Christmas Music History: Bach’s Baroque Shepherds & Folk Tradition

Close your eyes and picture the Christmas nativity scene. Are there shepherds? What do they look like? What are they doing?

Since St. Francis presented the first recreation of Jesus’s birth in a cave in Greccio, Italy in 1223, countless renditions of the nativity scene have been drawn, carved and staged, and nearly all of these feature shepherds in the supporting cast, very often with flutes and horns in tow. The 1389 Trés Belles Heures de Notre-Dame, for instance, depicts a nativity scene with three shepherds, one with a primitive bagpipe and the other two with alpenhorns. Even St. Joseph himself carries an alpenhorn in the Bedford Hours (c. 1410-1430, France).

The musical shepherd’s lasting presence in the nativity scene is probably less a result of biblical influence — after all, the shepherds are mentioned only briefly in only one of the four Gospels (Luke), and nothing is said about their music — than of contemporaneous familiarity and local folk traditions. While shepherds mostly used horns in various occupational and communicative capacities, some also became quite skilled musicians. In addition to performing at weddings and other celebrations, small bands of shepherds would come down from the mountains at Christmastime to play carols for townspeople. Berlioz describes the pifferari, as they were known in Rome, and surmises that the tradition must have survived from antiquity:

“Equipped with bagpipes and pifferi (a kind of oboe), they come to perform devout concerts in front of images of the Madonna. They usually wear broad coats of brown cloth, and the same pointed hats worn by brigands; their appearance has a kind of wild mysticism which is full of originality….The bagpipe, supported by a large piffero which sounds the bass, plays a harmony of two or three notes, over which a medium length piffero performs the melody. Then on top of it all two small and very short pifferi, played by children of 12 to 15 years, rain down trills and cadences and bathe the rustic melody with a cascade of exotic ornaments. After cheerful and jolly tunes which are repeated at great length, a slow and solemn prayer, full of patriarchal warmth, brings the naive symphony to a worthy conclusion…”

Bach immortalizes this folk tradition in the opening “Sinfonia” of Part II of his 1734/35 Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio). This serene tone painting is written in the form of a “concerto a due cori,” utilizing the lilting, dotted 12/8 rhythm of the pastoral Siciliana. Violins and flutes set the scene of a starry night in the hills around Bethlehem, while the shepherds and their flocks are depicted by a chorus of low-pitched Baroque oboes: two oboes d’amore pitched a minor third lower than the soprano oboe, and two oboes da caccia pitched a fifth lower.

Though the oboe d’amore, a slightly larger version of the modern oboe with a more tranquil sound, saw a minor resurgence in compositional interest in the early 20th century, the oboe da caccia fell so quickly and so greatly into disuse after the Baroque era that even modern musical scholars didn’t really know what the instrument looked or sounded like until 1973, when two original Baroque instruments were discovered in Scandinavian museums.

Seen in the photo here, the oboe da caccia (played here by Alan Paul of San Francisco) features a leather-covered, curved wooden body with a flaring brass bell at the end, combining the two specialties of famed Leipzig instrument maker Johann H. Eichentopf, who is credited with the instrument’s invention. It is believed that the brass bell, which makes the instrument sound like a hunting horn, inspired its name (literally “hunting oboe” in Italian). It was, however, never used to hunt, and unlike other wind and brass instruments, had no real folk, military or court predecessor.

Alan_Paul_Oboe_da_Caccia

The oboes da caccia crafted today are all copies of the two that survived from the 18th century, both made by Eichentopf, and its usage is limited almost entirely to the repertoire of the great Baroque composers of Leipzig, such as Bach and Telemann.

For a special treat, listen to Baroque oboist and oboe maker Sand Dalton play the instrument solo:

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