The cantata Die Geburt Jesu Christi (The Birth of Jesus Christ) stands at the beginning of a series of altogether nine large-scale compositions (each about the size of an oratorio) that Johann Wilhelm Hertel, the former Mecklenburg “Hof- und Capell-Componist”, wrote in the years between 1777 and 1783 for the sacred concerts performed at the court of Duke Frederick (reigned 1756–1785). […] It is to be assumed that after the year of its composition and first performance Hertel’s Christmas cantata was presented at Ludwigslust several more times, and perhaps it even became a repertoire piece, performed regularly at every Christmas. […] Apart from the harmonically expressive introductory chorus and the simple settings of well-known Christmas chorales the work’s popularity is probably owed also to the annunciation scene with its brilliant trumpets and the large-scale eight-part concluding chorus. Among the altogether 24 movements there are six arias, which the composer assigned to specific singers within the court chapel and which each display a different musical character. Some of these solo movements follow typical Baroque patterns, for example the devotional aria “Hierher, wo meine Seele glühet”, which is accompanied only by muted strings and set in the solemn key of E flat major, or the joyful aria “Freuet seiner euch mit Beben” with its extended coloratura passages. This latter aria in particular – the bravura piece of the cantata, written for the court chapel’s Italian prima donna – with its murky basses, fast unison figures, and surprising harmonic turns attests to the great symphonic experience the composer and former student of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had gained. A pronounced pastoral mood is displayed on the other hand in the first aria “Wie der Quelle sanftes Rieseln” with its solo oboe, and in the flute-accompanied duet “Da prangt der Sieger ohne Heere”, characterized by numerous suspensions. In this way Hertel’s Christmas cantata reflects a number of different musical traditions: That of the popular lyrical shepherd’s idyll stands side-by-side with that of the dramatic oratorio, and the Baroque doctrine of affects appears next to symphonic thinking. To this are added the qualities of sacred music – contrapuntal skills and experience in the setting of vocal chorales.
(Franziska Seils, translation by Stephanie Wollny)