One of the characteristic aspects of the reception of Carl Heinrich Graun's music is the fact that after his death the Prussian court capellmeister tended to be remembered mainly as the composer of the passion cantata Der Tod Jesu, which was premiered at Berlin in 1755. The success story of this piece was unrivalled in the history of 18th- and 19th-century music and eventually pushed the numerous other vocal and instrumental works of this composer into the background. On the other hand this cantata kindled a certain interest in Graun's earlier sacred compositions written during his time at Dresden and at Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Since at the court of Frederick II sacred music was not accorded much significance, Graun's compositions in this genre had failed to play a significant role in Prussia until then, excepting the Te Deum (GraunWV B:VI:2), which was first performed in 1757 on the occasion of the victory in the battle at Prague. In 1754, at the instigation of Princess Anna Amalia the passion Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (GraunWV B:VII:3) was performed at the Berlin Cathedral, establishing the institution of regular sacred concerts in the Prussian capital; this piece and Graun's other Brunswick passion, Kommt her und schaut (GraunWV B:VII:4), continued to be performed during and after the Seven Years' War. At Breslau Johann Adam Hiller for his Graun commemorative concert in 1789 put a piece from the composer's Christmas Oratorio on the programme. And finally, the biographical sketch of Graun (the first of its kind), which was attributed to Johann Friedrich Agricola and stands at the beginning of the second volume of the representative print Duetti, Terzetti, Quintetti, Sestetti, ed alcuni Chori delle Opere del Signore Carlo Enrico Graun (Berlin and Königsberg 1773), presented the audience with a survey of his earlier works. This survey mentions "more than two annual cycles of church pieces" from Graun's Dresden years, and from his time at Brunswick cantatas, the Christmas Oratorio, two passion oratorios, and a funeral music. Agricola, who possibly had received his information directly from Graun himself, obviously was not aware of the Easter Oratorio. The piece is only mentioned in Johann Adam Hiller's Graun biography – based mainly on Agricola's work – in the context of the composer's Dresden works: "Among these there is also a rather long Easter Oratorio; but in all these compositions one fails to find the supple, melodious and pleasing character that distinguishes particularly the later compositions of our Graun. They are not insufficient in well-fashioned choruses, however."
Unfortunately we do not know any more the sources from which Hiller received his information and knowledge of Graun's sacred compositions. The attribution of the Easter Oratorio to Graun's Dresden period is based on stylistic grounds that are easily countered with arguments in favour of a date of origin in his (early) Brunswick time, however. The following discussion needs to be preceded by the caveat that presently there is no reliable basis for a chronology of Graun's works. We are neither well-enough informed about the local conditions of his sacred compositions, nor do we have a sufficient number of works that can be dated with precision. If we accept the passion cantata Der Tod Jesu (GraunWV B:VII:5) and even the Brunswick passion oratorio Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld as examples of Graun's "mature" style, then we would have to agree with Hiller, who clearly was aware of the stylistic differences between Graun's early and later sacred compositions. The complex and more artistic melodic structure found in the Easter Oratorio differs significantly from the touching simplicity of the later vocal pieces. In this respect, as well as in the colourful instrumentation, the Easter Oratorio indeed is similar to the Christmas Oratorio (GraunWV Bv:IX:18) and to the so-called Große Passion "Kommt her und schaut". Both these latter works were unanimously attributed to Graun's Brunswick period by his eighteenth-century biographers, however.
There are a number of further observations supporting a chronological link particularly to the Christmas Oratorio. The main melodic idea of aria no. 5 ("Zerstreute Schafe, sammlet euch") is very similar to the parallel idea in aria no. 19 ("Ewger Sohn, erhaltner Segen") of the Christmas Oratorio. Next, in the opening chorus, beginning from m. 50, Graun employs the first violin in a manner that is also present in the concluding chorus of the Christmas Oratorio: The first violin embellishes the upper voice with a continuous flow of semiquavers employing a regular succession of repeated notes; it thus functions as a quasi-independent doubling of the soprano. Further, the use of the uncommon Hebrew word "Goel" in both texts indicates that they must stem from the same author. And finally, this is supported by the observation that in both works the biblical text recedes into the background in favour of free contemplations on the passion story. The use of biblical passages is restricted to the large-scale opening choruses of the first, second, and fourth part.
Yet there are also differences between the two works. While the scoring is nearly identical, the Easter oratorio uses its instrumental forces with greater diversity. For example there is not a single aria with simple four-part string accompaniment; even the only aria supported by strings alone, no. 11 ("Mein Herz singt dir jetzt Freudenlieder"), has an additional solo violin part. Aria no. 5 ("Zerstreute Schafe, sammlet euch") features solo bassoons and violoncelli, aria no. 16 ("Sagt's den Jüngern, saget's allen") employs solo oboes. Also worth mentioning as an example of the wide range of timbres employed by Graun is the duet no. 24 ("Ach, mein Jesu!"), which is characterized by the combination of horns and oboes d'amore. In accordance with the festive occasion the composer uses oboes, trumpets, and timpani not only for the large-scale choruses, but also for the arias no. 7 ("Seele, freue dich mit Zittern") and no. 13 ("Trotzet, ihr Feinde") and for the chorale no. 14, which concludes the second part. No parallel can be found in the Christmas Oratorio for the chorale no. 8 ("Erstanden ist der heil'ge Christ") with its obbligato orchestral accompaniment, nor for the aria no. 18 ("Die Menschen haben beigetragen"), which is composed in a contrapuntal-imitating style. The two large stile antico choruses – no. 9 ("Selig sind, die nicht sehen und doch glauben") and no. 22 ("Der Herr ist wahrhaftig auferstanden") –, on the other hand, are on the same stylistic level as the chorus no. 15 ("Euch ist heute der Heiland geboren") from the Christmas Oratorio.
The four parts of the Easter Oratorio were conceived for the three successive Easter holidays and for the Sunday after Easter (Quasimodogeniti). This might explain why the last cantata is considerably shorter than the other parts. While Graun probably was only concerned with achieving internal coherence within the individual cantatas by means of the framing choruses, there is nothing to oppose their joint performance as an oratorio. This is supported on the one hand by the overall diversity of the compositional means employed; and on the other it would provide the possibility, probably intended by the libretto, to witness from cantata to cantata the changing perspectives in the narrative of the Easter events.
There is only a single source that transmits the Easter Oratorio as a complete work. It was owned by Christian Benjamin Klein (1764–1825), who from 1780 was cantor at Oberschmiedeberg in Silesia. Together with Klein's music library it came into the possession of the University of Bonn in 1829, where today it is kept at the Music Department (call number: Ec 230.15). The manuscript score, which bears the misleading title "Passions Cantate" and only names "Graun" as author, was written by an unknown copyist. The copy can be dated only hypothetically, as the paper (crowned eagle; countermark 4 and letter C) contains no precise clues. It probably originated in the context of Hiller's activities at Breslau (1787 to 1789), which Klein is known to have followed closely.
Fragments of the composition are also transmitted at Gdansk. Among the musical sources of St. John's Church (PL GD: Bibl. Joh. Ms. 184) the opening and concluding chorus of the first cantata as well as, inserted between these, an unknown recitative for tenor and basso continuo by an unknown composer ("Da der Sabbath vergangen war") are preserved in a score and a comprehensive set of parts. In this copy, which perhaps was written only in the nineteenth century, the instrumental introduction and coda of the chorale were subsequently cancelled. In this form the work was designated for service on the first day of Whitsun.
(Christoph Henzel, translation by Stephanie Wollny)