The Devil's Christmas Song

The Church has been responsible for the most inspiring Christmas music. They had the message to promote, the venues for the party, and the necessary cash to pay for it. Christmas music is terribly predictable; Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and angels are standard fare. How refreshing if you get an oratorio with a role for the devil.


For 300 years, the Christmas Oratorio by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier was lost in the catacombs of the Vatican Library. Played once, it went to sleep like Sleeping Beauty for 300 years. But this music shouldn't be sleepy; it was done on the grand scale and is characterized more by Italian drama than by Christian contemplation.

Arcangelo Corelli

In 1698, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni desperately needed appropriately festive music for the coming Christmas. He commissioned a work in the style called "componimento sacro" (holy composition). He handed out such commissions on a yearly basis. As one of the most important music patrons in Italy in the 17th century that is hardly surprising. He demanded an "oratorio con concertino e concerto grosso all'usanza di Roma"; it should be an oratorio with an orchestral score based on the fashionable Roman Concerto Grosso. Such a commission had a natural recipient in Arcangelo Corelli. He was the grand master of the concerto grosso and a personal friend and music director of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni

Why the contract that year didn't go to Arcangelo Corelli but to his colleague Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier no one knows for sure. Whatever happened, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni didn't repent of because he didn't spare any money having the resulting "componimento sacro per la nascita del Redentore" (holy composition for the birth of the Redeemer) played and sung to the faithful: He hired "120 tra musici e suonatori" (120 musicians and singers) including the leading instrumentalists and soloists of the city. In all reckoning, this amounted to a monumental cast.

Arcangelo Corelli

The original score of the oratorio seems to be a cooperation between Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier and Arcangelo Corelli. Musical historians think it a certainty that in between the arias by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier instrumental recitatives and choral bodies in the style of the Concerto Grosso were placed that were written by Arcangelo Corelli. And it was Arcangelo Corelli who directed the performances.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni

The work was only performed one year and then lay forgotten between dusty tomes in the cellar of the Vatican Library. In 2012, the work was performed for the first time in 300 years in Vienna, Austria. This year, the oratorio was staged in the Brixen, South Tirol, Italy, with the same cast as in Vienna. Another performance was produced in Basel, Switzerland, under the direction of Baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini. It seems, the work will not fall prey to dust again.


The story behind Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier's oratorio regarding its composition and rediscovery make an interesting story. But the work has some other remarkable peculiarities. In addition to the usual and well-known roles like Mary, Joseph, a shepherd and an angel, it has another prominent and unexpected player: Lucifer, the Devil incarnate. His role is to remind people and nobility of ever-threatening heresy. The libretto is a church political statement written by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.


Evil lurks everywhere and the devil is ready to do anything. This is the message with little Christmas cheer to our ears. Lucifer incites child murderer Herod to the massacre of the infants. This of course doesn't escape the angel present at the oratorio. This situation leads to an impressive vocal showdown between angel and devil in a double aria. This music is more battle scene than sleeping child in a crib.