“Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.” - Martin Luther
For Music Saturday on this Easter Saturday, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Easter Oratorio”, BWV 249. This oratorio also called “Kommt, eilet und laufet” (Come, hasten and run) was composed in Leipzig and first performed on 1 April 1725. The first version of the work was completed as a cantata for Easter Sunday in Leipzig on 1 April 1725, then under the title “Kommt, gehet und eilet”. It was named “oratorio” and given the new title only in a version revised in 1735. In a later version in the 1740s the third movement was expanded from a duet to a four-part chorus.
The work is unlike most of Bach’s major choral works (e.g. the masses, or even the Christmas oratorio) as is a “parody”. This means that it was based on the music for a pre-existing work, with new text set to make it fit the occasion. In this case a secular cantata, the so-called “Shepherd Cantata” (“Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen”, BWV 249a) was used, which is now lost, although the libretto survives. Its author is Picander who is also likely the author of the oratorio's text.
The oratorio has no narrator but four conversing characters assigned to the four voice parts: Simon Peter (tenor) and John the Apostle (bass), appearing in the first duet hurrying to Jesus' grave and finding it empty, meeting there Mary Magdalene (alto) and "the other Mary", Mary Clopas (soprano). The choir was present only in the final movement until a later performance in the 1740s when the opening duet was set partly for four voices. The music is festively scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, oboe d’ amore, bassoon, two recorders, transverse flute, two violins, and basso continuo.
The work is opened by two contrasting instrumental movements that are probably taken from a concerto of the Köthen period. The oboe melody in the adagio is scored over “Seufzer” motifs (sighs) in the strings. The first duet of the disciples was set for chorus in a later version, the middle section remaining a duet. Many runs illustrate the movement toward the grave.
“Saget, saget mir geschwinde”, the aria of Mary Magdalene, is based on words from the Song of Songs, asking where to find the beloved, without whom she is completely orphaned and desolate. The words are close to those opening Part Two of the St Matthew Passion. The final movement in two contrasting sections resembles the Sanctus composed for Christmas 1724 and later part of the Mass in B minor.
Although this oratorio has never been as popular as other Bach cantatas and major church masterworks, it contains some lovely music (whatever its source) and it has a festive, bright air well-suited to the theme of resurrection.