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Bach’s Choir and Orchestra
Author: Ton Koopman (1999)

On August 23, 1730, J. S. Bach sent to the Leipzig City Council his petition entitled “A short, but highly necessary plan/model/sketch for a well-instituted or well-appointed church music” (Bach-Dokumente I, No. 22.) To start with, he explains that you have to have singers as well as instrumentalists in order to provide good music in the churches. It is necessary to have concertists (soloists) as well as ripienists (singers in the choir) in every vocal category (soprano, alto, tenor and bass.) The concertists will sing solo as well as choral parts. Normally four concertists (soloists) are sufficient, but sometimes there will be a demand for five, six, seven or even eight of this type of vocalist. In addition, there is a need for eight ripienists (choral singers) (two for each part) who will sing along with the concertists (soloists.) The pupils living with room and board in the St. Thomas School (their total number comes to c. 55) are spread across 4 choirs with the most musically experienced singers singing in the first 3 choirs. The fourth choir is composed of pupils, who, according to what Bach claims, “do not understand music at all and can barely sing a chorale with difficulty.

The first, second and third choirs, the so-called ‘musical’ choirs, consisted of at least 12 vocalists in each (with 3 vocalists for each vocal part) so that a double motet could be performed with two choirs even if several vocalists were absent. Bach certainly preferred 16 vocalists in each choir: “nota bene It would be much better if the ‘pool’ from which the vocalists were selected was so constituted that 4 vocalists were available for each vocal part and, in this way, each choir would have 16 vocalists.” To fulfill this need a minimum of 36 musically able pupils would be necessary.

To complete his orchestral requirements, Bach demanded the following instrumentalists:
1st violin: 2-3 players
2nd violin: 2-3 players
1st viola: 2 players
2nd viola: 2 players
violoncello: 2 players
violone: 1 player

oboe: 2-3 players
flutes (recorder/transverse): 2 players
bassoon: 1 or 2 players
trumpet: 3 players
timpani: 1 player

This results in a total of 20-24 players. The organist is not mentioned because he had a permanent position. Bach could always depend upon his participation just as he also could upon the 4 ‘city pipers’ and the 3 free-lance violinists including their apprentice. If you take Bach’s ‘Entwurff’ as a basis for consideration, then various musicians are missing for completing the list given above:

1st violin: 2 players
2nd violin: 2 players
viola: 2 players
violone: 1 player
flute: 2 players

Up to the time when Bach presented his petition, the deficit (in the “Entwurff” it is called “Mangel” = “shortage”) in the number of instrumentalists available, those to whom Bach is referring, was compensated for by using students from the university, but also by calling upon pupils from the St. Thomas School. This deficit to which Bach refers forced Bach, as a consequence, to lose good singers who were needed in the orchestra. This was particularly an acute situation on holidays. It was also Bach’s opinion that St. Thomas School was accepting too many pupils who lacked any kind of feeling for music. This caused Bach to become very concerned about the quality of performances. This is particularly evident in the “Entwurff” where Bach evaluates the musical abilities of his pupils as he places them into 3 categories:

1. 17 “usable” vocalists appropriate for use in the 1st choir

2. 20 “motet singers,” those who still need further training in order to make them usable for ‘figural’ music (i.e. suitable for the 2nd and 3rd choir)

3. 17 ‘incompetent’ singers (for the 4th choir)

Even his best singers were labeled by Bach as being barely usable! To be sure, Bach has taken into consideration for his tally of available musicians only those ‘internal’ pupils, called ‘Alumni’ by Bach, who were part of the boarding school and were required to fulfill their scholarship by singing in the choirs. These were outnumbered by the ‘external’ pupils, who were those that lived with their parents in Leipzig. In 1723 the ‘externals’ accounted for more than 100 in the 4 upper classes alone.[1] These also participated in music instruction and it would not appear improbable to me that there may have been musically more talented pupils among them as well.

Bach personally conducted the 1st choir and demanded incredibly much from its members. This was the only choir used for the regular cantata performances[2] and it consisted only of ‘internal’ pupils.[3] The 2nd choir normally sang motets and performed technically more demanding compositions with instrumental accompaniment only on special holidays. Bach would personally select which music would be performed by this choir[4], but he would not direct it himself. The conducting of this music would be left to his prefect, one of his assistants. Bach comments in his “Entwurff” on the particularly tricky situation which existed on special holidays: “If I were to mention the musical performances of figural music which has to be provided simultaneously at both of the main churches, then, first of all, the lack of necessary performers will become even more obvious since those pupils which play either this or that instrument will have to go with the other (2nd choir) and I have to get along altogether without their help.”

On special church holidays Bach, as a result, had to release those pupils who could play an instrument to provide the instrumental accompaniment for the 2nd choir. This obligation was later done away with by Bach’s second successor, Cantor Doles, and that mainly occurred because there were insufficient numbers of instrumentalists available. The main problem that Bach had to grapple with consisted in securing the quality of the 1st choir, as hinted at specifically in the lengthy confrontation with the headmaster (“Rektor”) Ernesti of St. Thomas School that began in August 1736. The matter was concerning an incompetent prefect (assistant conductor), Johann Gottlob Krause, with whom Bach was forced to cooperate. For this reason Bach submitted a petition to the City Council of Leipzig: “since it was impossible for me to entrust to him [Krause] the conducting of the 1st choir, particularly since the cantatas are performed by the 1st choir and most of these are my compositions which are more difficult and intricate than most; nor could I entrust him with the other choir mainly on those special church holidays where I personally have to choose the cantatas according to the abilities of those who will perform them.” (Bach-Dokumente I)

As already mentioned, Bach chose the best vocalists for the 1st choir and directed it himself. He also had at his disposal the “Stadtpfeifer” [“city pipers”] and freelance violinists. Only Bach could carry out the decision to take pupils from the 2nd and 3rd choirs and put them into the 1st choir. This might be necessitated by the illness of a pupil or because one or more boys had advanced musically or their voices had changed and developed to the point that they could be moved to the 1st choir. We can certainly assume with a great amount of assurance that the 1st choir always had singers who were better qualified than those in the 2nd or 3rd choir, not to even mention the 4th choir.

From the perspective of St. Thomas School, the 1st choir was its show-piece. The solo sections were sung by the best pupils in the choir. As mentioned previously, Bach wanted to have at least 12, but preferably 16 vocalists in this choir. He wanted to provide for the possibility of performing double-chorus motets even when several of the boys were absent due to illness or for other reasons. We should not compare these motets with the motets which Bach composed for spoccasions for which he could have all the boys at his disposal as needed. Without a doubt these motets came from the motet collections by Erhard Bodenschatz[5] the Latin motets from the “Florilegium Portense” or from the ‘little’ “Florilegium selectissimorum hymnorum.” This was simple music with organ or continuo accompaniment. During Bach’s tenure in Leipzig, the “Florilegium Portense” was purchased twice; the music books were used frequently and wore out quickly from this intensive use.

From time to time Bach must have had difficulties finding enough good singers for the tenor and bass parts because voices at that time mutated at a very much later age than they do now. Johann Friedrich Agricola in his “Anleitung zur Singkunst” [1757] takes note of the fact that boys already mutated at 14,[6] yet others maintained that mutation occurred approximately at age 18 (as stated by Martin Heinrich Fuhrmann in his “Musicalischer-Trichter” [Berlin, 1706.] Without a doubt the truth was somewhere between these extremes. It should also be taken into account that Bach himself may have occasionally sung a solo part (probably the bass part.) For it was reported that as a choir boy in Lüneburg he had ‘an uncommonly beautiful soprano voice” [Bach-Dokumente III] and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach reports expressly in view of his father’s later career that “he had a good, penetrating voice of great depth and a good singing technique.” [Bach-Dokumente III]

The instrumental ensemble at Bach’s disposal was a long way from fulfilling the demands made by his cantata orchestrations. In earlier, pre-Bach times, this deficit in instrumental performers was covered by the “Studiosi” [university students] who were paid for their services. But when the monies for this purpose were cut under Bach’s predecessors, Schelle and Kuhnau, the students had less interest in participating in the cantata performances as instrumentalists. This is why Bach added the comment: “For who would work or provide any services without getting paid for it?” [Bach-Dokumente I] So he was required to fill out the unfilled positions in the orchestra with pupils (mainly in the 2nd violin, and always in the viola and violoncello) thus depleting the number of choir members. But how did all of this function in reality? For this there are several considerations necessary:

1. Although special church holidays were always a problem for Bach because he had to sacrifice choir members to play in the orchestra, Bach nevertheless performed regularly compositions with a large ensemble. If, however, we hold ourselves strictly to the numbers and data given in the “Entwurff,” then the majority of Bach’s cantatas could not have been performed at all. The maximum number of available instrumentalists (“Stadtpfeifer” (city pipers) and “Kunstgeiger” (freelance violinists) would have allowed only for 2 trumpeters, 2 oboists, 3 violinists and 1 bassoon. If I try to imagine that I were in Bach’s shoes, then I would have desperately sought out any other kind of solution to remedy the situation!

If you take ‘violin’ to mean ‘strings in general,’ then a simply populated ensemble with just strings, 2 oboes and a bassoon would have been the largest ensemble possible. Often two parts for 1st and 2nd violin from the original set of parts were available for Bach’s performances. It becomes directly evident just how absurd the numbers are that are mentioned in the “Entwurff.” At this point I am not even considering the possibility of the usual amount of absences which would have created even greater problems for Bach. It is all too clear that additional instrumentalists were necessary. Assuming that the ensemble consisted of
1st violin = 3 players
2nd violin = 3 players
viola = 2 players
violoncello = 2 players
violone = 1 player
tromba = 3 players
timpani = 1 player
oboe = 2 or 3 players
bassoon = 1 player

then 18 or 19 musicians were needed. This means that the ensemble still lacked 10 or 11 musicians.

The following list contains several special church holiday cantatas whereby you need to consider that Bach normally would have to take some of his singers who also played an instrument and lend them to complete the orchestra of the 2nd choir. If not otherwise indicated, they will require the usual SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) vocal parts. The required orchestration will be listed separately:

BWV 174Ich liebe den Höchsten” (2nd Day of Pentecost, 1729). This cantata was always connected with Bach’s appointment as the conductor of the Collegium Musicum. The required number of performing musicians would hardly be possibly without the presence of the Collegium Musicum. The lavish orchestration calls for 2 horns, 3 oboes, 3 solo violins and 1st and 2nd violins in ripieno, 3 solo violas and a viola in ripieno, 3 solo violoncelli and violone, bassoon and bc (basso continuo.)

BWV 171Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm” (New Year’s 1729?): 3 trumpets and timpani, 2 oboes, strings and bc.

BWV 149Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg“ (Michalmas 1728 or 1729): 3 trumpets and timpani, 3 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc.

BWV 130Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir“ (Michalmas 1724) has the same orchestration as BWV 149 plus flute but without a bassoon(?).

BWV 63Christen ätzet diesen Tag” (from the Weimar period, but performed again on the 1st Day of Christmas 1723): 4 trumpets and timpani, 3 oboes, 1 bassoon, strings and bc. There are two vocal parts each for the alto and tenor. This means that there must have been at least a total of 8 vocal parts. If 2 vocalists sang from each part, this would mean that the choir would consist of 16 singers.

BWV 172Erschallet ihr Lieder” (a Weimar cantata with a repeat performance on Pentecost Sunday c. 1731): 3 trumpets and timpani, 1 flute, 1 oboe, strings (there are two separate viola parts), bassoon and bc.

BWV 31Der Himmel lacht” (a Weimar cantata with a repeat performance on Easter Sunday, 1731): SSATB, 3 trumpets and timpani, 4 oboes, bassoon, strings (2 violas) and bc.

BWV 110Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (1st Day of Christmas) SATB with 4 vocal parts and another 4 parts ‘in ripieno,’ 3 trumpets and timpani, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc.

BWV 190Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (New Year’s, 1724); 3 trumpets and timpani, 3 oboes, strings, 1 bassoon and bc.

Other compositions, not among those composed for the special holidays, likewise demanded a large musical ensemble:

BWV 21Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (an older composition with a re-performance on the 3rd Sunday after Trinity 1723): SATB (+SATB in ripieno), 3 trumpets and timpani, 4 trombones, 1 oboe, strings, 1 bassoon and bc.

BWV 29Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” (Council Election 1731): SATB (+SATB in ripieno), 3 trumpets and timpani, 2 oboes, 1st violin (1x), 2nd violin (2x), viola and bc (2x)

BWV 112Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (Misericordias Domini 1731); 2 horns, 2 oboes, strings and bc.

BWV 140Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme“ (27th Sunday after Trinity 1731): 1 horn, 3 oboes, strings, 1 bassoon and bc.

BWV 192Nun danket alle Gott” (designation uncertain, 1730): 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings (1st violin + 2nd violin each with doublets) and bc.

Motet BWV 226Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (Funeral of the headmaster of St. Thomas School, Johann Heinrich Ernesti, 1729): SATB + SAT(double chorus), 3 oboes, strings, bassoon and bc.

St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (new version of 1736): SATB + SATB (double chorus + soprano for the cantus firmus), 4 flutes, 4 oboes, double set of strings and double bc (with 2 organs)

The final conclusion is inescapable: no matter how Bach allocated his forces, for these cantatas alone he would have needed additional help.

Johann Heinrich Winckler, a teacher at St. Thomas School (the librettist of BWV Anh. 18), later a professor of philosophy and physics at the University of Leipzig, in 1765 referred to a statement by Johann Matthias Gesner as follows: “Gesner, who is well-renowned in the sciences and the arts expressed this thought […] by the example of the now famous Bach, whose attentiveness regarding the consonance of the various sounds in a choir of 30 to 40 persons he [Gesner] was often privileged to experience with astonishment.”[7]

According to Johann Beer (“Musicalische Discurse” [Nürnberg, 1719] “it is possible to create an impressive harmony with 8 persons…These consisted of 4 vocalists, 2 violinists, an organist and the conductor.”[8] When the conductor himself plays an instrument, “only …7 persons are needed. For with 6 parts alone there is a complete musical piece and it is not necessary to worry about getting a larger (stronger) ensemble and in the case of these 7 good virtuosos, the ripieno parts can easily be covered with less trained individuals and the choir [sounds] great, and will be set up and prepared in such a manner that it will be equal to the greatest/strongest/loudest music ever made.”[9]

However Johann Mattheson presents his reactions to this in “Der musicalische Patriot” [Hamburg, 1728] as follows: “…but such a simple/small setup will not be able to accomplish much in large churches, much less even be considered impressive. Even if you added to the ripieno parts another 8 of lesser musical abilities, then these will nevertheless create even more harm than any conceivable advantage by playing with poor intonation on the string instruments and blowing wrong notes or notes not in tune on the brass instruments….and then it will amount to at least 24, which is the smallest number needed for performing cantatas. In the city-states this number could even be increased more than at a court if you really want to spend some money on such a performance.[10]

2. Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s immediate predecessor in Leipzig, paid for additional musicians out of his own pocket in addition to having 5 extra paid musicians always available to him. Bach, for good reason, could well be envious of Kuhnau. Caspar Ruetz in Lübeck did the same as Kuhnau, but complained about the fact that a cantor has to take into account some considerable loss of income when he wanted to perform larger works requiring larger forces, since everything has to be paid out of his own pocket.[11] Bach had contacts among the best circles in Leipzig and certainly knew how to mitigate his own losses with the help of private monies. The cantatas listed above demonstrate that additional monies were absolutely necessary for hiring additional musicians specifically for the performances of these cantatas.

Payments of money to such auxiliary musicians are in the historical record[12]. Since, however, the corresponding receipts are missing for the period of 14 years and can not be documented, we have to assume that the ones we do possess are incomplete.[13] There must have been several students and helpers like, for instance, Johann Christoph Altnickol, who, after he had worked for Bach for 3 years without payment, finally also received a reward for his services[14]. Many documents relating to these matters have been lost or have not as yet been discovered. It still seems rather remarkable that Bach wrote his “Entwurff” right after he had been appointed the director of the Collegium Musicum (1729). Did he want to reward the good will demonstrated by the students and approach the city council for moneys specifically designated for their rewarding their efforts in assisting Bach in his performances?

3. Occasionally those who advocate OVPP or OPPP maintain that the majority of the Bach’s cantatas have come down to us with the original parts complete and that among these parts there exists only a single example of each vocal part.[15] Even a superficial investigation of Bach’s original parts shows that the transmission of parts is by no means “obviously complete.” Stated briefly, even a superficial check of 60 primary sources for Bach’s cantatas makes it clear that the parts for at least 24 of them are incomplete:[16]

BWV 120a: SATB, 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, obbligato organ, strings, bc. For this orchestration, there are only 8 parts remaining: SATB, viola and 3 bc parts.

BWV 76: S (3x extant), T (1x), and B (1x), but tenor in ripieno and bass in ripieno parts are missing. Of the instrumental parts only the 2nd violin, viola and viola da gamba (2x) parts still remain. A total of probably 9 to 11 parts are missing.

BWV 193: S and A, 2 oboe parts, 1x 1st violin, 1x 2nd violin, 1 viola part remain; the T and B, trumpets, timpania and bc parts are lost.

BWV 102: only S and bc parts remain.

BWV 11: all the vocal parts are missing.

BWV 130: from all the vocal parts, the bass is missing, all the remaining parts are found in various libraries.

BWV 132: only the violone part remains.

BWV 168: bass vocal part is missing, the remaining vocal parts are found in three different libraries. The soprano part accidentally turned up again in 1977.

BWV 134: the alto, tenor, and bass parts in ripieno are missing, with only the soprano in ripieno part remaining.

BWV 179: Only the 1st and 2nd oboe parts remain.

BWV 192: From all the vocal parts the tenor part is missing, from the instrumental parts the horn parts are missing.

BWV 199: The soprano part from this cantata for solo soprano voice is missing.

BWV 243: From the vocal parts the bass is missing.

BWV 110: The bass in ripieno part is lost.

BWV 184: The viola part is missing.

BWV 27: From the vocal parts the 2nd soprano part is missing.

BWV 148: All the vocal parts are missing (the autograph score is often the only part that remains of many cantatas.)

BWV 190: (Parts 1 and 2): Only the vocal parts and the 1st and 2nd violins remain from an orchestration which called for: SATB, 3 trumpets and timpani, 3 oboes, 1 bassoon, strings and bc.

BWV 197: All the parts (SATB, 3 trumpets and timpani, 2 oboes, strings, 1 bassoon and bc) are lost.

BWV 165: All the parts are missing: SATB, strings, 1 bassoon and bc.

BWV 75: All the parts are missing: SATB, trumpets, 2 oboes, strings, 1 or 2 bassoons.

BWV 71: The 2nd violin part is missing.

BWV 39: It can be proven that CPE Bach had in his possession the doublets for the 1st and 2nd violin parts and 2 bc parts of which only a single continuo part rem.

BWV 174: The parts have been saved but today they are located in 5 different libraries, arriving there through various paths. No wonder that parts can be so easily lost!

4. A relatively late (1780), but very accurate characterization of the duties assigned to soloists and choir: “With the word ‘amplius,’ the choir singers known as ‘Voci ripiene’ join in with the main singers known as the ‘Voci concerte’ or ‘Voci concertanti.’ When this happens, it is indicated in the score with the designation ‘Tutti.’ The latter are those singers who know how to perform sweetly and beautifully, while the former make up a whole army of singers that are needed for ‘filling out’ the choir.”[17] In Bach’s time as well a choir consisted both of solo and tutti singers. While the concertists also sang along in all the choral movements, the ripienists were restricted to singing only in the choral sections.

Johann Adolph Scheibe insists upon some musical variety in order to ”….make pleasant the exchange between the loud and the soft movements. As a result it would be best if, after a movement with one or two voices, the entire choir would enter.”[18] About singing motets he writes: “They [the singers] all have to have clear and audible voices, and each part should be sung by several singers.”[19]

In 1732 Johann Gottfried Walther gave the following definition for the word, “Capella”: “is that particular choir that is large and which only joins in from time to time for additional support.[20] Walther also distinguishes between “Choeur” and “Choeur de parties Recitantes” or “petit choeur” “which is also known as ‘Choeur cheri, favori’ and ‘favorisse,’ because it tends to be made up of the best musicians.” Walther also offers an explanation for the word “ripieno, pl. ripieni”: “…this means with the full choir. Frequently it is indicated simply with an ‘R’; it is also used to designate a specific vocal part and is placed on the top of such parts which are only used for filling out or strengthening (making louder) the choral movement.”[21]. He explains that the choir of soloists is the small choir and the full ripieno choir is a combination of this small choir with the additional singers. Because at that time there was no standard for the number of ripienists, he does not, unfortunately, mention just how many singers were in such a ripieno-choir. This number varied from place to place and depended upon the importance of the city or church in question. In any case, Walther does indicate quite precisely that the solo quartet is the little choir (“choeur de parties Recitantes”) and not the entire ripieno-choir.[22]

Already as early as 1678, Wolfgang Caspar Printz commented as follows on the number of vocalists in a choir: “If a musical composition has been composed in such a way that sometimes 1 or 2 or 3 or, at the most, 4 vocalists are heard singing alone, and from time to time more voices are added, then the prefect (conductor) should set it up that the best singers each sing a part alone as long as these few voices are heard singing alone. But whenever more voices are added, then he should allow all the members of the choir to join in just as if they were one ‘Capelle’ (choir). “ And “When all the vocalists sing as in a many-part motet or many-voiced ‘Capell’….”[23]

In other words: there was a difference between having one singer per part (solo) and several singers per part (ripieni), both types of which created a single choir. How big was such a choir? The ‘Entwurff’ gives an ideal number of 16 singers, or 12 singers respectively if the ideal number could not be attained.

Is it even possible that the number of singers and instrumentalists can be ascertained from examining the extant parts? How many musicians played or sang from one and the same part? Why, for example was the 4-part “Florilegium” printed as a score? Would it not have been more practical to sing from separate parts as with the “Florilegium Portense?” Yes, unless the score was used simultaneously by more than a single singer. The “Florilegium Portense” was printed in 9 separate part books, however there was also a 10-part motet included in these books. Since 2 parts were printed in one book, it would be necessary for 2 singers to use the same part book. This type of situation also prevailed regularly with Bach’s predecessor Johann Hermann Schein [24] and still took place the same way much later as well. This can be seen in the “School Rules and Bylaws of St. Thomas School” (1723) where the rules of conduct during church services were spelled out: “All of the ‘Alumni’ (those staying at the school with room and board, not those living with their parents) should…sit still on their benches until they are called to their ‘lecterns’ [solid music stands], but then they should stand in front of these lecterns in such a way that each one can see the music and words placed on them and that none of the pupils should hinder the others in their singing.”[25] Here as well there is a description which gives details concerning the fact that several singers sang from the same music (or part books.)

It is not difficult to find picture, frescos, and engravings in which singers are depicted singing together from a single book or part. Particularly enlightening is a copper engraving which was published in 1712 on the occasion of the consecration of the Silbermann organ in Freiberg. This organ was built under the supervision of Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau. In the middle of this engraving we see 4 soloists with their parts and next to them, on the right, the ripieno. All 4 of them are reading from a single music stand (compare this with the rule of conduct cited from the “Rules and Bylaws for St. Thomas School” cited above.) If we carefully observe the direction in which they are looking, we can see that they are singing from one, or at the most, two parts. As far as it is possible, we can distinguish 11 vocalists in the choir that is being conducted by the cathedral cantor Lindner along with the orchestra. Perhaps there were 4 sopranos, 3 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses; or perhaps there were 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and 2 basses?

In 1720 Mattheson calls for a vocal and instrumental ensemble for performing church cantatas to consist of 30 to 40 musicians.[26] Even after 1751 he expressed himself as follows: “For the purpose and place of the church service, everything should be splendid, overwhelming, and praiseworthy. Overwhelming, that is to say, very strong (loud) with a fully-populated ensemble, not soft, but loud, not simple, but with many different voices and instruments.”[27] A little later he complains about the poor quality of Protestant choirs: “The awful and weak [population] of the choirs in most of the largest evangelical churches puts them way, way behind the Catholic churches in this regard.”[28] The choir and orchestra back then were supposed to consist of about 30 to 40 musicians – which, by the way, was exactly the same number which eye and ear witnesses mention – according to former colleagues from St. Thomas School, Johann Matthias Gesner and Johann Heinrich Winckler (see above) – regarding Bach’s performances with his choir and orchestra in Leipzig..

We should not forget that Bach did not work in a provincial village, but in a large commercial and university city, Leipzig. We owe it to Bach that we perform Bach’s compositions in the spirit of the “En.”[29]



1. H.-H. Schulze (editor) “Ordnungen und Gesetze der Schola Thomana“ [„Rules and Bylaws of St. Thomas School”] [Leipzig, 1987] Anhang B, pp. 16ff.

„C. V. §13. Since, however, the number of external students in the 4 upper classes has increased so much that there are twice as many of them as the boarding students, and, also, of the latter only 32 are used for singing at New Year’s; I have changed my class schedule around two years ago in consideration of the fact that it is unfair/unreasonable that for the sake of only these 32 pupils the remaining 100 or more pupils should not have their lessons/classes. All of this was done so that those pupils not involved in these [New Year’s] activities should still have their classes and so that something worthwhile [not part of the regular lesson plans] was being taught, and this is the way things have been done for the past two years.”

2. See also G. Stiller: „J. S. Bach und das Leipziger gottesdienstliche Leben seiner Zeit“ [“J. S. Bach and the
Leipzig Church Service Activities of His Time”] [Berlin, 1970] p. 68. According to this book it could be “…determined with certainty…that the 2nd choir did not perform any cantatas by J. S. Bach. These circumstances are also confirmed by the fact that the extant text booklets which Bach had printed for his Sunday and holiday cantatas in both of the main churches always contained only the texts which were performed by the 1st choir [not the 2nd.]

3. According to the “Rules and Regulations at St. Thomas School” [1723] “only the boarding-school pupils are allowed to participate in the 1st choir but also those will be taken into the choir who, according to the assessment of the cantor, have a better voice than the others and who are talented and skilled in music….” Can we assume from this that the 2nd and 3rd choirs also accepted external pupils more frequently than the 1st choir?

4. Bach-Dokumente I. No. 34, p. 88.

5. Bodenschatz published Part I of the „Florilegium Portense” in 1618 and Part II in 1621 (there are numerous later editions.) This collection was printed in 8 separate part books and contains motets requiring 4 to 10 voices, though most motets are composed for 8 parts. The fact, however, that there is also a 10-part motet among them, points in the direction that more than just one singer used or sang from the same part book. The ‘little’ ‘Florilegium’ [1606] was in 4 parts, but each composition was printed as a score.

6. J. F. Agricola „Anleitung zur Singkunst“ [“Instructions in the Art of Singing”] [Berlin, 1757 – facsimile: Celle, 1966.] In his very detailed German translation of the singing method by P. J. Tosi („Opinioni de'Cantori antichi e moderni“, Bologna, 1723), Agricola explains that “…in the case of normal, non-castrated boys around age 14, the high voice changes into a lower one….At this time the rate of growth is greatest, and, as a result, the opening of the windpipe, which is smaller in children than in adults, is widened considerably….And because things are this way it is clear that speaking, and even more so, singing becomes very difficult: this is the reason why, at the time when this mutation takes place, a hoarseness tends to appear, one which often lasts a half year or even longer.” (p. 28 ff.)

7. “Untersuchungen der Natur und Kunst“ [“Investigations into Nature and Art”] [
Leipzig, 1765] quoted by M Söhnel in “Regarding a document about the lasting effects that Bach has had and the author of this document, J. H. Winckler” [German translation of the Latin original by W.-H. Friedrich]: “If you could see what he [J. S. Bach] accomplished, an accomplishment not attained by several of your musicians and innumerable flute players…as he paid attention to all of them simultaneously and from this group of 30 or even 40 musicians nod to one of them with his head or indicate to another by stamping his foot, or threateningly, by using a finger, keep the third one on beat with the correct rhythm.”

8. H.-J. Schulze “Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestra: Some unanswered questions” in Early Music XVII (1989), p. 13.

9. J. Beer„Musicalische Discurse“ [“Musical Discourses”] [Nürnberg, 1719] p. 11.

10. J. Mattheson „Der musicalische Patriot“ [“The Musical Patriot”] [
Hamburg, 1728: Facsimile 1975) p. 64.

11. C. Ruetz „Widerlegte Vorurtheile von der Beschaffenheit der heutigen Kirchenmusic“ [“Refuted Prejudices Regarding the Nature of Contemporary Church Music”] [Rostock and Wismar, 1753] p. 115ff. “If the cantor would like, on occasion, to present a fully-orchestrated cantata, for which a larger number of musicians will be needed,…he will need to open up his purse/wallet to pay from his own money for the additional musicians that he calls upon – these are those that are not really members of his choir….I have heard various cantors complain about this. With the moneys he uses for obtaining the musicians for performing his cantatas, many a cantor could have purchased a very sizable library of books and music.”

12. A. Parrott “Bach’s chorus: a ‘brief yet highly necessary’ reappraisal” in “Early Music” XXIV (1996) p. 572: The overview in Table 3.

13. Ibid., p. 572: “These payments follow a 14-year gap in known documentation….”

14. Bach-Dokumente I, No. 81: “That the individual presenting this document, J. C. Altnickol, has continuously provided assistance for the main choir since Michalmas, 1745, by sometimes playing the violin or violoncello, but mostly as a bass vocalist, a much needed musical position due to the lack of such bass voices in the St. Thomas School which occurs because so many pupils leave the school prematurely before such a voice can be properly developed. Herewith witnessed in my own handwriting in
Leipzig on May 25, 1747. Johann Sebastian Bach.”

15. A. Parrott “Bach’s chorus” p. 559: “The overwhelming majority of Bach’s church-music survives in sets of parts - evidently complete - which have just a single copy for each voice-part.”

16. Compare individually the Critical Reports of the NBA: also see BC I/1-2.

17. Günther Wagner "Die Chorbesetzung bei J. S. Bach und ihre Vorgeschichte“ [“On the number of choir members in J. S. Bach’s performances and the history of this which preceded Bach’s time”] AfMwXLIII (1986), p. 297, note 58, quoted by G. J. Vogler in “Betrachtungen der Mannheimer Tonschule,” [“Observations regarding the Mannheim Classical Period of Music”] 3 [Mannheim, 1780] p. 125.

18. J. A. Scheibe „Der Critische Musikus“ [“The Critical Musician”] [
Hamburg, 1738] p. 174.

19. Ibid., p. 185.

J.G. Walther “Musicalisches Lexicon” [Leipzig, 1732: Facsimile – Kassel, 1953] p. 139.

21. Ibid., p. 528.

22. compare similarly expressed definitions in S. de Brossard’s “Dictionnaire de Musique” [2nd Edition, Paris, 1705] p. 113 and J. C. and J. D. Stößel “A Short Musical Dictionary” [2nd Edition, Chemnitz, 1749] p. 80.

23. W. C. Printz “Musica modulatoria vocalis” [Schweidnitz, 1678] p. 6, § 18.

24. So, for example, in J. H. Schein’s “Israelis Brünnlein“ [
Leipzig, 1623] which was issued in print in 5 part books (S I, II, A, T, B, bc.) There is, however, a composition for 6 singers and bc; 2 singers will have had to share a single part. We see the same thing in his “Opella nova / ander Theil” [Leipzig, 1626] for 3 to 6 singers and bc. , which was printed in 5 part books. His “Cymbalum Sionium” [Leipzig, 1615] for 5, 6, 8, 10, or 12 parts came out in 8 separate part books. Here as well the part books were used by more than one singer.

25. H.-J. Schulze (editor) “Rules and Bylaws” p. 72.

26. A. Forchert "Mattheson und die Kirchenmusik." Gattung und Werk in der Musikgeschichte Norddeutschlands und Skandinaviens “Mattheson and Church Music” in “Categories and Composin the History of Music of North Germany and Scandinavia” [Kassel, 1980] pp. 114-120.

27. J. Mattheson „Sieben Gespräche der Weisheit und Musik“ [“Seven Conversations about Wisdom and Music”] [
Hamburg, 1751] p. 27.

28. “Plus Ultra...Erster Vorrater vom Klingenden Gottesdienst” [“Plus Ultra…First Stock of the Musical Church Service”] [
Hamburg, 1754] p. 12.

29. Compare with this chapter also the detailed treatment by the author in “Early Music” XXXIV (1996), pp. 605-612 and XXVI (1998) pp. 109-121.


Source: Christoph Wolff/Ton Koopman “Die Welt der Bach Kantaten” [Bärenreiter, Kassel, 1999] Vol. 3 Chapter 14 „Bachs Chor und Orchester“ by Ton Koopman, pp. 233-249.
Translated into English and contributed by Thomas Braatz (February 2005)
The article is printed here with permission from Ton Koopman (June 2005)

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