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 the season 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 baroque

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 baroque


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 composers

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.[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 Herman Schein and Thomas Selle, among others.

Classical period

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 period

During the romantic era, Felix Mendelssohn composed the chorale cantata Vom Himmel hoch based on Martin Luther's song, and Josef Rheinberger wrote Der Stern von Bethlehem (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 century

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.

21st century

In the 21st century, new Christmas cantatas have been written among others by Toshio Hosokawa[8] and Graham Waterhouse.[9]


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.

Selected cantatas

The table used 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

ComposerbornCantata titleNo.TextcomposedScoringPremiereNotes
ProvenzaleFrancesco Provenzale1624Sui palchi delle stelle 1689 S
2Vl Bc
CaresanaCristoforo Caresana1640?L'Adoratione de' Maggi 1676 6 voices [11]
KuhnauJohann Kuhnau1660Uns ist ein Kind geborenBWV 142 A T B SATB
2Fl 2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
first attributed to Bach
ZachowFriedrich Wilhelm Zachow1663Uns ist ein Kind geboren S A T B SATB
Ob Fg 2Vl 2Va Bc
[12] and others
BrunckhorstArnold Matthias Brunckhorst1670?Nun zeiget der Himmel die schönsten Gebärden / In festo nativitate Christi S A T B SATB
6 Instr Bc
TelemannGeorg Philipp Telemann1681Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe
In festo nativitatis
3Tr Ti Str Bc
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Christen, ätzet diesen TagBWV 63Johann Michael Heineccius? 1713?S A T B SATB
4Tr Ti 3Ob Fg 2Vl Va Bc
First Day
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeigetBWV 64 1723S A B SATB
Cn 3Tb Oa 2Vl Va Bc
1723-12-2727 Dec 1723
Third Day
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Gelobet seist du, Jesu ChristBWV 91"Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" 1724S A T B SATB
2Co Ti 3Ob 2Vl Va Bc
1724-12-2525 Dec 1724
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Christum wir sollen loben schonBWV 121"Christum wir sollen loben schon" 1724S A T B SATB
Cn 3Tr Oa 2Vl Va Bc
1724-12-2626 Dec 1724
Second Day, chorale
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Unser Mund sei voll LachensBWV 110Georg Christian Lehms 1725S B SATB
3Tr Ti 2Ft 3Ob Oa Oc Fg 2Vl Va Bc
1725-12-2525 Dec 1725
First Day
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Selig ist der MannBWV 57Georg Christian Lehms 1725S B SATB
2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
1725-12-2626 Dec 1725
Second Day
BachJohann Sebastian Bach1685Gloria in excelsis DeoBWV 191 1745 S T SSATB
3Tr Ti 2Ft 2Ob 2Vl Va Bc
1745-12-2525 Dec 1745First Day
RinckChristian Heinrich Rinck1777Weihnachtskantate op. 73 [13]
MendelssohnFelix Mendelssohn1809Vom Himmel hochMWV A 10 "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" 1831 S Bar SSATB
RheinbergerJosef Rheinberger1839Der Stern von Bethlehem Franziska von Hoffnaaß 1891 soli choir
MaunderJohn Henry Maunder1858Bethlehem Catharine Morgan 1939? in the manner of the medieval miracle play
ReedWilliam Reed1859The Message of the Angels 1910
WoyrschFelix Woyrsch1860Die Geburt Jesu op. 18 Bible 1910 soli choir
WilliamsRalph Vaughan Williams1872 Hodie Ursula Vaughan Williams[14]1953–54 S T Bar choir
RespighiOttorino Respighi1879 Lauda per la Natività del Signore Jacopone da Todi? 1930 S MS T SSAATTBB
woodwinds, piano 4 hands
BraunfelsWalter Braunfels1882Der gläserne Berg, Weihnachtsmärchenop. 39 1928
BraunfelsWalter Braunfels1882Weihnachtskantateop. 52 1934–37 S Bar
MauersbergerRudolf Mauersberger1889Weihnachtszyklus der Kruzianer 1944–46 soli choir SATB SATB a cappella (piano)
MauersbergerRudolf Mauersberger1889Eine kleine Weihnachtskantate 1948
Martin, FFrank Martin1890Cantate pour le temps de Noel 1929–30
FinziGerald Finzi1893Dies natalis Thomas Traherne1939 S (T)
HoneggerArthur Honegger1893Une cantate de Noël Ps. 130, Lieder 1952–53 Bar choir childr
Org orchestra
1953-12-1818 Dec 1953
HessenbergKurt Hessenberg1908Weihnachtskantateop. 27 Matthias Claudius 1950–51 S A SSATBB
published by Schott[15]
BrittenBenjamin Britten1913A Ceremony of Carolsop. 28 1942 boys' choir
WebberWilliam Lloyd Webber1913Born a King soli choir
HoibyLee Hoiby1926A Hymn of the Nativity Richard Crashaw
BécaudGilbert Bécaud1927L'enfant à L'étoile 1960
RamírezAriel Ramírez1927Navidad Nuestra Félix Luna1963 S T choir
South American instr
WilliamsonMalcolm Williamson1931Adoremus 1959 A T SATB
LindbergNils Lindberg1933A Christmas Cantata 2002 S Bar chamber choir
big band
St Matthew and carols, recorded[16]
LeeThomas Oboe Lee1945Christmas Cantata 2001 MS SATB
2Tr 2Tb Ti Org
SkellernPeter Skellern1947The Nativity Cantata 2004 20042004
KvěchOtomar Kvěch1950Vánoční chvalozpěv 1973 soli choir
CarlsonMark Carlson1952A Wreath of Anthems various American poets1990 SATB
HosokawaToshio Hosokawa1955Weihnachtskantate anon. 2002 S A choir
2002-12-2020 Dec 2002
published by Schott[8]
WaterhouseGraham Waterhouse1962Der Anfang einer neuen Zeit Hans Krieger 2011 S Bar choir childr
Str (Org)
2011-12-033/4 Dec 2011
MagleFrederik Magle1977A newborn child, before eternity, God! 1996 soli choir
brass band, Org, percussion
NewmanMaria Newman1962A 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
2008published by Montgomery Arts House Press



  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.
  4. "Edition Denkmäler Mitteldeutscher Barockmusik" (in German). 2011. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Benjamin G. Cohrs (2 December 2002). "Weihnachtskantaten – einmal anders" (in German). Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  6. "Une Cantate de Noël". Hyperion Records. 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  7. "Daniel Pinkham, Christmas Cantata",
  8. 1 2 "Weihnachtskantate Komponist: Toshio Hosokawa". Schott. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  9. 1 2 "Der Anfang einer neuen Zeit". Graham Waterhouse. Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  10. Dinko Fabris (2007). Music in seventeenth-century Naples: Francesco Provenzale (1624–1704). Ashgate Publishing. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  11. "L'Adoratione de' Maggi". 2010. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  12. "Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow: Uns ist ein Kind geboren". Carus-Verlag. 2011. Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  13. "Christian Heinrich Rinck (1770–1846)". 2008. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  14. "Ursula Vaughan Williams (obituary)". The Times. 25 October 2007.
  15. "Weihnachtskantate Komponist: Kurt Hessenberg". Schott. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  16. John France (2004). "Nils LINDBERG (b. 1933) / A Christmas Cantata (2002)". Retrieved 13 December 2011.
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