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Cantata BWV 26
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of November 5, 2006 (2nd round)

Alain Bruguières wrote (November 5, 2006):
Introduction to BWV 26 "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig"

Week of November 05, 2006
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Cantata BWV 26, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
Second Annual Cantata Cycle, 1723-24 (Jahrgang II)
24th Sunday after Trinity
1st performance: November 19, 1724 - Leipzig
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Bach Cantatas resources
Previous Discussions: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV26-D.htm
Main Cantata page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV26.htm
Text:
German http://www.cs.ualberta.ca/~wfb/cantatas/26.html
English http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV26.html
French http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV26-Fre4.htm
Score Vocal & Piano: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Scores/BWV026-V&P.pdf
Recordings: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV26.htm#RC
Listen to Leusink recording [7] (free streaming download):
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Stream/BWV26-Leusink.ram
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Librettist : unknown
Reading:
EPISTLE Colossians 1: 9-14: Paul prays for the Colossians
GOSPEL Matthew 9: 18-26: The raising from the dead of Jairus's daughter.

This is a chorale cantata, based upon the chorale of the same name.
Thirteen-verse hymn by Michael Franck.
For more details on this chorale melody see:
http://bach-cantatas.com/CM/Ach-wie-fluchtig.htm
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Structure
1. Choral S + hn ATB ob I-III + fl str bc
2. Aria T fl solo vln I solo bc
3. Recit. A bc
4. Aria B ob I-III bc
5. Recit. S bc
6. Choral SATB bc (+ instrs)

(Same structure Chorale-Aria T-Recit. A-Aria B-Recit. S-Chorale as the previous cantata - it seems that Bach used a similar structure C-A-R-A-R-C for several consecutive weeks, irrespective of the number of verses in the hymn).
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Comment (mostly based on Dürr).

In this Chorale cantata the unknown librettist uses the thirteen verses of the hymn in the following way:
Mvt. 1 (Choral) = verse 1
Mvt. 2 (Aria T) = free paraphrase of verse 2
Mvt. 3 (Recit. A) = free paraphrase of verses 3-9
Mvt. 4 (Aria B) = free paraphrase of verse 10
Mvt. 5 (Recit. S) = free paraphrase of verses 11-12
Mvt. 6 (Choral) = verse 13.

The libretto (and the hymn) is based on one single idea. The life of man is empty and fleeting like a mist (Mvt. 1), our days run by like rushing water (Mvt. 2), joy, beauty, stength, good fortune, knowlege are destroyed by the grave (Mvt. 3); attachment to such earthly treasures is foolish (Mvt. 4); whatever glory a man may achieve is
forgotten in the grave (Mvt. 5). Human affairs are bound to perish,yet whoever fears God shall endure for ever (Mvt. 6).

The first movement is a chorale fantasia in style concertante. The cantus firmus is in the soprano, reinforced by horn, each line of the chorale being accompanied by the other three voices in a swiftly moving chordal texture in quavers. At the end of each line the three accompanying voices quote the first line of the chorale melody in unison (but on different words).

The ritornello's theme, independent of the chorale melody, is characterized by all-pervading ascending and descending scales in semiquavers, conveying a sense of restlessness to the entire movement. This chorale fantasia is exceptionally successful musical illustration of the text.

The tenor aria retains the scale figures of the chorale fantasia, now suggestive of rushing waters. The tenor voice and the two obbligato instruments, tansverse flaute and violin solo combine in a complex and ever-chaging structure; sometimes the two instruments are in unison, or in thirds, sometimes the tenor and the instrumental part form a quartet.

The alto recitative, secco after a coloratura on the word 'Freude', provides an instant of calm and temporary relief, soon dissipated by the folling aria.

The basso aria is characterized, in Dürr's apt words, by a 'weird death-dance mood'. The movement is a 'genuine bourrée', whose instrumental theme introduced by the three oboes and the continuo is taken up by the basso; however the climate of this bourree is not joyful, but rather oppressive, due to the minor mode, the sonority of the oboes, and this is especially true in the middle section, on the words 'till everything collapses, dashed to pieces'; the hurried descending scales conjuring the macabre vision: 'Death strikes up and men have to dance to his shawm.' However pervert, infernal this dance may be, Alberto Basso notes that Bach, by his choice of the Bourrée, depicts this vision of Death in the style of a galanterie, as if hewere percieving a certain sweetness in it. Is it possible that in Bach's alchemy, the fantastic medieval symbolic representation meets a certain pietist approach to death?

A secco recitative leads to the concluding 4-part harmonized chorale, whose last line brings the only (moderately) comforting idea in the entire libretto : 'Whoever fears God shall endure for ever'.

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A more personal comment.

This is one of my favorites! The purport of the text is rather simple: (terrestrial) life is worthless. It's difficult to me - and probably to most inhabitants of the 21st century, to accept (not to mention adhere to) this slogan. Note that the Gospel somehow contradicts this slogan: the fact that Jesus brings Jairus's daughter back to life is hard to reconcile with the idea that life is worthless.

Yet Bach's treatment of this text is really wonderful. It suggests that the slogan shouldn't be taken at its face value, in all its bluntness - in particular the Basso aria reveals a much more subtle approach to death.

Some time ago (when BWV 60 was under discussion), I posted the following remarks.
< I have noted three approaches to Time in Bach's cantatas. >
The first two concern 'human' time, that is time as percieved by a mortal. >
- time viewed in a worldly perspective : time flows desperately fast, condemning all we are and all we achieve to a rapid destruction; hence vanity of things of this world. A moralist's point of view, which could have been endorsed by ancient, pre-christian philosophers. A typical example being Ach wie flüchtig, Ach wie nichtig BWV 26.
- time viewed in a spiritual (pietist?) perspective : time flows al too slowly, while the christian craves for his final liberation from the sufferings of this world. Many instances of this, notably
BWV 95.
The third point of view is quite different : a meditation on Eternity - Time on a divine scale, which is completely beyond our experience.
BWV 60 'O Ewigkeit Du Donnerwort' is obviously an instance of that. It's not really about time, in fact. More about the total absence of limits - a concept hto fathom! >

Now BWV 60 was performed on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, too, just one year before BWV 26, but with completely different points of view.Also, the point of view in BWV 26 is not the 'spiritual' point of view: time flows too fast from a worldly point of view; but if you aspire to liberation through death (and this seems closer to Bach's ideas), then it flows all to slowly.

Hence perhaps a sense of 'cognitive dissonance' (in Eric Bergerud's words) which may contribute to the pleasure of listening to this cantata.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 5, 2006):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< (Same structure Chorale-Aria T-Recit. A-Aria B-Recit. S-Chorale as the previous cantata - it seems that Bach used a similar structure C-A-R-A-R-C for several consecutive weeks, irrespective of the number of verses in the hymn). >
But notice how the voice pairs alternate from week to week, SA recit, TB aria, and vice versa. An undeveloped idea (where is a graduate student when you need one?) is to relate this (or not ) to the proposed standard voice correlation of A = Geist, etc.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 5, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< But notice how the voice pairs alternate from week to week, SA recit, TB aria, and vice versa. An undeveloped idea (where is a graduate student when you need one?) is to relate this (or not ) to the proposed standard voice correlation of A = Geist, etc. >
It seems likely to me (as a practical matter for the music director) that Bach just planned out the season well and rotated his available singers into it, giving them enough lead time to learn their parts. On the weeks where they're not given particularly difficult solos, they could be working ahead on upcoming material for another week.

I don't see why it's necessary to speculate more "deeply" into metaphysical assignments than that (A = Geist, etc etc etc), when a practical hypothesis so readily presents itself, and when the practical hypothesis shows Bach to be competent or better at his job. That job included educating a team of youths in musicianship, and supplying fine music well performed for the appointed church duties. The music was probably going to be heard once (at most) by any given parishioner over a lifetime, maybe twice; what point would there be to load it up compositionally with too many symbolic things that can't be gotten on that single hearing, next to the more immediate task of getting the music done well? The music certainly wasn't written with the expectation that it would be argued about 280 years in the future by a bunch of people communicating electronically by typing.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 5, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< It seems likely to me (as a practical matter for the music director) that Bach just planned out the season well and rotated his available singers into it, giving them enough lead time to learn their parts. On the weeks where they're not given particularly difficult solos, they could be working ahead on upcoming material for another week.
I don't see why it's necessary to speculate more "deeply" into metaphysical assignments than that (A = Geist, etc etc etc), when a practical hypothesis so readily presents itself, and when the practical hypothesis shows Bach to be competent or better at his job. That job included educating a team of youths in musicianship, and supplying fine music well performed for the appointed church duties. The music was probably going to be heard once (at most) by any given parishioner over a lifetime, maybe twice; what point would there be to load it up compositionally with too many symbolic things that can't be gotten on that single hearing, next to the more immediate task of getting the music done well? >
Betraying my ever-perennial obsession with Bach as a practical musician, it would be fascinating to set up tables for the whole year (say Jahrgang I) showing the lists of music Bach had to prepare for the four churches-- motets, cantatas, chorales, perhaps even organ works -- and see if patterns of orchestration appeared. We have a tendency to ignore the non-Bach repertoire, but there would have been Sundays when an eight-voice motet of Lassus would have been more challenging than the cantata. And then there are the 6 or 7 organ works required.

However, the genius of Bach is that he never became a hack: he never provided anything less than the best. Yes, the cantata may have been only heard once, but Bach gave each a profundity that perhaps only he and God appreciated. Those depths are the reason that this is the BCML and not a list devoted to the cantatas of Telemann.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 5, 2006):
BWV 26 "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig" - Unison singing


Alain Bruguières wrote:
< Week of November 05, 2006
---------------------------
Cantata BWV 26, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig >

I first heard this cantata as a teenager and that opening whirlwind of a chorus made a deep impression on me. It's in the Top Ten Cantatas for me.

One of the most arresting effects in the opening movement is Bach's use of all the voices in unison to depict "nichtig" -- there is "nothing" but the melody, no harmony.

I was trying to think of other passages that used unison writing. In the SMP (BWV 244), the chorus "Den Du Den Tempel" ends with the eight voices in unison for "ich bin Gottes Sohn", mocking the "emptiness" of Christ's title. And "Trotz" in "Jesu Meine Freude" uses a menacing unison to depict the dragon.

Any other examples?

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>Any other examples [of unison choral passages]? <<
The conclusion of mvt. 6 of BWV 71 mm 32 to 37 on the words "du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben die Seele deiner Turteltauben" ["you did not want to give the {your} enemy the soul of your turtledoves"]. It sounds like a chant normally sung by the entire congregation.

There are other passages in octaves like that in BWV 190/1 mm 79-85, mm 123-130, again this sounds very orthodox and antiquated recalling the "Leisen" and "Rufe" (see BCW for details) of an early period in church history (in Germany) "Herr Gott, dich loben wir" (Lord God, we praise you") and "Herr Gott, wir danken dir" ("Lord God, we thank you").

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 5, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
<< (citing my earlier post But notice how the voice pairs alternate from week to week, SA recit, TB aria, and vice versa. An undeveloped idea (where is a graduate student when you need one?) is to relate this (or not ) to the proposed standard voice correlation of A = Geist, etc.
< It seems likely to me (as a practical matter for the music director) that Bach just planned out the season well and rotated his available singers into it, giving them enough lead time to learn their parts. On the weeks where they're not given particularly difficult solos, they could be working ahead on upcoming material for another week.
I don't see why it's necessary to speculate more "deeply" into metaphysical assignments than that (A = Geist, etc etc etc), when a practical hypothesis so readily presents itself, and when the practical hypothesis shows Bach to be competent or better at his job. >
Yes, in fact I intended to suggest the same point you have made. I was writing a really quick note, so as not to lose the thought. I should have put more emphasis on the or not. I haven't done it yet, but I expect the <proposed standard voice correlation of A = Geist, etc> would disintegrate in the context of the cantatas for recent weeks: BWV 38, BWV 115, and more.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>It seems likely to me (as a practical matter for the music director)that Bach just planned out the season well and rotated his available singers into it, giving them enough lead time to learn their parts. On the weeks where they're not given particularly difficult solos, they could be working ahead on upcoming material for another week.<<
Even more practical foBach who lived and worked at a time and place unlike any available today and who therefore had different expectations of his solo singers is to have at his service vocalists who could sight-read and sing while sight-reading with such a proficiency that no additional practice over a span of more than just one or two days was necessary. Evidence of this ability that good singers possessed is found in one of Bach's report(card)s/recommendations that he wrote for Johann Christoph Schmied, dated Leipzig, May 9, 1729 which reads as follows (Bach-Dokumente I, item 62 on p. 130):

>>Vorzeiger dieses Johann Christoph Schmeid von Bendleben aus Thüringen 'aet': 19. Jahr, hat eine feine 'Tenor' Stimme und singt vom Blat fertig."

"The individual showing this [paper/document], Johann Christoph Schmied [Bach misspelled the last name] from Bendleben in Thuringia, age 19, has a fine [excellent/accurate] tenor voice and sight-reads [music, his part] so that it is in no further need of improvement [so that it can be performed that way directly without needing further practice]."

This is precisely the type of singer that Bach had at his disposal and upon whom he could depend to give an excellent performance in church after no more than a single rehearsal the day before the performance.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>However, the genius of Bach is that he never became a hack: he never provided anything less than the best. Yes, the cantata may have been only heard once, but Bach gave each a profundity that perhaps only he and God appreciated. Those depths are the reason that this is the BCML and not a list devoted to the cantatas of Telemann.<<
Martin Geck, in his "Bach:Leben und Werk" Hamburg, 2000, pp. 378-379, states that Bach's first cantata cycle (and I would suppose that 2nd would also be appropriate here) can in no way be compared to Georg Philipp Telemann's cycle of cantatas from 1725/1726 as printed in his "Harmonischer Gottesdienst". The latter achieved its success throughout various regions in Germany due to its normative aspects: the texts, the orchestration, the sequence of choral and solo mvts and the manner of composition [simplified with its potential users in mind - small town cantors, choirs, soloists as well as those in larger cities] all follow the same pattern. This way the potential user knew that he would have music that could be used on the spur of the moment without any special problems or surprises (such as some difficult passages that may not be easily worked out quickly). Geck uses the word "bequem" ["made to be easy and convenient to use"] to describe the Telemann cantatas in this printed series.

On the other hand, Bach found himself in a situation much more like an experimental laboratory. He did not have an entire year of libretti in hand when he began composing a yearly cycle. His method of composing cantatas was much more a matter of "living from hand to mouth" ["von der Hand in den Mund"]: it was necessary for Bach to accommodate the prevailing "Leipziger Verhältnisse" ["the conditions in Leipzig"]. He could hardly plan ahead for more than just a few weeks at the most. There is evidence for this in the original sources where he includes a notational sketch for the coming week's cantata on the cantata which he is composing for this week. After the performance of one cantata, Bach can learn from the strengths and weaknesses, make adjustments which he could then apply in the cantata for the coming week. Bach found a balance between the high artistic goals he set for himself and the requirements forced upon him by mundane factors which he faced daily. Despite the pressure of time which surrounded him on all sides, he was capable of creating gems with many facets, miracles of varying compositional structures, musical expression, theological,emblematical depth of meaning and existential vivacity/liveliness. In music history there is hardly anything comparable where a composer worked under such extreme conditions of productive tension: on one side the strong will to create music with a grand conception, on the other side the reality of routine which literally forced him to experiment and which, however, made necessary compromises of various types. Most of the time Bach had to react to situations on a week-to-week basis. This is the reason, however, why it is so astonishing that he composes with such certainty introductory choruses on biblical verses or chorale texts. etc. etc.

Some conclusions issuing from the above:

Composing with a specific user already in mind and getting the music printed with a goal of making money has a normative effect which makes the creation of truly great, enduring music much less likely.

Having a high musical ideal in mind (creating the best music that one is capable of composing) and finding the means to materialize this goal by making quick, necessary adjustments (experimentation) to suit the daily requirements of reality are more conducive to the creation of great music.

Secondary conclusions emanating from the above and applied to Bach performances today:

Performing and/or recording music for a specific audience (performing music with the potential desires of current audiences or current fads/fashions in musicology in mind) has a normative effect on the quality of the performance.

Performing and/or recording music with special attention given to serving humbly the goals inherent in the text and music as given by Bach will bring out more of its enduring spirituality and musicality.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 5, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< This is precisely the type of singer that Bach had at his disposal and upon whom he could depend to give an excellent performance in church after no more than a single rehearsal the day before the performance. >
This is your conclusion which is not supported by any of the documents you cite. Common sense and practical experience makes this supposition ridiculous.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 5, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Composing with a specific user already in mind and getting the music printed with a goal of making money has a normative effect which makes the creation of truly great, enduring music much less likely. >
* Nonsense. Bach used a collection of the finest motets of the 16th - 17th century for his entite career in Leipzig. I doubt he thought the motets by Lassus were hack work merely because they were popular or widely-published.

Peter Smaill wrote (November 5, 2006):
The purpose of this commentary tis to act principally as a reprise of previous observations on the Chorale, which occurs in BWV 26/1 and 26/6.

As regards BWV 26/1, it is perhaps the best instance we have of the word painting in the correlative organ prelude, BWV 644 in the Orgelbüchlein, following the same motif - rushing semiquavers in contrary motion. As Spitta puts it, the scales "hurry by like passing ghosts". Stinson suggests the common root may be Böhm's work (Var 4 of the partita), of the same title and figuration. In the organ prelude, Bach concludes without pedal, as he does in the aria, "Wie zittern und wanken", from BWV 105,"Herr , gehe nichts in Gerichte", the missing continuo part "symbolising the sinner's precarious existence". It is the final Chorale in the Orgelbüchlein, at the end of the Church year and a meditation of the fleeting nature of existence.

Considered as a pure Chorale, BWV 26/6 displays palindromic text and music This arises because in earlier printed versions of the text (? do we have extant the text booklet for this Sunday?) the words NEBEL and LEBEN are capitalised, emphasising their ability to relate by being read backwards or forwards. So it is (subject to variance in note repetitions) with the melody of the first line of the Chorale: GABB BCDD DDCB AAGG.

Both the organ work and Cantata emphasise falling octave figures in the bass, suggesting the finality of the end of the Church year and of life itself.

Note that Bach reverses the linguistic order of the Choraleincipit; in BWV 644, it is given out as "Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig"; whereas the Cantata reads, "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig".

Dürr, who is often clinical in his analysis compared to the impassionate Whittaker, says of this work,

"in its imposing display of pregnant images, it creates a stirring impression, it accords well with the general themes of the close of the Church year, and from a musical standpoint, above all, it is an unrivalled masterpiece".

Raymond Joly wrote (November 5, 2006):
Thomas Braatz, quoting and translating a recommendation by Bach, and commenting on it further:

BACH: Vorzeiger dieses [...] hat eine feine 'Tenor' Stimme und singt vom Blat fertig.

BACH TRANSLATED: The individual showing this [...] has a fine [excellent/accurate] tenor voice and sight-reads [music, his part] so that it is in no further need of improvement [so that it can be performed that way
directly without needing further practice].

BRAATZ: This is precisely the type of singer that Bach had at his disposal and upon whom he could depend to give an excellent performance in church after no more than a single rehearsal the day before the performance.

I think what Bach wrote is simply this: "This young man has a good tenor voice and can sight read". I understand "vom Blatt fertig" as meaning "straight off the page" (I hope my English does not confuse matters).

This is an achievement expected today, for instance, from any accompanist. There may be degrees in accuracy, though, depending on how tough the stuff is. And a piece brilliantly sight read usually needs a lot of further practice and improvement before it is satisfactorily presented to an audience.

I am well aware that we are not talking about concerts and recordings, but one-off performances in a church. But I do not think we make Bach any greater by idealizing Leipzig.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>Common sense and practical experience makes this supposition [that Bach's vocal solists, and instrumentalists as well, had great skill and artistry in sight-reading their parts and performing them up to Bach's high standards with little or no rehearsal) ridiculous.<<
Actually, any 'common sense' based upon practical experience today cannot confirm that Bach was forced to use the methods employed today by choir directors world-wide. What is missing in this type of evaluation is a clear insight into the differences between Bach's time and place and whatever transpires today under very different conditions. The most important musical goal for Bach was to achieve "Profectus" in all musical matters; this is success in achieving a proficiency regarding the ease with which one can read accurately the notes on the page as well as the ability to make it sound like this is already a successful performance of the music including voice control, use of expressive means to bring out the meaning of the text (not mechanical devices alone, but a true 'singing from the soul' or 'singing with heartfelt emotion') which will naturally touch the emotions of the listeners. In his 'report cards'/recommendations for his pupils/students/musicians, Bach has a range of qualifications beginning with absolute perfection in sight-reading or about 'hitting the notes beautifully ("er trifft gar hübsch") to "mittelmäßig" ("average"), to "mediocre"/"passable" ("just barely good enough") to "ziemlich schlecht" ("rather bad"), "wenige Profectus" ("very little success/proficiency in music"). When Bach says that someone is able to play various instruments and also sing as well as anyone could expect of a truly skilled musician, then this certainly includes the ability to sing and play at sight any difficult music Bach could place before him and play/sing it in such a way that it could be considered a finished performance as judged by Johann Sebastian Bach, not by some present-day choir director who might insist that his standards are the same or even better than J. S. Bach's. A reasonable assumption, giving Bach credit for a high standard we are unable to prove today, is that Bach's achievements in performing (not to mention composing rather quickly) his weekly cantatas with little or no preparation aside from a Saturday afternoon rehearsal cannot be compared, for instance, with Leusink's attempt to perform and record all Bach's cantatas following a similar schedule. Asserting that these two situations are comparable is truly unreasonable and ridiculous.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
BACH: Vorzeiger dieses [...] hat eine feine 'Tenor' Stimme und singt vom Blat fertig.
JOLY: I think what Bach wrote is simply this: "This young man has a good tenor voice and can sight read".
I understand "vom Blatt fertig" as meaning "straight off the page"

This is an achievement expected today, for instance, from any accompanist. There may be degrees in accuracy, though, depending on how tough the stuff is. And a piece brilliantly sight read usually needs a lot of further practice and improvement before it is satisfactorily presented to an audience.
MY RESPONSE: It is precisely this difference between how Bach's expectations (which were normal for his time) might have been quite different from those encountered today. Another way to translate "fertig" is something like "ready to roll" or "to embark on a journey directly without further preparation". With just a bit of imagination plus evidence from the original parts which Bach used for his cantata performances, it is possible to assume reasonably that there was a much higher expectation in Bach's time for the required ability of a singer or player since the parts for many cantatas which may have been performed only 2 or 3 times during Bach's lifetime show very little normal wear and tear from use (unlike a few cantatas which were performed so often that the parts literally wore out - BWV 80 is an example of this recently discussed here). Paper was very expensive and Bach wanted to ensure that he preserved his efforts and those of his copyists properly so that the parts would be reusable. The evidence from the parts also shows that performers never corrected wrong notes, added articulation, dynamics, put in fingerings or added any symbols that present day singers and players normally would today under similar circumstances. Never has a part copied by a performer for his own use to practice from at home or to use in a performance been found. The only original parts lost were the doublets which pertain mainly to the ripieno parts and the violin 1 and 2 parts which were unimportant to preserving what was deemed necessary to perform the cantata directly and quickly without much preparation. The point of all of this is that, compared to today's easy availability and creation of additional parts, every part in Bach's set of original parts was carefully accounted for and it appears almost certain that these key parts never left Bach's sight even between the rehearsal and Sunday performance(s). The immense pressure upon the players and singers (they were fined for wrong notes during performances in church) in Bach's time made mere sight-reading a more involved process than simply sight-reading today (as accompanists would) without worrying additionally about the fact that the sight-reading would also be the final performance of the work. I do believe that there are musicians alive today who are capable of duplicating this feat (sight-reading = final {or in case of a rehearsal, the next-to-last} performance of the work in its ultimate form. It does not help to clarify the difference between Bach's cantata performances and performances/recordings of the same work today by indicating that today there are truly many, many performers who can sight-read, but need additonal time and numerous rehearsals 'to get it right.' I do not believe that pointing out this difference amounts to an idealization of Bach's situation in Leipzig.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 6, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< On the other hand, Bach found himself in a situation much more like an exlaboratory. He did not have an entire year of libretti in hand when he began composing a yearly cycle. <snip> He could hardly plan ahead for more than just a few weeks at the most. There is evidence for this in the original sources where he includes a notational sketch for the coming week's cantata on the cantata which he is composing for this week.
<snip>
Most of the time Bach had to react to situations on a week-to-week basis. >
Reply: The experimental laboratory is a nice analogy. The creative miracle of the cantatas of 1724-25 stands on its own, no need to exaggerate the time constraints. The existence of published text booklets, a rare bit of actual evidence, just about proves that Bach could plan ahead for at least (as distinct from at most) a few weeks. It is impressive enough that he averaged one unique masterpiece per week, no need to insist that he was starting from scratch every Monday morning. We all make notes today for tomorrow's work, and react to situations on a week-to-week basis; those points do not say much about the overall creative time span available for any particular composition.

T.B.:
< Performing and/or recording music for a specific audience (performing music with the potential desires of current audiences or current fads/fashions in musicology in mind) has a normative effect on the quality of the performance. >
Reply: I think the point is that there is a lot of similarity among HIP performances. But the economic reality is that most recordings and performances need to be responsive to the current marketplace, whether fad, fashion, or informed preference. OK, informed preference is wishful thinking. I also find the comment a bit unfair to Suzuki [11], who has stated (and recorded) his intent to add to the variety of available recordings whenever that is a valid choice. It is hard to ask for more than that.

I do not exactly disagree with the basic point, but I do have other reservations. Gardiner's Pilgrimage is a noble creative concept, giving us live recordings. Koopman and Leusink have complete cycles with unique individual characteristics, whether one happens to favor them or not. Herreweghe disdains the complete cycle idea, but turns out a great record when the spirit (or economic reality) moves him. Kuijken is a relatively recent and IMO unique and outstanding OVPP sound. Many other important specialized releases, Coin comes immediately to mind from recent discussions.

Should someone be making records in the style of Richter [2], Rilling [6], or Werner [1]? The originals remain available, sounding superb in many cases, no need to imitate. We are blessed with an abundance of options. Is it a perfect world? I have a wish list:
(1) Release the Cantate LP series on CD, for one more (and sometimes best) traditional choice.
(2) Release more Craig Smith/Emmanuel Music, bridging the HIP/traditional styles, and representing about thirty years of weekly performances of the Bach cantatas.
(3) Keep the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt set in print, if only so that everyone has access to reference what Thomas means by the Harnoncourt doctrine. No intent to reopen controversy. As often as not I agree with the underlying thought. Especially that continuo sounds better with some continuity. Seems to me that the very word makes the point. If there is anywhere that Thomas' normative effect applies, IMO it is in this detail. It would be good to have listening options in recent recordings, whatever the theory.

Neil Mason wrote (November 6, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] I simply disagree with Thomas here. It is all supposition.

My opinion (whether or not somebody else describes it as ridiculous) is that JSB would be pleasantly surprised to know that his works have been distributed all round the world for people to study and listen to. And furthermore, even though Leusink is absolutely dirt-cheap to buy, his performances are far from terrible (except for some alto arias).

I don't know how many rehearsals Leusink's singers and players had on each cantata; I suspect not many. Musicians continue to be busy people, and we do what we can with the time and resources available, just as JSB did.

THAT hasn't changed, so it's far from clear that other things have changed either.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 16, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
>>The existence of published text booklets, a rare bit of actual evidence, just about proves that Bach could plan ahead for at least (as distinct from at most) a few weeks. It is impressive enough that he averaged one unique masterpiece per week, no need to insist that he was starting from scratch every Monday morning. We all make notes today for tomorrow's work, and react to situations on a week-to-week basis; those points do not say much about the overall creative time span available for any particular composition.<<
Rather than daily notes which are used to plan ahead for tomorrow, I would tend to see the cantata booklets more like a syllabus for a crash summer course on the American novel. All the books to be read are listed with specific discussion dates in class and every two weeks a paper is due. How many students, although all the specific assignments are known in advance, but faced with the prospect of keeping up with the tremendous amount of reading about which they will need to be prepared to discuss intelligently the content of each novel, will begin working on a paper which is due in two weeks, four weeks and six weeks or even the final paper due at the end of the course in eight weeks, even though the specific subjects to be chosen for each of these papers are already listed in the syllabus? Realistically, from a purely human standpoint, how many students would jot down in a margin of the paper being prepared for submission in 4 weeks an idea which might be helpful for a paper due in 6 weeks when the rather unfamiliar content of the latter paper had not yet had an opportunity to sink in? Why would Bach, working/composing on a score 5 weeks in advance of an actual performance date specified in the cantata booklet, quickly sketch out an idea in the margin of the working score for that cantata a new idea for the cantata intended for the week that followed it? Would it not be even more likely that such a sketch in the margin would be made while he was still working or had just finished working on the present cantata due this coming weekend so that he could now begin thinking about the next cantata? Why would Bach, who had planned and prepared his compositions well in advance of the actual performance, according to a theory that some people uphold, give his copyists an unfinished score from which they would prepare the parts for the singers and players to take home to study, only to have to recall them again so that the final mvt. could be added at the last moment because it had not yet been composed?

It makes much more sense to consider the possibility that Bach allowed himself to be inspired by the texts, but first began working out possibilities in his mind and then possibly trying out some of the ideas on a keyboard, but waiting until nearly the last moment (the week before the performance) to prepare a composing score. There is evidence that the copying procedure was very efficiently organized so that copyists (if more than one was involved) could be accomplishing their tasks simultaneously and as the evening became night, Anna Magdalena Bach or one of the children who was old enough to be reliable prepared doublets from the parts already copied. Meanwhile Bach was busy copying out a tromba or corno part, possibly looking at the score over the shoulder of the copyist as these parts were usually not as difficult to copy and when he had finished this he would begin to compose the final 4-pt chorale which was still missing. Finally, when everyone had left the house or had gone to bed, Bach would copy out the chorale to add it to each of the parts that had already been prepared that evening so that now the complete set of parwould be ready for tomorrow's usual Saturday rehearsal and the Sunday performance(s).

For the purposes of experimentation and making necessary adjustments which could come up on rather short notice (a singer's father died and he had to leave Leipzig for a week or so, a key instrumentalist had injured his hand and would not be able to perform as previously planned a difficult part), it would be much more feasible for Bach to wait until the last moment (the few days previous to the actual performance) instead of having to make major adjustments in the score and as a result in all of the parts. For a repeat performance many years later such adjustments were a matter of course, but not for a first performance which depended upon various performers singing and playing according to the highest standards that Bach required/demanded.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 6, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Finally, when everyone had left the house or had gone to bed, Bach would copy out the chorale to add it to each of the parts that had already been prepared that evening so that now the complete set of parts would be ready for tomorrow's usual Saturday rehearsal and the Sunday performance(s). >
It is remarkable that the practical experiece of musicians is rejected in reconstructing Bach's working method, but this little fantasy scenario which sounds like a Hollywood movie is seriously presented. Does Alistair Sim play Bach in a bad wig?

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 6, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>It is remarkable that the practical experiece of musicians is rejected in reconstructing Bach's working method, but this little fantasy scenario which sounds like a Hollywood movie is seriously presented. Does Alistair Sim play Bach in a bad wig?<<
It is remarkable that the evidence provided by the autograph scores and original sets of parts is so easily rejected in reconstructing Bach's working method and that a preference is expressed for using instead the unscholarly method of basing everything upon an empirical means of obtaining knowledge about a composer who lived and worked over two and a half centuries ago under very different conditions only a few of which can be deemed similar to those of today. Why is it that the practical experience of musicians is unable to give a reasonable explanation for a rather unusual method and sequence of composing and copying music which Bach employed on numerous occasions based upon the physical records which are still extant? Instead of relying upon present-day methods and experiences to the exclusion of seriously pondering the actual evidence, practical musicians could profit immensely from studying the results of solid research contained in the NBA and by occasionally taking to heart the interpretation of these results as given, for instance, by Alfred Dürr, in his "Bachs Werk vom Einfall bis zur Drucklegung" ("Bach's Compositions from Conception to Final Printing") Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden, 1989. Nothing is gained with a flippant remark which only serves to reveal one's own inadequate and inaccurate assessment of such an important matter as this.

Raymond Joly wrote (November 6, 2006):
Bach's working schedule --- Introduction to BWV 26"Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig"

Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It is remarkable that the practical experiece of musicians is rejected in reconstructing Bach's working method, but this little fantasy scenario which sounds like a Hollywood movie is seriously presented. Does Alistair Sim play Bach in a bad wig? >
Two questions from an ignoramus:
1) Incredible though it sounds that Bach should have, week after week, started writing a cantata on Sunday evening and have been finished in time for it to be performed on the next Sunday, if this is not what happened, WHEN did he write them? (By the way: Graupner's cantatas are by no means as complex as Bach's, but they are not jingles either, and they do last 20-25 minutes; his yearly output averaged about 32, with peaks around 60.)
2) What precisely is wrong with Braatz's description Cowling quotes a paragraph of below?

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 6, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It is remarkable that the practical experiece of musicians is rejected in reconstructing Bach's working method, but this little fantasy scenario which sounds like a Hollywood movie is seriously presented. Does Alistair Sim play Bach in a bad wig? >
One would hope that the screenwriter allows the Bach character to take off his wig at night, while working on this late-night chorale copying [by candlelight, presumably]. Also, that the screenwriter would figure out a way for Bach's house actually to be quiet enough to shoot such scenes, given that the household had small children in it during all these years. Where is this place that the Bach character would sneak off to, to work undisturbed at night, while his wife and eldest daughters took care of sleepless (and often dying) children? Where is the record that Bach's employers and students gladly tolerated such a last-minute approach to their musicianship, never seeing the goods until Saturdays? And please, where is all this information documented [preferably inside the NBA!], as to working Friday night shifts specifically to get these chorale parts written out?

A couple of days ago I was reading to my daughter a similarly fantasy-based library book, Bach's Big Adventure. This is a picture book, 1999, by Sallie Ketcham and illustrated by Timothy Bush. Throughout this story, young JSB is presented as a petulant ten-year-old. Whenever somebody ticks him off, or points out that he's not yet the greatest organist in all of Germany and all of the world, young JSB throws up his fists and shrieks, "I AM BACH!" So the story here conflates a couple of legends, to make a nice children's book. People keep telling him that old Reincken is better, and young JSB keeps getting petulant, until he goes to meet Reincken. Along the way we get the bit about sneaking a manuscript out of big brother's cabinet, and then he pretends he was sleepwalking. On his summer walking trip cross-country to go meet Reincken, he sleeps in a barn, and he puts a bunch of straw into his shoes to soothe his aching feet. We get the bit where he is starving, and an annoyed innkeeper hits him in the head with a couple of stinky fish heads...which turn out to have coins inside them. Bonanza! He does a little dance and shrieks, "I AM BACH!" He goes and buys cheese. Finally he gets to meet Reincken by sneaking into his church to hear him practice. Reincken turns out to be a totally nice old dude and gives him a free lesson playing duets. Young JSB whips out some of his fish head money and hires himself a carriage to ride back to school in style. My daughter liked the story and the illustrations, even though I explained to her carefully that parts of it were all-made-up.

At least the apocryphal fish-head legend shows up in the New Bach Reader, albeit not with the part about doing a little "I AM BACH!" dance or going to buy cheese.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 6, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] Your sentimental fantasy about Bach's working method invites flippancy because it is not supported by the documents. Your conclusions about the the capabilities of Bach's singers and his rehearsal schedule are fanciful and neo-Romantic. The notion that Bach put the dog out and wrote the last chorale on Saturday night like Rossini is just silly. You can quote 18th century sources until the Kühe come home, but if you can't bring common sense and practical experience to bear -- or at least consider them as part of the larger picture. -- your conclusions are without merit.

The bottom line here is that we do not have sufficient documentary evidence to reconstruct Bach's working method. There just aren't enough records. That means that we have to look at a broader historical context and contemporary experience to give us a generalized perspective. We have to be very careful to distinguish between direct and indirect evidence, but it is bad historiography to dismiss the latter. Keep giving us the 18th century sources -- it's fascimaterial -- but stop pronouncing anathemas on other people's suppostions when they are clearly offered as possibilities.

Julian Mincham wrote (November 6, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< The bottom line here is that we do not have sufficient documentary evidence to reconstruct Bach's working method. There just aren't enough records. That means that we have to look at a broader historical context and contemporary experience to give us a generalized perspective. We have to be very careful to distinguish between direct and indirect evidence, but it is bad historiography to dismiss the latter. Keep giving us the 18th century sources -- it's fascinating material -- but stop pronouncing anathemas on other people's suppostions when they are clearly offered as possibilities. >
The first two sentences from the above paragraph are sadly true and unarguable. However, what we can be reasonably assured about, virtually to the point of certainty, is the following:

1 at the time of the second cycle Bach wrote at least 53 new cantatas--take out BWV 4 and add in the (probable) BWV 36 that makes 53 in 50 weeks going by Wolff's table. There were other composition projects aside (e.g. revision of SJP) and Bach had other duties -----but let's leave them aside for a moment.

2 We also know that there is virtually no evidence of earlier works being recycled apart from BWV 4 and a couple of reworked movements in one of the last cantatas of the cycle.

3 We have a good idea of the time spans in which he had to compose from the authorisations of the texts. That he worked incredibly hard and and great speed seems to be unarguable.

4 Additionally, all these works were rehearsed and performed within this time span in the two major churches of Leipzig.

No we don't know HOW he did it but we do know that he DID it. If we knew how, a lot of contemporary choir trainers might be very interested because there can't be many of them around today who could duplicate such a feat. It seems to me perfectly sensible to infer from this, as Thomas Braatz did, that

1 Bach had some excellent instrumentalists and singers

2 he trained them extremely well

3 they must have been good readers in order to cope with a) the volume of work b) its complexity and c) to give performances which satisfied Bach. He himself was an excellent reader (evidenced) and almost certainly had effective teaching methods through which to encourage and develop such skills in his students (reasonable speculation).

In the absence of completely water tight evidence being found (and some, such as the remarkably good 'non-dog-eared' condition of parts and Bach's comments upon singers' abilities has been presented) I see no reason at all why an individual should not speculate upon Bach's working methods and conditions, the main proviso being that it is clearly presented as, what it is, speculation.

I sometimes wonder if it is possible for Thomas Braatz (with whom I do not always agree) to venture anything on this list without being savaged. It seemed obvious to me that he was (largely) putting forward a speculative, if
slightly over-egged, scenario based upon what is actually known. I cannot see how these works were learnt and performed in such a short period of time unless the performers read extremely well. Furthermore, unlike today's Bach musicians who have a long tradition in, and familiarity with the music, for Bach's musicians the music was rather new in style, with 'strange' melodies (the Obituary) and phrase structures that they would have been unlikely to have encountered in the past.

I also note a possible danger of apparent inconsistency whereby, on the one hand, we may be cautioned not to apply C21st values to Bach as a man, thinker, theologian etc. but, on the other, may be tempted to apply contemporary attitudes of teaching methods and choral training (by inference at least) to his work. I do not see how contempory practices of training choirs and orchestras (usually now done by different kinds of professionals with different training and backgrounds) helps us to understand how Bach achieved what he did in these areas.

So, no we don't know how but we do know something of what------and in between lies a perfectly valid area for informed speculation.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 6, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I cannot see how these works were learnt and performed in such a short period of time unless the performers read extremely well. Furthermore, unlike today's Bach musicians who have a long tradition in, and familiarity with the music, for Bach's musicians the music was rather new in style, with 'strange' melodies (the Obituary) and phrase structures that they would have been unlikely to have encountered in the past. >
I concur that it probably couldn't have been done unless they read well, as trained. But, it doesn't argue EITHER ONE WAY OR THE OTHER that good reading necessarily implies a Friday/Saturday finish time to the composition or copying of Sunday's music.

Good sight-reading (as been pointed out before) is principally a LEARNING skill--the ability to understand one's part efficiently without needing too much supervision, coaching, or undue time wasted by the whole ensemble together to "woodshed" the parts. (In college I happened to play in several ensembles where several of the other students couldn't read their pitches or rhythms; and the time our whole group wasted together so those guys could get their parts by rote was just enormously frustrating....)

That efficient learning skill of sight-reading--to get at least the basic notes and rhythms prepared--doesn't say anything, one way or the other, about PERFORMANCE skill. Nor does it necessarily address any expectation to basically sight-read the parts the day before (or the day of) the performance, as regular practice. That latter expectation is a romanticization, a premise that Bach and his gang were so poorly organized, or so stressed-out all the time, that these masterpieces necessarily flowed from last-minute heroic effort by all. The extant written evidence doesn't call for such a conclusion as the only reasonable possibility, or even as the most likely reasonable possibility; decent preparation in the preceding weeks is at least as likely, plus it lines up with the printing of libretti far in advance.

Furthermore, why would any of the students or other educators put up with such a perpetually panicked situation, and keep Bach on such a job for more than a year or two, if he exhibited such poor planning (or sloth) as not to deliver the goods until last minute, as regular practice?

< (...)
So, no we don't know how but we do know something of what------and in between lies a perfectly valid area for informed speculation. >

Of course; and let's emphasize the word informed speculation. Informed by actually being musicians who do church music, and knowing what works in practice: which is not to have a batch of teenagers sight-read difficult concerted pieces for the first time, as late as the day before the gig, with any expectation of success.

Eric Bergerud wrote (November 6, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Betraying my ever-perennial obsession with Bach as a practical musician, it would be fascinating to set up tables for the whole year (say Jahrgang I) showing the lists of music Bach had to prepare for the four churches-- motets, cantatas, chorales, perhaps even organ works -- and see if patterns of orchestration appeared. We have a tendency to ignore the non-Bach repertoire, but there would have been Sundays when an eight-voice motet of Lassus would have been more challenging than the cantata. And then there are the 6 or 7 organ works required.
However, the genius of Bach is that he never became a hack: he never provided anything less than the best. Yes, the cantata may have been only heard once, but Bach gave each a profundity that perhaps only he and God appreciated. Those depths are the reason that this is the BCML and not a list devoted to the cantatas of Telemann. >
This is an interesting discussion and I am solidly und. (Not so tomorrow.)

Brad is certainly right that Bach wore more than one hat and that each was an important one. Anecdote suggests his good students appreciated his efforts as did the most musically aware members of the community. This implies he took his teaching most seriously and living as he did in the real world might have seen the wisdom on many occasions to keep it simple, or at least manageable.

But Bach wasn't a street musician either. He might well have thought he had a higher audience. If the Lord would listen to a prayer and keep track of swallows, perhaps Bach hoped He might likewise listen to a cantata. Actually I think this ties into the lecture Doug described a while back. If Bach's knowledge of scripture and theology was extremely advanced it would have been much more feasible to incorporate complications into the score that might have been over the heads of at least most of the good citizens of Leipzig.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 6, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>I concur that it probably couldn't have been done unless they read well, as trained. But, it doesn't argue EITHER ONE WAY OR THE OTHER that good reading necessarily implies a Friday/Saturday finish time to the composition or copying of Sunday's music.<<
Sight-reading ability is only one of a number of factors pointing toward a Friday/Saturday finish time to the composition or copying of Sunday's music. It is convenient for some to select only one factor to the exclusion of all others that have already been mentioned.

BL: >>Furthermore, why would any of the students or other educators put up with such a perpetually panicked situation, and keep Bach on such a job for more than a year or two, if he exhibited such poor planning (or sloth) as not to deliver the goods until last minute, as regular practice?<<
Perhaps because it was customary not only in Leipzig but elsewhere in Germany? The expectations they had back then were not comparable to those of today. That is why so many theories based primarily on empirical evidence from the present time would appear ridiculous to soloists and instrumentalists who performed Bach's cantatas under his direction.

BL: >>let's emphasize the word informed speculation. Informed by actually being musicians who do church music, and knowing what works in practice: which is not to have a batch of teenagers sight-read difficult concerted pieces for the first time, as late as the day before the gig, with any expectation of success.<<
This 'batch of teenagers' were led by concertists who did 'all the heavy lifting'. Almost all of these were between 19 and 29 years old, most of them attending the university or studying music privately with Bach (or both). These soloists sang all the arias and recitatives and also were the voice leaders (concertists) in the choral mvts. All evidence presented thus far indicates that they were well-equipped with talent and skill to sing or play
anything that Bach would place before them on short notice. The other choir members (of the primary choir), the ripienists, were also very select vocalists who were distilled by Bach from all the other choirs because they would be able to perform as expected each week in church. It will then be necessary to add the 'magic' of Bach's direction during rehearsals and church performances. Perhaps his charisma as a composer and performer is the final element that is missing in the comparison of teenage-singers then and now (not to mention the very different onslaught of stimuli endured by teenagers today compared with what these select Thomaner experienced in the 1720s, 1730s, and 1740s in Leipzig, Germany).

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 26: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
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