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Bach Books

J.S. Bach
by Albert Schweitzer

 

 

The Book

J.S. Bach

Albert Schweitzer / English translation by Ernest Newman

Dover Publications

 

450 pp

Ramin & Schweizer

Ulissipo wrote (April 28, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] [snip] Which are A. Schweizer's main writings on Bach?

Pieter Pannevis wrote (April 28, 2001):
An extensive list on Albert Schweitzer is to be found on: http://www.pcisys.net/~jnf/

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 28, 2001):
< Which are A. Schweizer's main writings on Bach? >
Here are some details about Schweizer's book, taken from Classical Net:
"J. S. Bach, by Albert Schweitzer, translated by Ernest Newman. Dover Publications. 1966 ISBN Volume 1 0486216314 (paperback), Volume 2 0486216322 (paperback)
Volume One Historical account of Protestant church music before Bach, church music in Germany, the life of Bach, discussion of all of Bach's instrumental music. The second volume of this two volume work, an unabridged republication of the 1911 edition, is concerned with Bach's choral music."

It is interesting to note that this important book was first published in French (1905), and only 3 years later appeared the expanded German version. This version was translated into many languages, including English and even Hebrew (1958).

To quote from 'Oxford Composer Companion - J.S. Bach': "The work is noteworthy for its aesthetic appreciation of Bach's compositional style, in particular its pictorial and symbolic aspects, as well as its attention to the theological significance of Bach Work."

Some might think that this book is old-fashioned, but I think that this is an essential book for every Bach lover, even today.

BTW, what is your name? Is it your first posting to BCML?

Teri Noel Towe wrote (April 28, 2001):
For those who might be interested in them, almost all of Schweitzer's 78 RPM recordings of Bach organ works have been reissued on two Pearl CD’s.

The catalogue nos. are GEMM 9959 and GEMM 9992.
[snip]

Ulissipo wrote (April 30, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks for the information. Will try and get A. Schweizer's book.
[snip]
Yes, it was my first posting in the group. I think I came to it via Yahoo's JSB Club and the Cantata project. As a matter of fact, JSB's work has been a lifelong passion of mine, but I'm very new in the world of the cantatas. Now I remember I came to the group as I was searching the 'net for references on Leusink's edition - which I finally got and has been an endless source of joy and why not no say, spiritual elevation. Tks again.

Books by Albert Schweitzer

Pieter Pannevis
wrote (May 2, 2001):
The following books were written By Albert Schweitzer:
* Die Religionsphilosiphie Kants
* Das Abendsmalproblem
* Das Messiannitaets und Leidensgeheimnis
* Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-forschung ( ursprunglich erschienen unter dem Titel: Von Reimarus zu Wrede)\
* Geschichte der Paulinische Forschung.
* Darstellung un Kritik der vom medizinischer Seite uber Jesus veroffentlichten Pathographien
* Zwischen Wasser und Urwald
* Verfall und wiederaufbau der Kultur ( Kulturphilosophie I)
* Kultur und Ethiek ( Kulturphilosophie II)
* Das Christentum und die Weltreligionen
* Aus meiner Kindheit und Jugendzeit
* Mittteilungen aus Lambarene ( 3 Hefte)
* Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus
* Aus meinem Leben und Denken
* Goethe Gedenkrede am 22. 3. 1932

Johann Sebastian Bach
Bachs Prealudien un Fugen fur Orgel
Deutsche und Franzosische Orgelbaukunst und Orgelkunst
Die Weltanschauung der indischen Denker, Mystik und Ethik

Many of the works have been translated in French, English, ,Dutch, Danish, Finnish,, Spanish, Japanese and Polish
I've found some books at the Bol site but not on Bach. I will return there to do a more thorough search "mit Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben"


Appreciating Cantatas
Schweitzer on Bach cantatas
Bach's literary taste

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 15, 2005):
Appreciating Cantatas

Steve Benson wrote: < I am a relative newcomer to the cantatas (I can recall an incident not that many years ago where, in my woeful ignorance, I announced at a dinner party that I loved Bach's secular music, but the religious "stuff" was too much to take!), and I can declare unequivocally that my present obsession with the cantatas is due in large part to Aryeh and this website. It isn't perfect, but it's ultimate value is unmatched. I think I missed the dust-up about titles. Shame. Don't usually miss a flame war. Sure couldn't have been rated too high on the nasty meter. >
I think Steve's experience is very much the norm, at least for non-musicians. I've been listening to classical music seriously for thirty years but didn't get bitten by the cantata bug until a couple of years back. And this list's archive was a very bad influence. So now I've got 300 of the things thanks to duplicates and listen to one or two every day. I bet there are many similar stories out there.

Some heavy guns in the musical world don't seem overly taken with cantatas. Look at some of the more popular introductions to classical music that the interested layman might buy. Bach always gets a chapter, but the cantatas will get little more than a mention. Even Boyd, who obviously loves them, concluded that cantatas are a little too deep for most Bach fans. As for the connection between music and message, as I recall Schweitzer instructed his readers to neglect the cantata librettos altogether because they interfered with appreciation of the music. I can't imagine a major biographer today making a similar point. And it looks like there's going to be another cantata cycle, maybe two, published. Maybe progress does exist.

Uri Golomb wrote (March 16, 2005):
< As for the connection between music and message, as I recall Schweitzer instructed his readers to neglect the cantata librettos altogether because they interfered with appreciation of the music. >
I'm positive it wasn't Schweitzer who said that. The whole thrust of Schweitzer's book is to point out the strong word-music connection in Bach's church music; far from telling listeners to ignore words in cantatas, he actually advocated that they (and the performers) should take words into account in organ chorales as well. In his practical advice on how to get the cantatas better appreciated, he did suggest constructing new cantatas by combining movements from existing ones, according to practical considerations (soloists available etc.), but in doing so, he still maintained that the quality of the text and the connection between the texts were both primary considerations.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 16, 2005):
Schweitzer on Bach cantatas

[To Uri Golomb] Uri may well be correct about Schweitzer. I haven't read his work and was accepting the words of others who claim they did. The following comes from My Only Comfort by Calvin Stapert, professor of music at Calvin College in Michigan.

When discussing a number of anti-clerical "discomfort" with Bach's spiritual message found in the cantatas, Stapert comments:

"Perhaps the most flagrant statement along these lines came from Albert Schweitzer. He said that the texts of the cantatas and Passions 'are so insignificant that we need all the beauty of the music to make us forget them.' (Stapert, p.6)

The citation given by Stapert is from Schweitzer's J.S. Bach, le musicien-poete, 1905, p. 241

Stapert does discuss in several places Schweitzer's analysis of literary/musical "motifs". His analysis seems based on the assumption that Schweitzer makes the connection to explain why Bach's cantatas are beautiful music despite being burdened (at least in some occasions) with forgettable or in some cases unmusical librettos which, of course, Bach didn't write. (Or at least not normally.) Stapert quotes Schweitzer as characterizing the words to the bass aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum (#7) in the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) as "if ever there was a text put together without any idea of its being set to music it is this" (J.S. Bach, 3:317). Stapert approvingly endorses Schweitzer's observation that the unmusical pwas saved by a word/music motif based on "vivificantem".

When you get down to it, Schweitzer might have had a point if I interpret Stapert correctly. Some of the lyrics I find extremely moving. Others don't seem to have any particular merit, however well they may have fit the coming sermon. But beautiful music appears regardless. In any case, Schweitzer hardly could be characterized as your standard anti-cleric. (Just read a neat bit of trivia. The French authorities in Gabon interred Schweitzer and his wife during WWI because they were Alsatians, despite both considering themselves French.)

Stapert did lift a nice quote from Taruskin that he attributed to Mendelssohn's teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter:

the obstacle "toward appreciation'" in Bach's music was "the altogether contemptible German church texts, which suffer from the earnest polemic of the Reformation." Such a "thick fog of belief," he said, "stirs up nothing but disbelief." (Stapert p. 6; Taruskin, p. 311.)

Looks like some of the issues that vex this list on and off have quite a pedigree. <G>

Uri Golomb wrote (March 17, 2005):
Eric Berglund wrote: < Uri may well be correct about Schweitzer. >
Actually, I might have exaggerated a bit. Now that you've quoted more fully, I can quite easily believe that Schweitzer said something similar to the quote Staper attributes to him:

< the texts of the cantatas and Passions 'are so insignificant that we need all the beauty of the music to make us forget them.' (Stapert, p.6) >
However, Eric is also right in saying that these words do not express an anti-clerical sentiment. And even here, I don't think Schweitzer is actually asking performers or listeners to ignore the words.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to look up the precise quote, even though I have Schweitzer's book: Stapert gives the quote from the French edition, and I have the English edition (which is a translation from German, not from French). There is no correspondence whatsoever in the page numbers. However, Schweitzer does have a lot to say against Bach's librettists; he basically believes that the Sacred Concerto as a superior genre to the opera-inspired cantata, and that even Bach could not entirely redeem it. He he would have liked Bach to stick to the model of his earlier works (such as BWV 4, BWV 106 and BWV 131), rather than adopting the recitative and aria da-capo. Basically, he claims that the Neumeister reform is the worst thing that could have happened to Protestant church music; operatic musical forms have "bewitche[d] Protestant church music, luring it onward with the charm of a great ideal, helped by the insufficiency of the German poetry of the time; and the course of music became an uncertain wandering. The fatal thing is that Bach, as a the child of his time, had to take part in this wandering, and kept groping after the true form of the cantata his whole life long. Inspired by the idea of religious drama, the poorest poetry was blind to its own incompetence" (that's from the English edition of Schweitzer's book, volume 1, p. 80).

< When you get down to it, Schweitzer might have had a point if I interpret > Stapert correctly. Some of the lyrics I find extremely moving. Others don't seem to have any particular merit, however well they may have fit the coming sermon. But beautiful music appears regardless. >
Yes, that's probably part of it. But beyond this, as I understand it, Schweitzer feels that even an inferior libretto cannot simply be ignored. Bach's music was still inspired by the ideas and images contained in these texts, and performers and listeners should still be aware of what these ideas and images were if they are to apprehend the music's meaning. As he puts it (vol. 2, pp. 26-27): "the music seems to confer a higher vital power on the words, divests them of their lowly associations, and shows them in their true forms". That is, Bach finds something in the text to inspire him, and elevates that element, conferring on it a beauty and significance far greater than those you could find if you just read the text without the music.

< In any case, Schweitzer hardly could be characterized as your standard anti-cleric. >
Quite. Schweitzer was a theologian himself, and clearly believed that Bach was a theologian-in-music. He just thought that Bach was a better theologian than many of his librettists...

Neil Halliday wrote (March 17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote: "....as I understand it, Schweitzer feels that even an inferior libretto cannot simply be ignored. Bach's music was still inspired by the ideas and images contained in these texts, and performers and listeners should still be aware of what these ideas and images were if they are to apprehend the music's meaning."
Yes, for example, in this week's cantata BWV 21, at the last words of the first chorus, namely "...erquicken meine Seele', the the music quivers with animation, the score black with semiquavers in all parts; and in the 2nd chorus, after an initial slow section, the tempo increases with the words "und so unruhig in mir?" A less concrete example is the shape of the motives in the first tenor aria, with the string parts suggesting the waves of tears of the singer. etc. etc. etc.

BTW, Werner, Richter and Rilling are all eminently enjoyable from beginning to end; though perhaps Werner overall is the least distinctive, his duet has a lovely gentle aspect. Rilling's continuo harpsichord in this movement and the final tenor aria can be tedious. All the solo vocalists are fine, suprisingly so for three non-HIP performances. Even Edith Mathis, Richter's soprano, is pleasing - probably because this is a relatively early recording, 1969.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 17, 2005):
Bach's literary taste

Uri Golomb wrote: < Bach finds something in the text to inspire him, and elevates that element, conferring on it a beauty and significance far greater than those you could find if you just read the text without the music. >
This again is another Romantic myth: Bach the musical genius forced to set inferior texts of incompetent poets. I don't think the evidence is there to assume that Bach thought the texts were substandard. There were many pre-packaged cantata and Passion texts out there which he could have quickly used (Brockes is an example), but he appears to have spent considerable effort finding poets like Picander and working closely with them.

We may wince when we see a text like "Mein Herz schwimmt in Blut" -- my favourite ghastly text is the recitative, "Die ganze Welt ist ein Hospital" -- but I suspect Bach thought they were fine poetry which served his theological and musical purposes. By the way, are there any instances of texts which Bach wrote himself?

As 21st century devotees of "high art", we would prefer that Bach have chosen great poetry, but he didn't -- at least by our standards Who were the Goethe's of his age? Occasionally, Baroque composers hit it gold. Handel's setting of Dryden's "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" makes both literati and musicians happy. But Handel's chief librettist was Jenkins who was more likely to write such memorable lines as:

Pious orgies, pious airs,
Decent sorrow, decent pray'rs,
Will to the Lord ascend, and move His pity ... (Judas Maccabeus)
One wonders how even 18th century audiences kept from laughing out loud.

The point here is that we are a long way from 18th century sensibilities and really can't judge a composer's literary taste. To say that Bach's music "transcends" its texts is to diminish Bach's achievement. He was clearly inspired not constrained by his libretti. I suspect this is part of the general secularizing concert hall ethos which established itself in the 19th century. It is still common to read program notes that say that the SMP (BWV 244) or the Missa Solemnis are timeless monuments of art which are beyond the narrow constraints of liturgical performance.

I'm sure Cantor Bach's comment would have been, "Pfui!"

Uri Golomb wrote (Marc17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote: << Bach finds something in the text to inspire him, and elevates that element, conferring on it a beauty and significance far greater than those you could find if you just read the text without the music. >>
Doug Cowling wrote: < This again is another Romantic myth: Bach the musical genius forced to set inferior texts of incompetent poets. >
Perhaps I didn't make myself clear: I was trying to summarize Schweitzer's position, not to express my own. However, to a very small extent I do agree with Schwetizer (insofar as I can express an opinion about the subject at all -- I'm not, after all, a native German speaker). I do not think (as Schweitzer does) that the post-Neumeister texts were, in and of themselves, inferior to those of the 17th-century sacred concerti -- that the "numbers" cantata (i.e., a cantata consisting of separate choruses, recitatives and arias, rather than the more continuous character of earlier works) is inferior to its predecessor. Both genres have the potential for musical greatness and musical mediocrity; neither is inherently superior or inferior, and Bach produced masterpieces in both.

Of course Bach was inspired by his texts. This in no way contradicts, however, the statement that these texts are not great poetry -- perhaps not INcompetent, but often not much more than competent. Bach's cantatas are among the greatest musical works ever written; does anyone seriously claim that any of his libretti are among the greatest poems ever written? Many of them, however, are very good libretti -- that is, they admirably serve their purpose, which is, explicitly, to serve as an inspiration and a building-block for a musical setting, rather than to be inspiring in their own right.

The issue of being "forced" doesn't come into it. I'm not sure how much freedom Bach had in choosing his own texts; but I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was often quite satisfied with his libretti. We know for a fact that MOzart was pleased with the libretti that Lorenzo Da-Ponte wrote for him (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte). No-one claims that these libretti are great literary works, and none of them would work very well if you tried to present them on stage on their own, without the music. But they are very good libretto -- that is, they provided Mozart with just the right kind of scaffolding he needed for his operas (in other cases, we know that he was DISsatisfied with his libretti, and produced great operas despite the text). The same could be said of some of Bach's libretti: they wouldn't quite make the grade in a poetry reading session, but they were not meant to. They were meant to be set to music.

In fact, it could be claimed -- and has been claimed -- that great poems are not always suited for muiscal setting. There are exceptions, of course; but quite frequently, a great poem would be so rich, so dense in meaning and allusion, that it becomes unsuitable for musical setting. Words and music would compete for attention: the music's richness will detract from the poem, and the poem's richness will distract listeners from the music. On the other hand, an "inferior" poem -- which would seem simplistic when read on its own, its imagery too obvious, etc. -- might prove more inspiring, less constraining, for a composer. The text inspires the composer, and guides the listener; but it is simple enough to allow listeners to focus most of their attention on the music, yet still devote some degree of concentration and thought to the text.

There are definite cases where great composers have freely chosen to set texts which were not considered the greatest poetry of their time (how many people, for exmaple, would remember Wilhelm Muller today were it not for Schubert's Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise?). In some cases, this might have reflected on their taste (being a great composer does not necessarily make you a good judge of poetry, or vice versa); in others, it simply meant that they set the texts that they found most suitable FOR MUSICAL SETTING, which are not necessarily the same as the best texts to be read on their own, without music. The issue is more complex than a simple division between "superior" and "inferior" texts.

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote: >>Bach finds something in the text to inspire him, and elevates that element, conferring on it a beauty and significance far greater than those you could find if you just read the text without the music.<<
Doug Cowling wrote: >>This again is another Romantic myth: Bach the musical genius forced to set inferior texts of incompetent poets. I don't think the evidence is there to assume that Bach thought the texts were substandard. There were many pre-packaged cantata and Passion texts out there which he could have quickly used (Brockes is an example), but he appears to have spent considerable effort finding poets like
Picander and working closely with them.<<
I have just read through Hans-Joachim Schulze's article "Texte und Textdichter" in "Die Welt der Bach Kantaten" [Metzler/Bärenreiter, 1999] Vol. 3, Chapter 6 pp. 109-125 where Schulze makes the point that Bach, for the most part in Leipzig during his main cantata-composing years, used local 'talent' for his libretti. Based upon current speculation, this ranged from former pupils of St. Thomas School, students attending the University of Leipzig, local poetesses like Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (gifted daughter of a Leipzig mayor, married to a captain, member of Gottsched's "Deutscher Gesellschaft". etc.) and a Mrs. Taubert, Andreas Stübel, a principal at St. Thomas School, pastors at the local churches, Picander and Gottsched, of course.

So far, and this article by Schulze confirms this, I have not seen any firm evidence that Bach composed his own texts. I have read sugggestions in the KBs like "for this parody, Bach composed new recitatives. Perhaps these were written by Bach"; however, it seems much more likely that Bach needed somebody to be quickly at hand, when difficulties with the text arose. Bach may have submitted his prospective texts/libretti to a trusted theologian nearby, perhaps the pastor at St. Thomas Church, after which modifications may have been required. Now Bach could quickly have a conference with the librettist who would help in suggesting modifications while Bach considered the musical possibilities of the recommended changes. A set of completed libretti would be required in advance for printing before Bach would even begin composing the music.

It appears that obtaining suitable texts had to fulfill a number of requirements: 1. to be appropriate for the venue(s) involved - perhaps there were special needs that we are not aware of 2. to pass the careful scrutiny of the lead pastors of the churches involved (did they attempt to include somehow in their sermons material that would be related? Who had the final say in this matter? or was it a collaborative effort that
would satisfy all those involved: librettist, composer, pastor? 3. to satisfy Bach's search for key motifs/affects upon which he could compose his music successfully.

When Bach experienced a nearly complete breakdown in obtaining texts at the end of his second cycle of cantatas in Leipzig, he needed someone who could rely upon for supplying these on a regular basis (2-3 months in advance) and be constantly available for discussions and making changes until a final, acceptable form was reached. Schulze points to the rather sudden death on January 31, 1725 of Stübel, who, according to Schulze was providing libretti for Bach. Now Bach was forced quickly to look about for other texts. Did he choose from some of the already famous printed yearly cycles (many had been set to music by other composers)? No, he eventually/or rather quickly chose the poetess von Ziegler. The resulting texts were fraught with serious problems: unusable mor clumsy use thereof, unsingable word combinations, odd, overblown expressions, etc. Bach used only 9 texts by her before breaking off the collaboration entirely. Then Bach began searching frantically for other texts, some from poets he had used before, jumping about from Lehms to Neumeister and eventually settling upon Picander [Christian Friedrich Henrici} a local talent with whom he could negotiate, collaborate, and most important of all, who would be available to Bach quickly whenever needed in the process of preparing a text.

The nature of this type of poetry is almost completely utilitarian. It is called "Gebrauchskunst" or 'Gebrauchspoesie" in German.

This is very unlike Schubert who takes whatever he found in books of poetry, whether by great poets (Goethe, Schiller, etc.) or by others whose only claim to fame is that Schubert set their text to music.

>> We may wince when we see a text like "Mein Herz schwimmt in Blut" -- my favourite ghastly text is the recitative, "Die ganze Welt ist ein Hospital"-- but I suspect Bach thought they were fine poetry which served his theological and musical purposes.<<
Which is essentially what Schulze has described in his chapter on Bach's libretti.

>> By the way, are there any instances of texts which Bach wrote himself?<<
Nothing that has been verified. For text insertions (like the new recitatives required for a parody), Bach could just as easily have called upon some of the local talent available to him.

>>As 21st century devotees of "high art", we would prefer that Bach have chosen great poetry, but he didn't -- at least by our standards Who were the Goethe's of his age?<<
The names of German Baroque poets are not as well-known and it would be unfair to compare Goethe with these poets just as it would to compare Shakespeare with some later English poets or playwrights. German Baroque poetry has a special world/language of its own with extremely powerful images of which "Die ganze Welt ist ein Hospital" is only one example. Later generations of poets were repulsed by the use of language expounded by German Baroque poets. At the end of March 1829, Zelter made a comment to Goethe "If someone had to set a poem/text by Picander to music today, they would have to cross and bless themselves first." It is interesting that Picander finally completed an annual cycles of church cantatas 1728-1729, but that scholars are still arguing over whether Bach ever did set these texts to music. In Picander's favor, however, is the fact that his poetry is more modern with an easier style of language than Gottsched's and his school of poetry which has been formally dubbed "Gelehrtenpoesie" ["poetry created by scholars."] That should tell you all you need to know about this type of poetry. I, personally, would prefer really good Baroque poetry over Gottsched's poetry any day.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote: < Of course Bach was inspired by his texts. This in no way contradicts, however, the statement that these texts are not great poetry -- perhaps not INcompetent, but often not much more than competent. Bach's cantatas are among the greatest musical works ever written; does anyone seriously claim that any of his libretti are among the greatest poems ever written? Many of them, however, are very good libretti -- that is, they admirably serve their purpose, which is, explicitly, to serve as an inspiration and a building-block for a musical setting, rather than to be inspiring in their own right. >
Having poked fun at "Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital", I must admit there are moments when Bach's texts are superb. I am always moved to tears in the SMP (BWV 244) when the bass sings:

Am Abend, da es kühle war,
Ward Adams Fallen offenbar;
Am Abend drücket ihn der Heiland nieder.
Am Abend kam die Taube wieder
Und trug ein Ölblatt in dem Munde.
O schöne Zeit! O Abendstunde!
Der Friedensschluss ist nun mit Gott gemacht,
Denn Jesus hat sein Kreuz vollbracht.
Sein Leichnam kömmt zur Ruh,
Ach! liebe Seele, bitte du,
Geh, lasse dir den toten Jesum schenken,
O heilsames, o köstlichs Angedenken!

At eventide, when it was cool,
Was Adam's fall made manifest;
At eventide the Savior overwhelmed him.
At eventide the dove returneth,
Its mouth an olive branch now bearing.
O time so fair! O evening hour!
The pact of peace is now with God complete,
For Jesus hath his cross fulfilled.
His body comes to rest,
Ah, thou my spirit, hearken thou,
Go, let them give thee Jesus' lifeless body,

There is something about the image of coolness at the end of a day filled with heated passion that never fails to move me. Bach's music is incomparably gentle and restrained, allowing the text priority. Is there a more heart-rending moment in the SMP (BWV 244) than the sinking string figure at "Sein Leichnam kömmt zur Ruh" ?

Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 17, 2005):
Thank you for clarifying Schweitzer's comments. Schweitzer as a deep thinker had a style of argument that can be pulled easily in the wrong direction out of context. Whenever one reads a Schweitzer quote care must be taken to understand the entire context.

You wrote:
< Of course Bach was inspired by his texts. This in no way contradicts, however, the statement that these texts are not great poetry -- perhaps not INcompetent, but often not much more than competent. Bach's cantatas are among the greatest musical works ever written; does anyone seriously claim that any of his libretti are among the greatest poems ever written? Many of them, however, are very good libretti -- that is, they admirably serve their purpose, which is, explicitly, to serve as an inspiration and a building-block for a musical setting, rather than to be inspiring in their own right. >
Truly it is not necessarily a negative criticism to say that J.S. Bach's cantata texts are not "good poetry." What defines good poetry and what defines deep Lutheran theology may not be complimentary definitions. It may be a very good thing to say Bach's texts are not good poetry. Verwandle dich, Weinen, in lauteren Wein ('Would change one's crying into pure wine') from BWV 21 is only a poetic line in the theological sense. How can tears become the taste of fine wine on one's cheek? Isn't the absence of tears the key to joyfulness? Then only those without troubles in life can find joy. Well this line refers to the miracle of Jesus, that of turning water into wine at the wedding celebration in Cana. Therefore this fine wine from tears comes from the miracle work of Christ. Give the librettist high marks for theological content. Bach's musical commentary on these texts becomes the poetry in Bach's cantatas.

Bach didn't intend his cantatas to be performed for 21st century paying musical arts patron crowds and critics in America and Asia. We might allow Bach the courtesy of understanding him and his ideas, allowing Bach to be Bach, and not making of him a child of every zeitgeist. Can Bach be enjoyed purely as musical art? Certainly, and Schweitzer's comments are duly noted.

< The issue of being "forced" doesn't come into it. I'm not sure how much freedom Bach had in choosing his own texts; but I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was often quite satisfied with his libretti. >
Your point about the myth of J.S. Bach working under lack of alternatives is well stated. J.S. Bach worked as Thomas Cantor in Leipzig for the last 27 years of his life. Bach could have done what Handel did, or he could have worked in opera. But there he stayed in Leipzig, and, according to Conrad Fischer, used his quarrels with the Town Council as leverage in Leipzig.

Gee, Who hasn't had troubles with their Town Council?!?

Thomas Shepherd wrote (March 18, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Here, here!

My moment of poetic and musical delight is the encapsulation of the believe's response to the salvific act a couple of movements later

Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh’ gebracht.
Mein Jesu, mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
Die Müh ist aus,
die unsre Sünden ihm gemacht.
Mein Jesu, mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
O selige Gebeine, seht,
wie ich euch mit Buß’ und Reu beweine,
daß euch mein Fall in solche Not gebracht!
Mein Jesu, mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
Habt lebenslang
vor euer Leiden tausend Dank,
daß ihr mein Seelenheil so wert geacht’.
Mein Jesu, mein Jesu, gute Nacht!

Now the Lord is laid to rest.
My Jesus, my Jesus, good night!
The toil our sins
caused him is done.
My Jesus, my Jesus, good night!
Oh blessed remains, see how, repentant
and filled with remorse, I mourn you,
that my fall brought you to such distress.
My Jesus, my Jesus, good night!
All my life long,
receive a thousand thanks for your Passion,
for prizing my soul’s good so dearly.
My Jesus, my Jesus, good night!

The first time I really listened to this was in the mid 60s on vinyl ie. a recording of the 50's or early 60's . I got goose-bumps then listening to the soprano and in my musical "memory" can hear a still, restrained, pure sound, with little tonal wobble. So restrained and ethereal - I wish I knew which recording it was!

Stephen Benson wrote (March 18, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote: < I think Steve's experience is very much the norm, at least for non-musicians. >
Just to set the record straight, and forgive the personal digression here, my musical resumé, including church performances, is actually fairly substantial. I was given my first musical instrument, a cornet, when I was two years old, and I played my first professional gig, a wedding, at ten. In what was surely a relatively rare format for church services, my Baptist church in Rhode Island broadcast an hour-long hymn sing every Sunday night (which included a brief talk from our pastor). The choral singing by the congregation was accompanied by our church organist and by me on trumpet. (Maybe this post should have been sent to the "Congregational chorales?" thread!) Sometimes I simply played the principal melody line in support of the congregation, and at other times I improvised an obbligato line which rose above the singing. THAT was a lot of fun! I also frequently teamed with our church organist and played sacred trumpet/organ pieces during our regular Sunday morning services (a surprise, perhaps, to those who have read my atheistic ramblings). Despite my flight from organized religion, the sound of a solo trumpet in a church still sends chills down my spine. While at Yale, I had the distinction of playing the euphonium solo part in a wind ensemble arrangement of Appalachian Spring under the baton of Aaron Copland. The title of my master's thesis, for a degree in the history department at SUNY, was "Death Imagery in Late-Romantic Music". By my early twenties, I was playing dance music in a trio six nights a week, mostly in smoke-filled night clubs, with patrons keeping me supplied with more than ample liquid refreshment. I decided that, as much fun as it was, it was not a recipe for a long, healthy, and satisfying life (or for a successful marriage, which was, and remains after thirty-five years, my number one priority), and I abandoned my career for other pursuits. My earliest musical memories involve marching band music (I can remember at the age of nine almost being blown off a bridge while playing the sousaphone in Newport on a windy day during a parade), Italian street festivals (I developed my trumpet embouchure largely by playing symphonic marches in a local Italian band), and listening to my mother play "A Maiden's Prayer" downstairs on the piano after we kids were bedded down for the night. The route from John Philip Sousa to Johann Sebastian Bach was a long -- TOO long -- and circuitous one. I'm not sure how many of those early experiences fit the "norm", or whether they qualify me as a musician or a non-musician. Somehow, I feel as if I paid my dues. Regardless, "musician" or not, I am now thriving on, even obsessed by, the felicities of Bach's cantatas.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 18, 2005):
Stephen Benson wrote: < Just to set the record straight, and forgive the personal digression here, my musical resumé, including church performances, is actually fairly substantial. ... The route from John Philip Sousa to Johann Sebastian Bach was a long -- TOO long -- and circuitous one. I'm not sure how many of those early experiences fit the "norm", or whether they qualify me as a musician or a non-musician. Somehow, I feel as if I paid my dues. Regardless, "musician" or not, I am now thriving on, even obsessed by, the felicities of Bach's cantatas. >
Sorry - I wasn't implying that you didn't have a musical background. Should have made that more clear. What I do think, however, that Bach fans who do not have a musical resume (I was last chair coronet in the worst junior high band in Minnesota) probably come to cantatas pretty late. Someone with a solid musical background would 1) probably know the cantatas existed and 2) recognize the sophistication of the music whether or not it "grabbed" the individual involved. I have to say it, but I suspect that most Americans wouldn't know what a Bach cantata is.

I think part of this deals with the choral medium itself. There are pretty sharp people that think that opera sounds like shrieking cats. (Oddly, they might like hard core country western - which sounds like shrieking cats to yours truly.) I didn't like it much when I was in my 20's. (I pretended to like Wagner - it was necessary. I still do occasionally listen to the orchestral stuff.) If one doesn't like Cecilia Bartoli, changes aren't good that one is going to like a Bach cantata. But once that barrier is breached, anything is possible. Now I listen to choral music 75% of the time counting opera. My son makes almost real money playing hard rock and doesn't care for opera. But I'm wearing him down a little - he'll listen to Bartoli or Barbra Bonney recitals and even made it through BWV 106 a couple weeks back.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (March 18, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] I quite agree. SMP (BWV 244) as well as the cantata librettos may be a mixture of far-fetched imagery and platitudes, lacking originality, but there are very fine examples of great poetry as well. And then, when our judgement of this 17th and eearly 18th century poetry is not very positive, we have to bear in mind that our criteria of good poetry are entirely different from Bach and his contemporaries. Moreover, poetry at the time throughout Europe was at a low. Literature was in decline in England, in Holland and in Germany. I hardly know any great European poets in Bach's life time. What's more, metaphors that seem worn out to us, may have sounded fresh and renewing to those who heard them for the first time. And besides, these librettos being applied poetry, many of the metaphors came from the Bible, so from the point of view of Bach's countrymen, the quality of these verses are not bad at all.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 20, 2005):
>>As 21st century devotees of "high art", we would prefer that Bach have chosen great poetry, but he didn't -- at least by our standards Who were the Goethe's of his age?<<
Thomas Braatz wrote: < The names of German Baroque poets are not as well-known and it would be unfair to compare Goethe with these poets just as it would to compare Shakespeare with some later English poets or playwrights. German Baroque poetry has a special world/language of its own with extremely powerful images of which "Die ganze Welt ist ein Hospital" is only one example. Later generations of poets were repulsed by the use of language expounded by German Baroque poets. At the end of March 1829, Zelter made a comment to Goethe "If someone had to set a poem/text by
Picander to music today, they would have to cross and bless themselves first." It is interesting that Picander finally completed an annual cycles of church cantatas 1728-1729, but that scholars are still arguing over whether Bach did set these texts to music. In Picander's favor, however, is the fact that his poetry is more modern with an easier style of language than Gottsched's and his school of poetry which has been formally dubbed "Gelehrtenpoesie" ["poetry created by scholars."] That should tell you all you need to know about this type of poetry. I, personally, would prefer really good Baroque poetry over Gottsched's poetry any day. >
As far as Bach's libretti go, I think things worked out pretty well overall. In my humble opinion the best movies have been based on original screenplays. Getting appropriate words that fit the service and made for good music seemed to have worked pretty well. There are, after all, some very moving passages - or at least Bach's music makes them so.

The track record of great composers with poets is very spotty. Goethe learned not to have Beethoven compose incidental music for his plays - Egmont is a heady brew but overwhelmed the play itself. Ode to Joy is a masterpiece of its kind, but it's almost as though Beethoven searched for the worst Schiller poem he could find. (I trust the Euros don't have to sing the thing at Brussels.) As for Schubert, a very high percentage of the poems he employed were duds on paper however lovely they sound to us. Rossini once said he could put a shopping list to music - a pretty honest appraisal of a lot of Bel Canto. Mozart seems to have had a pretty good ear for the word - Da Ponte's work is very good. And if Wagner would have stuck to literature, I might appreciate his art. Yet they were the exceptions. In any case, I think it's fair to say that great music is usually greater than the sum of its parts.

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Last update: ýMarch 22, 2005 ý10:10:57