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Playing Plain Recitative in Bach's Vocal Works

By Bradley Lehman (April 2003)

Here is a summary set of principles, a reasonable approach culled from the sources presented by Peter Williams (especially) [1969], and the article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians [2001], and Laurence Dreyfus [1987], and Arthur Mendel [1950], and from examining the musical examples (not only the treatises) presented.

As I said earlier this week, I am most convinced overall by Williams' discussion: for his balanced presentation of the sources, and his emphasis on practicality, and the amount of credence he gives to CPE Bach as a witness (and Telemann, Heinichen, etc.), and his recognition of any differences between sacred and secular music. He is also more careful than Dreyfus and Mendel not to conflate the sources that say the bass itself should be released, with the sources that say only the chords are released while the bass continues to sound. And, he goes much more thoroughly into relevant sources on organ registration, not focusing simply on note lengths, but on overall sound.

The following, then, is my list of principles, the way I choose to play continuo in plain recitative in the Bach vocal works: both from the set of sources noted above, and (at least as importantly) from practical experience in the music. That is, to me, the description below is a practical and reasonable approach, trying to the best of my ability to play it "Bach's way" as far as can be determined. There is no way to know 'for sure,' but this way works very well. (And, as I said yesterday, I haven't been convinced that anybody yet on recordings has really got it right...some get more portions of it than others, of course...that's why it's important to go to the music and the sources, not simply following any hero on recordings.)


- Clarity of the words is paramount: both from the singer (presenting the text as declamatory, heightened "speech" in notes, freely flowing in speech-rhythms), and from the accompanists (staying out of the way on anything that would obscure the direct, clear, straightforward presentation of that text).

- That is, "less is more." The accompaniment's main job is to punctuate what the singer is already doing, letting the singer lead, and merely highlighting the occasional surprises (harmonic shocks, and the most important words, and bass motion)...and the rest of the time staying out of the way, being deliberately uninteresting, because it would detract from the singer and the words. Never should the accompaniment be too loud, or too fussy, or too busy. Changes of registration during a recitative are both unnecessary and distracting, drawing attention away from the singing.

- Lightly touching the harmonies is the norm: play them briefly, then get off them, to let the singer's words emerge most clearly. All that is necessary is to establish (very briefly) the harmonic context, and then get out of the way. This is true whether it's organ or harpsichord playing the keyboard part.

- Only very occasionally (usually not more than two or three times in an entire recitative) should special points be made: making certain progressions or strokes more emphatic/strong than the norm, or (sometimes) more gently played than the norm. These decisions always arise from the music itself, not imposed on it by the player: if the composer did something surprising with harmony or the words, bring it out. But the default is the overall neutrality: the same number of notes in each chord, the same light neutral touch, except when making a rare point one way or another, using more or fewer notes, or shorter or longer strokes.

- In preparation: a good way to think of these keyboard 'strokes,' and get them to be a decent length, is simply to make a quick sweep of the hand (like a conductor) while speaking a word. The natural speed of the hand (slow-fast-slow) during the stroke shows the general dynamic profile, and the the length of the spoken word determines a good length. Also, it is noticed that all these natural strokes have some degree of 'roundness' to them; nothing terribly sharp, and nothing artificially drawn out either.

- If there are other bass-line player(s), or if organ pedal is available, it might (or might not) sustain the bass line itself somewhat longer than the keyboard player is doing; it's independent. It can sometimes play as short as the keyboard chords, especially where the point of the dramatic text is urgency; or it might play somewhat longer, emphasizing that it's a line. Everything comes from the context of the words, and from the position of this recitative within the whole piece! Where does it come from, and where is it going? That is the determination of how long, or how short, to play. There can be crescendos or decrescendos during the notes, if that is what is called for by the directionality of the text, and the singer's presentation...moving the drama forward, according to the meaning.

- The point of the bass line is to provide enough context for the singer and listeners, but not to overwhelm anything, or to seem unnaturally sustained longer than necessary (as in, sitting there sounding bored). No single note, or group of notes, should ever exceed the length of a normal human breath...whether it's played by melodic instruments, or by organ pedals. A good guideline is: assume the listeners can breathe at the same places the bass line does, and help them to do so!...never do anything in the bass line (or the organ) that would make it difficult for the listeners or the singer to breathe.

- If the figures change during a long or tied bass note (as it appears on the page), or over a rest (yes, it happens!), the keyboard player usually doesn't need to do anything about it. Check to be sure, but it's probably simply describing what the singer's notes are already doing, a new harmony over the previously played bass note. Just watch it go by. All it is is a visual cue of the composition's structure, not something to play. In the exceptional cases where it really is some new harmony not made clear in the vocal part, do consider playing it...lightly!

- The bass-line player(s) also don't need to do anything special with that situation (figures changing over a note or a rest). They might already be holding or swelling their note for other reasons (to fit the dramatic declamation), or they might have already released it; these things come easily by context and experience. [That assumes, of course, that the players and the keyboardist UNDERSTAND the text that is being sung, which is of course a requirement! How else can they figure out what to do with it?]

- None of the accompaniment, from anybody, should ever sound dogmatic or rule-bound. It should all seem like a natural reaction to what the singer is doing, in the moment, and not call attention to itself. The correct weight of every stroke should arise naturally from the way the passage is composed, subtly varying (naturally) as the sentences and paragraphs progress forward in the singer's delivery.

- Yes, this all involves split-second reaction to what the singer is doing: playing by the ears much more than playing from the paper. The paper simply tells us when the notes start, and suggests the relationships among them; everything else is determined by the context of this particular performance. Obviously there are plenty of factors to consider: the acoustics of the building, the singer's confidence, the singer's strength, the singer's dynamic range, the loudness of the organ stop used, the speed with which it (or the harpsichord) speaks, the confidence of the bass-line player(s) [if any], and the poetic clarity (or denseness) of the singer's text to begin with. As noted above, clarity of the text is paramount. A good general rule is: the accompaniment should be as simple as possible so as not to distract from that conveyance of meaning by the singer.

- Overall: the accompaniment is there to heighten the intensity of the singer's delivery...which itself must already be committed and intense, like the spoken word that has already crinto the realm of pitches, because a merely spoken delivery is not enough to contain it! The point is for everybody to put the message across as vividly as possible: the singer as (by far) the most important, supported by accompaniment that punctuates and affirms it. The accompaniment is like an eager group sympathetically nodding along with the points the singer is making, interjecting the equivalent of "amen!" "preach it, brother!" to heighten what is being said/sung.

As I've mentioned here several times, nobody does this well enough on recordings, IMO. Everybody is way too polite, subdued, un-dynamic, perhaps trying to be too "musical" with it, or too limited by permission from treatises, or whatever; or because it might seem 'overdone' when the same performance is heard a dozen times on recording playback.

The reason to do all this recitative delivery with such intensity is not because any treatise says so, but because it is basic human communication, putting across a message vividly. :) Everything is context; and everything arises directly from the words and music, not from the performers 'adding' anything to it (other than feeling it as deeply as possible, and then reacting naturally).

Written by: Bradley Lehman (April 3, 2003)


Feedback to the Article

Johan van Veen wrote (April 3, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad, many thanks for your set of guidelines.

For me, although not being a musicologist nor playing any instrument, all these things are so 'natural' and 'logical' that I just don't understand why people object to these 'guidelines'.

You rightly put the text and the message it delivers in the centre of attention. To me this is one of the basic principles of baroque music as such, directly going back to the rules formulated by Caccini, known as 'seconda prattica', which were still very much current, in particular in the German baroque. I believe the German baroque paid more attention to the text than any other 'national' style. In close connection with it, it was also more influenced by rhetorics than other 'national' styles. Recently Reinhard Goebel, in an interview on Dutch radio, compared German and French baroque by saying that the French are aiming at 'pleasing' the audience, the Germans at 'convincing' them. I think that this aim is central to German music, and in particular in the sacred music of Bach, of whom was said that he had a better knowledge and understanding of rhetorics than anyone else.

One of the most disappointing aspects of many recordings of vocal music for me is the lack of freedom in the performance of recitatives. As far as Bach is concerned, I consider Kurt Equiluz as perhaps the best recitative singer of the 20th century, still unsurpassed. For a long time I didn't like him, but the more I hear other singers, the more I can appreciate the way he dealt with the recitatives in Bach's cantatas and Passions.

I think the ongoing debate about the way the basso continuo should be played in Bach's cantatas actually could lead to something, if all participants only would be able to agree that the text and the message of Bach's vocal works are more important than anything else. I am convinced that the core of the disagreement is right there.

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 4, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] I love the line:
Freedom in the performance of the recitatives.

Some want to put some rules that everybody MUST follow. And we have to understand that we are free to play the music the way we want to do i.

Thanks and regards

Johan van Veen wrote (April 4, 2003):
[To Hugo Saldias] But that is not what I meant. There is no absolute freedom to do what we like. I tried to say that there is a basic rule as far as the performance of recitatives is concerned: take the freedom the composer expects the performer to take. In other words: singing the recitatives rhythmically free - on the basis of the text - is a rule which should be followed. Singing recitatives in strict rhythm is against the rules and unhistoric.

Jim Morrison wrote (April 4, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Just wanted to say good work, Brad. I was just reading last night about the dying out of the 'fire and brimstone' manner of preaching in the larger Christian congregations, how much more pervasive such a method/rhetoric was in the past, how the sermons of today compared with those of yesteryear rarely evoke to torments of the damned, eternal damnation, everlasting punishment for the fallen, etc, and instead focus more on the rewards/pleasant experience of belief. Perhaps this has some passing tangential/parallel connection with your thoughts on the issue of delivering the messages of the cantatas.

I was happy, also, to see Johan's appreciation of the summary. When I read your summary I remember thinking, "now this sounds awful close, yet expressed a little differently, to what Johan has been saying. I bet he'll like this." Good post as well from Johan.

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 5, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] Yes,agree 100%.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 4, 2003):
Amounts of freedom in music, as communication

[To Johan van Veen] I agree with Johan here. In ALL music we should take the amount of freedom the composer expected us to take (or did himself). If we do less than that, or more than that, it distorts the music too much and ceases to be what the composer wrote (that is, it turns into a modern piece about that piece, if we want to get philosophical about it).

It is just as deadly to do too little (that is, rendering the notes on the page too literally), as to do too much. An approach with too little freedom in it merely gives us the notes--a straitjacketed approximation of them, that is--, not the music. That is a misguided "faithfulness" to the written score, not faithfulness to the music.

An improvisational situation (i.e., ALL musical performance situations, to some degree!) is not a "free-for-all" where the performer can make up anything that suits his whims. The proper type of freedom comes when the performer has determined the most natural shape of the notes that were (necessarily) constricted into rational note-values--since that is the way music is written on paper--, and has put the natural amount of irrationality back into them, for delivery. That's true both in the prescribed notes, and in the ornamentation which the composer expected to be applied--or, in some cases, not to be applied--to what the performer sees on the page.

Music is a language, with vocabulary and syntax, "rules" like any other language. The way to do something meaningful is to set up a structured delivery within those rules, but also furnish a little something that is dynamic and surprising, gently pushing against the constrictions of those rules, while most of the texture continues to conform to the rules.

- A batch of words (or notes) delivered without any rules is simply an incomprehensible mess; there's nothing for us to hold onto. It's like a "sentence" such as "four Biggle netly through megapico green into", or like taking a normal sentence and reading it aloud with ridiculous pitch inflections and unnatural speeds. Fluctuations of pitch, speed, dynamic accentuation, word order, combination, declensions, etc. have to be natural (according to the established rules of the language) if we want the delivery to be comprehensible.

- Or on the other hand, a batch of notes delivered too literally, using ONLY rules, is like somebody reading a document aloud in a monotone, or with no comprehension of its meaning, and no comprehension of the natural rise and fall of important and less important elements. It's deadly boring, uncommunicative, and totally misses the point.

Both the extremes--too literal, or too "free-for-all"--are wrong. They're wrong not because any treatise says so, but for a much more basic reason: bad delivery makes the material less comprehensible. That's true whether we're dealing with a spoken language, or with music. It's true because it's basic human communication.

(Not only communication in words, or exclusively with humans: my baby and cats and dog all know how to "say" things to mwith their bodies and voices when they want me to get a specific point, and know how to communicate with one another. And I can talk back to them, and they seem to get it. There is vocabulary and syntax to all of this.)

As for taking appropriate 'liberties' to put the music across...I like Pablo Casals' phrases about this type of situation, both in Bach and in life: "Liberty--with honor! Independence--with HONOR! Too much independence is a bad thing." (From a Columbia LP honoring Casals at age 90, narrated by Isaac Stern: a series of vignettes from Casals' masterclasses and Bach rehearsals, and speeches to the United Nations, and about his self-imposed exile from fascist regimes of any kind, and more. The human spirit must not be squelched by an overly restrictive dogma; but, on the other hand, liberty itself can only take place within some organizing structure. Anarchy isn't music.)

Hugo, I agree with you--or, I think this is what you're saying, anyway, in various postings--it's better to err on the side of being "too free" than "too stiff." At least the "too free" declamation captures the listener's imagination! All mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.

An excellent guideline (not original by me, of course) is to present the music or the spoken word with the amount of inflection one would use to communicate it to a baby, one who doesn't yet know the vocabulary of the language being spoken. With such a delivery, some meaning will come across, whether it's a Bach recitative or something else.

Brad Lehman
(Yeah, once in college I did a public reading of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" along with two friends whose native languages were German and French. Stanza by stanza we rotated the languages, using the 'translations' in Douglas Hofstadter's book Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid....)

Hugo Saldias wrote (April 5, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for your wise words.

Now about Pablo Casals:
Those Brandenburg Concerti he recorded: Don't you think the tempo is a little fast in some? I like it; the more fast the more I like it, but...

Thanks and regards

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 4, 2003):
More Casals quotes

More Casals nuggets, from that same tribute LP:

Referring to a Bach performance where he's trying to coach a player to do better: "I hear the NOTES...but the notes have no interest, no life."

On Bach: "The purists are scandalized because I do that: [here he plays a Bach phrase with rhythmic flexibility and dynamic inflection, vivaciously, as demonstration]. Bach is the image of what I dream in music, and what I say in music. Bach is the most beautiful, the most everything, the profoundest of EVERY feeling. Bach, 'the professor' (snorts in derision)! I advise the young musicians not to fear Bach." (And note, Casals' habit for years was to get up and play Bach on the piano first thing every morning, as the best way to start the day.)

On humanity and independence: "We should think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity."

[Quoting those from memory; if not exact wording, at least close, and true as to his meaning. Maybe I'll check them out again sometime to be sure. Also, some of that tribute LP got recycled in Glenn Gould's later radio documentary about Casals...some of those same 'sound bites'.]

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 4, 2003):
Music as baby language

Incidentally, we use this all the time. When she's fussy, or when we just want a nice smile, we start singing the "Eensy weensy spider went up the waterspout" song to her. She immediately brightens, sometimes even laughs; and it always calms the crankiness, at least. That's true whether we use the 'correct' words or if we change them, or even use nonsense words, as long as we deliver it with the right lilt and tune and facial expressions. The important thing is that we're singing it to her and being thoroughly expressive with it. She is responding to the musical syntax, and the committed attention, rather than to the words of a vocabulary she doesn't know yet.

Today at lunchtime she was fussing again, and I ran to grab the Blockfloete. I'd never played it to her before, and I wanted to see what would happen (plus to quiet her!). I played this same song, with the customary lilt from singing it, and she cheered up immediately, just as if I'd been singing it. And she got the same message from the musical gestures, which was "cheer up, sweetheart!" She doesn't care about spiders and waterspouts.

She also calms down and listens when we put on classical CDs, and turns to look at the speakers. But, that never gets as immediate an effect as when we sing or play instruments directly to her. One of her favorite things is to be put belly-down on the closed harpsichord lid (with somebody steadying her, of course) while I play it...she feels the vibrations and hears the sounds, and gets a look of wonderment on her face. That doesn't happen with recordings.

Articles: The “Shortening of the Supporting Notes” in the Bc of Bach’s ‘Secco’ Recitatives [Thomas Braatz] | Playing Plain Recitative in Bach's Vocal Works [Bradley Lehman]
Discussions of Recitatives:
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 | Continuo in Bach’s Vocal Works: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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Last update: ýNovember 1, 2010 ý20:17:35