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Evidence for the Size of Bach’s Primary Choir

Evidence lacking for Bach’s actual use of OVPP as the generally preferred performance mode for Bach’s cantatas and other sacred vocal works during his tenure in Leipzig:

1. Bach’s Thomaner choristers in his Primary Choir were unable (except in a few rather rare instances where both ripieno as well as solo parts have been found) to read the parts placed before them unless each singer had his own part. (Iconographic evidence depicting OVPP in other cities, churches, court chapels and principalities cannot be considered solid evidence as traditions and situations varied widely over the area now considered Germany. Even Bach changed his preferred performance mode according to the city or court chapel where his sacred music was performed under his direction.)

2. Bach was unable (except in a few instances where a recorded payment has been made to an individual university student) to call upon musically well-trained Thomaner graduates or other students with excellent musical ability attending the University of
Leipzig to supply vocal soloists and the high-quality instrumentalists needed for the Primary Choir. Thus, due to illness among the Thomaner and due to the fact that the Thomaner in the Primary Choir were supposedly pressed into service performing many of instrumental parts (not played by the City Pipers), Rifkin argues that few vocalists would remain to fill out the ranks of the Primary Choir. (Actually, the tradition of using university students for the performance of sacred works in the main churches of Leipzig is documented in Kuhnau’s 1709 report to the Leipzig City Council. These ‘supernumerarii’, as Kuhnau designates them, consisted of university students who sang in the primary choir but were beginning to leave this choir to sing at the Leipzig Opera where they received better pay. [“Also wären dergleichen Supernumerarii sonderlich izo, da der Haupt Chorus Musicus von Studenten entblößet ist, gar sehr nöthig.” “Hence such additional musicians who are not officially members of the primary Thomanerchor would be very much needed particularly now that the primary Thomaner choir has to try to perform without them.”])

Evidence against the sole use of OVPP as the preferred performance mode for Bach’s cantatas and other sacred vocal works during his tenure in
Leipzig is given in documents where the number of ‘singers’ is clearly indicated by Bach personally or by others who were very close to him:

1. [Bach-Dokumente I, item 180: Division of the Thomaner (May 18, 1729): The Primary Choir consists of 3 Sopranos (Discantisten), 3 Altos, 3 Tenors, 3 Basses

2. [Bach-Dokumente I, item 22: Entwurff (August 23, 1730): For church music, Bach states, there must be two types of musicians: vocalists and Instrumentalists. The vocalists are of 4 types: Sopranos (Discantisten), Altos, Tenors, and Basses. These vocalists have to be divided into Vocal Soloists (Concertisten) and those who sing Ripieno (Ripienisten). There are usually 4 Vocal Soloists but this can be increased to as many as 8. There must be at least 8 Ripieno Singers (2 additional singers for each part). For every one of the 4 choirs (including the Primary Choir) there must be at least 3 Sopranos, 3 Altos, 3 Tenors, and 3 Basses. Ideally, each choir should consist of 4 individuals (Subjekte) for each of the 4 vocal parts, thus each choir should really have 16 singers.

3. [Bach-Dokumente II, item 432: Göttingen, 1738] Johann Matthias Gesner’s first-hand account (published 5 years later after having left
Leipzig) of a performance (or dress rehearsal) of sacred music under Bach’s direction and executed by the 30 to 40 musicians which included the Primary Thomanerchor and additional instrumentalists. Gesner was the Rektor at the Thomasschule for about 3 years beginning in 1730. Under Gesner’s Rektorship, Bach would have had almost daily contact with Gesner who lived in the same building as Bach did and witnessed directly how Bach performed (prepared) his music with the forces at his disposal.

4. [Stadtarchiv
Leipzig, Sift B VIII.26, May 1744] A list of actual names of Thomanerchor members as distributed over the 4 required choirs for the period from May 1744 to May 1745: The Primary and Secondary Choirs which sing in both churches (St. Nicholas, St. Thomas) and Choir 3 (New Church) and Choir 4 (St. Peters) are constituted as follows:
Choir 4 has only 7 members, Choir 3 has 13 and each of the 1st and 2nd Choirs has 17 members each.
Some of the names (that I could decipher) from the 17 members of the Primary Choir are:
Pietzsch, Weise, Rauch, Kaulisch, Fritzsch, Cunis, Schmartzer, Mittenzwey, Rohls senior, Rohls junior (and others indecipherable as yet).

5. [Schulordnung,
Leipzig, 1723] pp. 53, 54 “acht Concentoribus”:

These are the paid Concertisten (probably 4 for the Primary and 4 for the Secondary Choir) who function as soloists and also very likely as section leaders when they do not sing solo sections or movements.

From the following page:
I quote a pertinent section:

“As stated above, the most difficult to identify correctly is concentor. The Schulordnung only indicates that there are 8 concentors who also receive certain sums of monies that have been collected from singing activities in which they have participated with others. For a proper definition of concentor, it is necessary to consult Michael Praetorius’ definition contained in his Syntagma musicam printed in 1619: “a concentor is one who sings the concertato (solo) parts”. It would appear from this that the concentors in Bach’s choirs could be the two quartets of 4 soloists (SATB) one quartet for both the primary and secondary choirs. These soloists very likely functioned as section leaders in these choirs.”

The word ‘concertato’ as well as ‘Concertist’ as Bach uses this term in the “Entwurff” implies the presence of Ripieno singers (“Ripienisten”) (not in arias and recitatives, of course) performing at the same time in the same movement or composition with the Concertists who sometimes sing certain parts alone as a soloist, but then serve as part leaders when they are joined later by the Ripienists (the remaining 2 or 3 vocalists assigned to each part and who read from the same vocal part).

6. [From the Schulordnung,
Leipzig, 1723, p. 72]: [context: ]

“II. In church, they [the Thomaner choir members] should remain seated quietly until they are called to the music stands/desks where they should then place themselves in front of them so that each singer can see the music [Text] that has been placed on it and so that no one can hinder another from singing from it.”

This implies quite clearly that the vocalists in the Thomanerchor, when performing music in church, must situate themselves in such a way as not to obscure the view that other singers of the same part need in order to sing from the single vocal part that had been copied for each voice range.

Contributed by Thomas Braatz (May 30, 2008)

Choir Form: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20
Bach’s Choir and Orchestra [T. Koopman] | Evidence for the Size of Bach’s Primary Choir [T. Braatz]
Books on OVPP:
The Essential Bach Choir [A. Parrott] | Bach's Choral Ideal [J. Rifkin]: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


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Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 14:19