2010. Retrieved 14 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  14. ^ "Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow: Uns ist ein Kind geboren". Carus-Verlag. 2011. Retrieved 16 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  15. ^ "Fête de Noël" section at Georg Philipp Telemann, Catalogue TWV 01: Cantates d'église, Temps de Noël (
  16. ^ Spitta's Johann Sebastian Bach: Vol. I, pp. 487–491 (English version)
  17. ^ RISM No. 454600660; RISM No. 450004696; RISM No. 230001286; RISM No. 250005337
  18. ^ "Christian Heinrich Rinck (1770–1846)". 2008. Retrieved 14 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  19. ^ "Ursula Vaughan Williams (obituary)". The Times. 25 October 2007.
  20. ^ "Weihnachtskantate Komponist: Kurt Hessenberg". Schott. Retrieved 8 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  21. ^ John France (2004). "Nils LINDBERG (b. 1933) / A Christmas Cantata (2002)". Retrieved 13 December 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)