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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 4

Bach’s Choral Music: At the Heart of the Song

by Jacques Desjardins / December 1, 2000

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This year, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, it is only fitting to mark his enormous contribution to choral music in terms of composition and performance. Numerous choral groups around the country have celebrated the occasion. Recent performances include the monumental B-minor Mass by the Carleton University Choir and guests and by the University of Sherbrooke’s Amadeus Choir. The Violons du Roy of Quebec City performed the St. Matthew Passion in April of this year, and upcoming concerts in Montreal include the Christmas Oratorio by the Studio de musique ancienne, to be performed December 17, 2000 at Saint-Léon de Westmount Church (parts 1, 2, and 3 at 4:30 p.m., and parts 4, 5, and 6 at 7 p.m., with an optional light buffet in the interval). Bachalways worked very closely with choirs—not surprising for one who had to produce a new cantata every Sunday during his long years as cantor at Leipzig’s Tho-masschule. His writing for voice poses considerable technical problems, a circumstance arising from his virtuoso command of both the organ and violin. As the celebrated critic Scheibe remarked, “Because he judges by [the abilities of] his own fingers, his pieces are extremely hard to perform. He requires singers and instrumentalists to be able to do everything with their voices and instruments that he himself can accomplish on the keyboard. But it’s impossible.”1

One would have thought these difficulties had been ironed out over time, but this isn’t the case. Learning the Christmas Oratorio in our day still demands long hours of rehearsal. Nevertheless, in recent years the appearance of numerous excellent choral groups has done something to clear up some of the myths about technical difficulties in Bach’s choral music. The apparent ease of recent interpretations coupled with the latest musicological discoveries on the practices of Bach’s time make his choral repertoire seem more accessible. Also, the grandeur of his music makes performers and audiences almost forget its sheer virtuosity.

We must remember that, for Bach, virtuosity was never an end in itself. It was subject to the demands of a discerning musical language, and its aim was to serve a greater cause, whether that be the glory of God or his patron, the prince of Köthen, for whom he worked as Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723. Scheibe’s criticism of his illustrious contemporary was not entirely fair. Bach was not the only composer to include lengthy ornamentation and interminable rows of sixteenth notes. Although it isn’t documented, Bach would certainly have recognized the influence of Vivaldi, several years his senior, especially in his growing use of long lines of repeated rhythms. We do know that Bach encountered Vivaldi’s music around 1713-14, the years in which the Orgel-Büchlein and the first Weimar cantatas appeared. This marked a radical turning point in his style, both with respect to the exuberant virtuosity of his writing and his ingenious harmonic progressions.

Bach’s harmonic innovations have created further difficulties for performers. This is the reason many musicologists have wondered about choral methods in his time, and how in the world the same group of choristers could learn new music each week and perform such vocal and tonal feats. In the last fifty years we have acquired an enormous amount of useful and sometimes surprising information through musicological research. We now know that choirs were much smaller than originally thought. For example, Bach could not have envisaged using choirs with over 200 singers and an orchestra with over 100 musicians for his St. John Passion, as it was performed in the nineteenth century, mainly because of lack of resources. Yet with a musical monument of such breadth on his hands, he must have regretted not having more imposing vocal and instrumental forces available.

Getting good performers

In 1730, Bach wrote his employers, specifically stating that he needed four soloists who would also sing in a choir which would include at least three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses—although four of each would be preferable—for a total of sixteen singers.2 He clearly revealed his concern about not getting good performers, remarking at the end of his report, “17 ready, 20 not yet ready, and 17 hopeless.”3

Some readers may be surprised to learn that the difficult soprano solos fell to the lot of young boys, since women weren’t allowed to sing in church choirs. These young musicians had intensive, almost spartan training, and no doubt were able to perform the demanding arias without too much trouble. According to Alfred Mann, Bach used the youngsters more out of necessity than choice and would have much preferred women’s voices. Mann cites the example of the “Gloria” from the B-minor Mass, which features a range described in contemporary sources as typical of Faustina Bordoni, the star of the Dresden court opera. Some feel there is reason to argue that Bach wrote the aria specifically for Madame Bordoni, because the mass, which is dedicated to the Dresden court, was apparently a means whereby Bach could convince the court to hire him as the Dresden Hofcompositeur, the post he desired above all others.4

In the same report, Bach asked his patron for two, and preferably three musicians for each of the first and second violin sections, two each for the first and second viola sections, two for the cello section and one double bass player. To this would be added two (or if necessary three) oboes and occasionally two flutes, one or two bassoons, three trumpets, and one musician for the timpani, for a minimum of eighteen players. Very likely, Bach’s ambitions at the Dresden court encouraged him to enlarge his orchestra.

However this may be, ever since the appearance of ancient music ensembles interested in giving us more “authentic” versions of the great master’s works, the public has developed a taste for smaller choirs and orchestras, perhaps feeling that these scaled-down performances with more modest vocal and instrumental dimensions are on a more human level. The CDs and concerts of the Violons du Roy and the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, both with an international reputation, have been attracting ever-growing audiences that obviously enjoy their approach—a tribute to the renewed freshness and passion of this great composer.

Jacques Desjardins is a professor at the University of Sherbrooke School of Music.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

1. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Article on/sur
Jean-Sébastien Bach, vol. 1, p. 805. Macmillan Publishers, 1980.

2. Mann, Alfred. Bach and Handel, Choral and Performance Practice. Hinshaw Music, Inc. Chapel Hill: 1992, p. 21.

3. Ibid. p. 21.

4. Ibid. p. 23-24.


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