Johann Sebastian Bach Plagiarized

Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio lay in musical archives for over 100 years. They were rediscovered around 1850. And music historians were amazed and dismayed: Bach had composed and used important parts of it before and plagiarized earlier compositions into the work. The originals, however, had very different texts, and these were not at all for Christmas or any liturgical use. 

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only one of the greatest composers of all times; he was also one of the most industrious. And as much as he wrote, the quality of all his pieces always betrays the Master. But is a master composer allowed to copy and to plagiarize his own work? Can music which was composed for a sumptuous feast at a Royal court become a holy Christmas composition? These were questions Bach researchers of the 19th century had to ask with answers not much to their liking.

Such questions, however, didn't come up until long after his death. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio had been composed as a series of six cantatas composed for the holidays from Christmas to Epiphany of 1734/35. In that sense, the composer never had the work performed contiguously or ever had it played in concert form. The cantatas were played at mass of the respective holy days to worship in one of the two main churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas or St. Nicholas. 

Around 1850 and after Felix Mendelssohn and his contemporaries had brought back Bach's great Passions from oblivion, the Berlin Singakademie also ventured to perform the Christmas Oratorio. The work had come through Johann Sebastian's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to their music library. Soon after, a Bach scholar noticed that the music for the triumphant opening chorus "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf preiset die Tage" is identical to a piece set to music with a completely different text: "Tönet, ihr Pauken, erschallet, Trompeten". This text is crossed out in the original manuscript and overwritten with the new. 

Bach plagiarizes one of his own original compositions which wasn't a sacred work intended for church service. It was festive music written for Maria Josepha, Electoral Princess of Saxony and Queen of Poland. On 8 December 1733, she had a birthday celebration for which the Bach piece was commissioned. For Bach biographer Philipp Spitta, the very common practice of plagiarizing during the Baroque was a somewhat unpleasant surprise  while doing his research around 1880. He took refuge in the claim that Bach could compose only spiritual works no matter what he composed. Spitta wrote: "His occasional worldly works were rather unworldly, and (...) the composer gave them back to their original home when he converted them to church music." 

But what happens in the first bars of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio? True to the original text, the drums open the song and as requested, the trumpets respond. Then the violins join in and the high winds form a veritable confetti parade bringing in the whole orchestra; it is still festive music intended to be played at court on a festive occasion. 

Bach didn't think highly of the idea to let his music gather dust in a cabinet or to let it rot on the trash heap of a noble court. An instrumental concerto could be used all over again in a fresh context. A narrowly defined musical composition like a birthday cantata would be irretrievably lost on the other hand. And at the court in Dresden, recycling of the musical score would hardly have been appreciated. Bach therefore asked his librettist Picander to write an appropriate text for the Nativity of Christ. He went on to add the new text in his own hand to the identical score while crossing out the old. 

That his courtly music would become a "Concert of Angels" for posterity would not have bothered him in the least; after all, Bach had much to do. Very much, considering the amount of compositions he had to churn out for the city notables of Leipzig while running the famous boys’ choir at St. Thomas at the same time. And he was a very practical thinking person. Add this to the fact that Bach lived in a society where the rule of a Prince was a God-given right and as such completely uncontested; and you will see that Spitta was on to something even if for all the wrong reasons. The staging of sacred and profane power was related to legitimacy and, consequently, very similar forms were in use in all their emanations. 


Prince Elector Frederick August I of Saxony (and as August II King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania) died in 1733. Among the princes of Europe during the age of absolutism, he was one of the most ostentatious. That Johann Sebastian Bach would compose for his court (and his successor’s, too), made sense. The concrete practical reasons behind his cantatas in homage of the ruling family were a necessity to his future. Some relatives and colleagues of Bach’s were employed at the important and art-loving court of the Saxon electors and kings of Poland in Dresden. Bach himself hoped for the title of court composer. Should he have problems in Leipzig – and he had quite a few with the civic and the church authorities – he could defend his position with greater authority than as the mere choir master of St. Thomas Church. He later did receive the coveted title of court composer to the Electoral and Royal Court of Dresden.

Further reading
Lost and Found: Britannic's Organ
Prophet of The Great War
Christmas Trees Through History