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Bach Books



Bach's Major Vocal Works


Music, Drama, Liturgy



J.S. Bach Works:

BWV 232, BWV 243, BWV 244, BWV 245, BWV 248, BWV 249


Markus Rathey





March 2016




Hardcover: 248 pages
Print Length: 247 pages


HC / Kindle


Yale University Press; 1 edition (March 22, 2016)


ISBN-10: 030021720X
ISBN-13: 978-0300217209


Every year, Johann Sebastian Bach’s major vocal works are performed to mark liturgical milestones in the Christian calendar. Written by a renowned Bach scholar, this concise and accessible book provides an introduction to the music and cultural contexts of the composer’s most beloved masterpieces, including the Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, and St. John Passion.
In addition to providing historical information, each chapter highlights significant aspects—such as the theology of love—of a particular piece. This penetrating volume is the first to treat the vocal works as a whole, showing how the compositions were embedded in their original performative context within the liturgy as well as discussing Bach’s musical style, from the detailed level of individual movements to the overarching aspects of each work. Published in the approach to Easter when many of these vocal works are performed, this outstanding volume will appeal to casual concertgoers and scholars alike.


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Source/Links: Yale University Press
Contributor: Aryeh Oron (September 2017)

Book Review: Marcus Rathey, Bach's Major Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy

William Hoffman wrote (July 18, 2016):
Marcus Rathey, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama Liturgy (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

For more than a century, publications on Bach’s music have focused on the sacred cantatas, perhaps because there are more than 200 of them spanning more than three church year cycles. Multi-volume musical biographies translated into English began with Philipp Spitta in 1889 and Albert Schweitzer in 1911, revealing considerable information. In the 1920s, Englishman Charles Sanford Terry produced pioneering studies of Bach’s biography as well as the vocal chorales and the cantatas, with shorter studies on the Passions and oratorios, Mass in B-Minor, the Latin Magnificat and the four Missae: Kyrie-Gloria.

With the explosion of long-playing recordings with liner notes in the 1950s, further studies of the Bach cantatas were produced, lead by W. Gillies Whittaker and followed by Alex Robertson and W. Murray Young. Bach English-language publications appeared with the BACH Journal in 1970 and the establishment of the American Bach Society (ABS)n in 1972 with scholarly articles, studies, and conferences, and a growing emphasis on Bach’s vocal music. For the Bach Bicentennial in 1985 “complete” recorded cantata collections appeared with detailed liner notes in major languages. In 2000, for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, recordings of Bach’s “complete” vocal appeared, as well as further “complete” cantatas cycles. Christoph Wolff in conjunction with the Ton Koopman Erato Bach vocal recordings, produced the three-volume The World of the Bach Cantatas, but only Volume 1, “Early Sacred Cantatas,” produced in English. On-line websites have arisen, beginning with the Bach Cantata Website in 2000, and the Bach Network UK in 2004 with conferences and its scholarly journal, Understanding Bach in 2006.

Still, studies of Bach’s major vocal music, flourishing on recordings, have been slow to follow. John Butt broke ground in 1991 with a Cambridge Music Handbook on the B-Minor Mass. George B. Stauffer followed with an extensive and engaging monograph on the Mass in 2003 in the Yale Music Masterworks Series. The beloved Matthew and John Passions have been explored in the studies of emerging Bach scholars: Daniel Melamed’s Hearing Bach’s Passions (2005, updated edition 2016), and Butt’s Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (2010). Other major studies include the ABS Biannual Bach Perspectives 8 essays, J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition (2011, ed. Malemed), and Michael Marissen’s Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach’s St. John Passion (1998), Bach’s Oratorios (1998), Bach’s Oriatorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (2008), and the new Bach & God (2016), the religious context of cantatas, Matthew and John Passions, and Bach’s Musical Offering.

Finally, Marcus Rathey has produced an informative and readable study of “Bach’s beloved masterpieces,” Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy. It fills a major void in the music itself, as well as the dramatic and liturgical underpinnings of the extended, large-scale vocal music. The jacket leaf describes his book as the “first to treat the vocal works as a whole,” involving their significance, how the music was grounded in the original performance context within the liturgy and Bach’s applied musical style in the individual movements. To assist, the Appendix includes a biographical and musical “Timeline” as well as listings of multiple “Parody Models” in the Christmas and Ascension Oratorios and the B-Minor Mass, an important topic being increasingly considered in Bach studies.

Associate Professor of Music History at Yale University, Rathey discusses each work in the chronology of Christ’s life as found in the order of the liturgical year, beginning with his conception in the Latin and German Magnificats, the nativity and adoration in the ominibus Christmas Oratorio, the suffering and death in the John and Matthew Passions, the Ascension and Resurrection Oratorios, and finally the B-Minor Mass, a “summary of the Christian faith” and “a culmination of Bach’s work” (Chapter 1, Prelude: 5). Rathey (pronounced “rah-tie”) examines each work and the order in which they were conceived, within its liturgical context while exploring the “dramatic and emotional potential of the texts: joy and sadness, fear and hope, longing and desire” (Prelude: 4). Within the dramatic element in Bach’s major works -- which only recently has been explored -- Rathey shows how the theology of love in Bach’s environment plays a significant role in Bach’s works, particularly as manifest in the love songs and amorous duets, which have a long history in theology, literature and music.

The book’s chapters “are conceived as introductions, guidelines for informed listening,” says Rathey (p.7). Each chapter includes a brief history of each work and its context, the type of text and its liturgical implications, the individual characteristics, and its special drama as the music unf. Each chapter probes unique characteristics of the particular work from Bach’s and today’s perspectives, as described in the titles: 2. “A female voice” as Mary’s Magnificat canticle” of praise with its musical use of gender typologies in each movement; 3. the Christmas Oratorio ranging from profane to divine “Love Song to Lullaby”; 4. the symbolic “Divine Glory” and Suffering” in the St. John Passion; 5. human dimension in “The Passion and the Passions” in the St. Matthew Passion; 6. the relationship between “Seeing and Understanding” in the Easter and Ascension Oratorios; and 7. operatic drama within the B-Minor Mass as “Opera and Architecture.”

While Bach’s finest music progressed through three decades of composition, he explored together old and new musical styles in a changing world. Increasingly he utilized the process of borrowed music with new text substitution creating new dimensions with meaning for contemporary church gatherings. This was the coming Age of Enlightenment, and Bach participated in learned discourse through his music. For example, as Rathey points out (p.6) the lesser-known, joyous Easter and Ascension Oratorios, while not contributing directly to this philosophical discourse, have a position within the discussion concerning the relationship between seeing and understanding the world. Both theologians and philosophers engaged in discussions from the perspective of the relationship between traditional Christian faith/belief and increasing empiricism and rationalism, between emotion and intellect.

Bach’s Major Vocal Works begins and ends with the most traditional, fixed Latin texts for services: the Magnificat for the vesper service of individual reflection through prayer, and the Mass Ordinary main service on Sundays and feast days. The Magnificat is a celebration of Christ’s incarnation from the perspective of Christological Theology, in 11 concise movements lasting only a half hour, Rathey points out (p. 13), with wide-ranging emotional and compositional music from massed choruses to intimate arias, mixing glory and humility, the proud and the humble, with praise and mercy. As with the concluding Great Mass, the work is a “balance between text interpretation and musical independence, between drama and architecture,” says Rathey (p.25).

Much has been said and written about the “complex and multi-layered” (p. 175) Great Catholic Mass in B Minor, which runs the gamut of emotions. Created in his final years through contrafaction, it was a summation of Bach’s art and a “well-ordered church music to the Glory of God.” It also was a gift to his Catholic monarch in Dresden and included both old fashion Lutheran music and the latest operatic interests. In particular are the love duets popular in Italian opera (at which Handel excelled in London before taking up the sacred oratorio in 1740). Rathey selects (p. 173f) three examples of love duets in the Mass: the archetypal soprano-alto “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy) as emotional Jesus piety of Jesus (soprano) and believer (alto), also known as Bride and Bridegroom in a sacred wedding, and the similar “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” (Lord God, Lamb of God) in the Gloria section and the “Et in unum Dominum” (And one Lord) in the Credo section, emphasizing the personal relationship.

So also has much been expressed about Bach’s two great Passions, Matthew and John, while remaining essentially music of mourning and consolation. Rathey’s findings will be explored next spring during the appropriate Lenten Season of piety and reflection in the BCW Mailing List Discussion. Meanwhile, the Christmas large scale (six cantatas) Christmas Oratorio, long neglected because of its more obvious parody, will be considered in December as part of the Christmas Time Discussion in Rathey’s latest book, Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (Oxford, 9/6/16). Amazon.con

Rathey’s emphasis on love music in Bach great works -- from theological, philosophical, and personal perspectives -- is a major contribution to Bach studies and appreciation. It shows the heart from birth to death, from the manger to the grave, before and beyond, in all its musical manifestations as the “place of divine presence.” As he says in the Postlude (Chapter 8: 201f), he has told three stories: Bach’s major works, the life of Jesus in the church year, and the love story between Christ and humanity.

Hopefully, Rathey’s new book on the Christmas Oratorio will only be the first in-depth exploration and odyssey. Collectively, Bach’s three cycles of church year cantatas are one pillar of his sacred music. Another is his three Passion creations according to John, Matthew and Mark (partially lost), and another is his Latin Great Mass and Magnificat. His oratorios for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension (a possible one for Pentecost ?) form another pillar. Together, these major works constitute what Bach scholar-author Eric Chafe suggests is a Christological Cycle of major works, assembled primarily through new-text underlay in the last two decades of Bach’s life. Still to be considered are Bach’s musical collections of Lutheran chorale organ settings and sacred songs for the church year: the Neumeister and incomplete Orgelbüchlein, the so-called “Great 18,” the Schübler Six, the ClavierÜbung Organ Mass/Catechism settings; and the free-standing plain chorales and Schmelli Songbook. Maybe those constitute the other two “lost” cycles of church pieces for the church year Sundays and feasts days.


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