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Bach Books

Bach’s Continuo Group

by Laurence Dana Dreyfus

 

 

Book

1

Bach’s Continuo Group

Players and Pracices in His Vocal Works (Studies in the History of Music, No 3)

Laurence Dana Dreyfus

Harvard University Press

1987

HC /

Bach’s continuo group

Douglas S.A.
wrote (December 3, 2003):
I am making my way through Prof. Laurence Dreyfus's book on this, and am pretty surprised by the evidence and conclusions he draws. I think his information on the choice of continuo instruments is worth summarizing:

-- there is firm evidence that there were harpsichords in certain churches in Northern Germany in the 18th century - but not in all churches and not even in all large churches
-- however, there were definitely harpsichords in the Thomas-Kirche and Nikolai-Kirche during Bach's employment in Leipzig; numerous documents attest to this
-- very strong evidence (see below) shows that both the harpsichord and the organ were used to realize the continuo in Bach cantatas and passions. It would seem that the two instruments played simultaneously, although on occasion only one or the other may have been used; this is difficult to ascertain.
-- there is contradictory evidence about how Bach conducted music in these churches - it would seem that on occasion he stood and conducted with his hands, but at other times was first violinist, and at other times was continuo harpsichordist.
-- JSB seemed to consider a harpsichord pretty essential to performances in church. In 1724, the town council decided at the last minute to move the Good Friday service from the Thomas to the Nikolai-Kirche. Bach wrote to them to say: "He would comply with same, but pointed out . . . that there was no room available and that the harpsichord needed some repair, all of which could be arranged at little cost; but he requested that a little additional room be provided in the choir loft and that the harpsichord be repaired." The town council granted these requests.

So, the question is: why don't people use harpsichords in their recordings of Bach cantatas and passions?

Douglas

Evidence about continuo realizations: surviving manuscripts of Bach cantatas often include three written parts for the continuo. One was for the melodic bass instrument and had no figures (that is, the numbers which describe the harmonies to be realized). Another part was written in Chorton - this was the pitch at which the organ was tuned, which was a full step above the pitch of the other instruments and therefore was notated a full step lower. The third part was written at Cammerton - the pitch of the violins, oboes, etc, and of the harpsichord; this part, in some cases, is actually designated "Cembalo" (harpsichord). Often both the Chorton part and the Cammerton part have figures, which makes it clear that both instruments were used to realize the harmonies. It was by no means unusual in the 18th century to have more than one keyboard instrument playing continuo at the same time so perhaps this was actually Bach's standard practice in Leipzig.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 3, 2003):
< Douglas S.A. wrote:
-- JSB seemed to consider a harpsichord pretty essential to performances in church. In 1724, the town council decided at the last minute to move the Good Friday service from the Thomas to the Nikolai-Kirche. Bach wrote to them to say: "He would comply with same, but pointed out . . . that there was no room available and that the harpsichord needed some repair, all of which could be arranged at little cost; but he requested that a little additional room be provided in the choir loft and that the harpsichord be repaired." The town council granted these requests.
So, the question is: why don't people use harpsichords in their recordings of Bach cantatas and passions? >
Some practical thoughts about that, from the BachCantatas list in August:

(8/10)
David Glenn Lebut wrote: I have a MAJOR problem with those who say that the Continuo group in Bach Sacred Works is Organ and Bass instruments. If one looks at the Manuscripts and Scores for these works, one would see that Bach writes "Organo ET Contiunuo" not "Organo Continuo" or simply "Continuo", which means that the Organ is NOT the Keyboard part of the Continuo group, but the Harpsichord IS. The Continuo ALWAYS has a Keyboard Instrument in it for harmonization of the Chords. >
David, I agree with you that the harpsichord could/should be used much more in Bach cantatas than it currently is. The bulk of the evidence (both in the music, and in historical records) points toward BOTH hpsi and organ being used when available, along with other continuo instruments (sometimes together; or sometimes deployed separately for musical or practical reasons in individual movements or passages). It's nice to have both available, offering much more flexibility than if a single player has to handle it all. Both 250 years ago, and now.

Why is it not done more? I think there are two main reasons:

- The practical obstacles to hiring two competent keyboard improvisers (money, tuning, rehearsal time, skill) for the same gig: to many modern presenters this just seems superfluous, and/or insurmountable. The easiest approach is just to hire one; or to hire a keyboard player without this specific training/background, one who doesn't improvise the part at all but reads it from an editor's realization.

- The habitual bias against the hpsi in these works (i.e. the automatic assumption, as you allude to, that it should be organ alone...to be properly sacred church music, or whatever). I've read a historical survey of this particular debate (organ vs hpsi in Bach cantatas), tracing it back into the 1870s. The case has had political, quasi-theological, nationalistic, and other ideological slants, in addition to the occasional considerations of practicality and aesthetics and the music.

With some modern presenters and directors, the problem is compounded when they've listened only to recordings that use a single instrument (usually organ) instead of reading and studying. It just doesn't occur to them that the question should not be "organ OR harpsichord", but possibly "organ AND harpsichord and perhaps more"...or, if it does occur to them, they don't hire multiple players anyway for other non-musical reasons.

As for the word "continuo," though, in your argument above, it does not automatically imply harpsichord in itself, in this or any other repertoire. It's the general term for anybody who *might* be deployed on the bass line, according to circumstances, not prescribing any specific instrument or set of instruments.

The historical evidence for harpsichord here in Bach cantatas is much richer and more complicated (in all directions) than simply looking at the words written on Bach's parts. It doesn't do to simply replace one fundamentalist approach ("organ alone") with a different but equally fundamentalist approach (play only what positivistic scholarship has revealed in extant parts, permission to use certain instruments). Musicality is more important than that.

(8/17)
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: < Not INCLUDING the Keyboard, but the other instruments PLAYED A SINGLE NOTE. The impression I get from the others is that they think that the other instruments played the Chords as well. >
David, who are these "others" you're referring to? I don't think anybody in the present discussion thinks the other non-keyboard instruments played chords. (Unless we're talking about a theorbo or a lute, perhaps....)

Earlier this year I played in a performance of Cantata BWV 49, "Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen." We had the rare opportunity of two keyboard players in the same cantata: the director played the organ solos and I played harpsichord. The continuo team for this also included cello and bassoon (and it was a period-instruments orchestra).

In rehearsal we worked out various delightful deployments: sometimes with both keyboards improvising right-hand parts, sometimes with only one of us playing, sometimes with one of us playing only the bass line while the other played with both h. All this was done to suit the acoustics of the room, and to get good balance with the other instruments and the singers. It also gave the director the opportunity to conduct the few parts that needed a visual beat for the strings. The rest of the time we took most of our cues from the first violinist, a nice way to go.

The sound I liked, especially, was the movement where we had the harpsichord playing only the left hand (i.e. "tasto solo") with the cello and bassoon. It gave a magical bit of extra presence to the bass *line* without becoming too loud, while the organist took care of the harmonies. As I recall, this idea was suggested in rehearsal by the bass soloist, listening from the back of the church.

I like this collegial and practical approach to music-making, where anybody can bring up a suggestion, and the "conducting" is done by whichever player is best suited at the moment to take the lead. It's not necessary to have somebody standing up there being a full-time conductor for the piece. Better to have everybody cue one another as needed, and go mostly by listening.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (December 3, 2003):
[To Douglas S.A.] That has been my question for some time. So far, the only recordings I have found with obligato Harpsichord in the Continuo are Richter's 3rd Matthäuspassion recording, Rilling's earlier Weinachtsoratorium recording, and Ramin's Johannespassion recording.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (December 3, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Then why did Richter perform the Harpsichord and organ both in his 3rd Matthäuspassion recording?

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 3, 2003):
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: Then why did Richter perform the Harpsichord and organ both in his 3rd Matthaeuspassion recording? >
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/message/11855

David, if you have *read* the posting you just quoted back at us (in its entirety), you would see that I was commenting *in favor of* using both hpsi and organ in the vocal works, in general.

I therefore don't understand your question about Richter's recording; why this retort? Are you trying to show that Richter was a literalist, and that such literalism (in itself) is a *good* thing? Or, are you trying to argue that Richter has done something musically intelligent? Or, did you just not pay attention to the material you were quoting?

Bach Books: Main Page / Reviews & Discussions | Index by Title | Index by Author | Index by Number
General: Biographies | Essay Collections | Performance Practice | Children
Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
Instrumental: Organ BWV 525-771 | Keyboard BWV 772-994 | Solo Instrumental BWV 995-1013 | Chamber & Orchestral BWV 1014-1080

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Last update: ýDecember 4, 2003 ý20:02:18