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Bach Composing
Part 2

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BWV 1080/19
The Rossini Syndrome

Dale Gedcke wrote (January 14, 2005):
BWV 1080/19

Bradley Lehman wrote:
"Romantic legend tells us that Bach picked up a pen on Monday or Tuesday and had his cantata all done and rehearsed for that same Sunday, as his normal and regular practice. And that's poppycock."
MY COMMENTS

I presume your point is that it likely took longer than one week to compose, copy, rehearse and perform a new cantata. That makes sense.

On the other hand, I understand that Bach had to perform a new cantata essentially every Sunday. This is still a substantial work load. Even if each cantata took four weeks from start to finish he would still have to be working on four at once in their various stages. Multi-tasking may have offered a buffer for short-term difficulties in the various steps in the process, but it was still a pretty aggressive work load. How many directors of church music would be willing or able to do that today?

Maybe he wasn't a superman, but he was certainly well above average in his ability to produce!

Doug Cowling wrote (January 15, 2005):
The Rossini Syndrome

[To Dale Gedcke] The fact that Bach had to complete the cantata libretti and have them printed as booklets for sale probably at least two months before the performance is compelling evidence that Bach's working method included long-range planning and simultaneous compositional projects. I just don't believe that Bach, who was so highly-disciplined, had a cantata libretto sitting around for months and then began to compose frantically each Monday morning. Even the deaths of rulers were probably anticipated and their commemorative music constantly on the compositional back-burner. The music for the recent funeral rites of the Queen Mother, which included several original choral works, was rumored to have been ready and waiting for 10 years!

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 15, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] The evidence for the composing of cantatas in the early Leipzig years is that he did not multi-task over longer periods but worked at a new cantata every week with sometimes a bit of spillover from the preceding week. The time from gestation to performance was very short indeed.

Here are two important sources that I have quickly found:

1. Alfred Dürr "Bachs Werk vom Einfall bis zur Drucklegung" B&H, Wiesbaden, 1989, pp. 13ff. ["Bach's Oeuvre from Inspiration to Print"]

[My paraphrase translation]

>>Bach's Leipzig years, compared to his pre-Leipzig period, present a very different picture from the foregoing. There simply was no time for Bach to make a draft copy first and then a clear copy of the score. Each score represents at the same time the conception stage as well as the final score for the cantata performance, Of course, it is difficult in this instance to determine whether there may still have been some sketches, but there is evidence that seems to contradict such an assumption: from time to time a musical theme/subject is corrected at the same time that the final score is being prepared. Corrections to the score are made at the same time or right after a part or some parts have been copied. The entire process of music production is rather strictly ordered because each minute is valuable: Bach gives his score with the ink still wet on the page to a Thomaner (one of the school boys at St. Thomas School and not a professional copyist by any means, but a fairly reliable one) who copies out the minimum set of parts. Bach sometimes copies an important part himself. As each part is finished, Bach makes corrections to the part (and sometimes to the score) and gives it to another Thomaner who are not quite as reliable as the main copyist. In this fashion the doublets for the 1st and 2nd violins,(sometimes other instruments), the continuo and the organ parts are created. Bach now corrects all of the parts, sometimes not catching all the errors, and adds the marks of articulation and tempi designations (which often do not appear in the final score.) Bach will add the figures to the figured bass and sometimes even make corrections to the musical line, changes which he may forget to alter in the score.

Sometimes the lack of time will shorten this process of revision considerably or simply be skipped entirely. Often the final stage of maturation of a composition to achieve greater perfections is absent.

2. Robert L. Marshall "The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: the Sources, the Style, the Significance" Schirmer, 1989, pp. 111ff.

"The sketches present on the whole few problems of identification. The great majority seem to be memory aids written at the bottom of a recto to record the immediate continuation of the music on the next page while the ink was drying. Similarly, tentative marginal notations of the opening themes for later movements of the same work, and more rarely, for works to be composed in the near future, usually resemble the final versions enough to be recognized easily. Rejected drafts for the beginnings of movements and sections are hardly problematic when found directly before or above the final versions. If the draft began a new sheet, however, Bach often turned the sheet around and started writing again, or he temporarily laid it aside, so that a rejected version for a movement can appear in a much later portion of the same manuscript or even in the manuscript of another work. ...

Almost all extant sketches and drafts are found in the "composing" scores of the Leipzig cantatas....the manuscripts reveal that Bach wrote down these compositions while he composed them. It is therefore doubtful that he kept many, if any, separate sketch books or sheets at this stage of his career. This is easily understandable when we recall that Bach not only wrote the great majority of the Leipzig vocal compositions at the rate of one cantata per week during his first three years as Thomaskantor, but also that the later festival cantatas for state visits of the Saxon royalty and funeral music often had to be prepared on a few days' notice."

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 15, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>The fact that Bach had to complete the cantata libretti and have them printed as booklets for sale probably at least two months before the performance is compelling evidence that Bach's working method included long-range planning and simultaneous compositional projects.<<
Consider that these libretti were often in book form already, Bach would simply have to give the book to the printer months in advance (perhaps even the same printer who printed the book) and simply say: "Print out all of these libretti. I'll be using these when the time comes."

>>I just don't believe that Bach, who was so highly-disciplined, had a cantata libretto sitting around for months and then began to compose frantically each Monday morning.<<
But the evidence that he did so is quite compelling. This evidence is given by renowned experts in the field of Bach scholarship.

>>Even the deaths of rulers were probably anticipated and their commemorative music constantly on the compositional back-burner. The music for the recent funeral rites of the Queen Mother, which included several original choral works, was rumored to have been ready and waiting for 10 years!<<

These may have been parodies that were very quickly assembled and adapted to new texts on the spur of the moment. Read also Robert Marshall's comment on this.

Doug Cowling wrote (January 15, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< These may have been parodies that were very quickly assembled and adapted to new texts on the spur of the moment. Read also Robert Marshall's comment on this. >
I've never been convinced that the use of pre-existing music is an indicator of haste. The Christmas Oratorio shows a complex, over-arching design which argues against quickie composition. Similarly, there was no pressing need to rush the compilation of the final "cantata" section of the Sanctusto Dona Nobis of the B Minor Mass. That work remained a 'closet" work without a public performance. I would suggest that Bach reused this music simply because it was exceptionally beautiful.

Nor does the use of the music of the St Mark and St. Matthew Passions for elegaic cantatas necessarily indicate that Bach opened the newspaper one day and said, "Mein Gott, the Electress is dead! I better write a cantata!" Someone who had the responsibility for commemorative music for royal funerals or visits would at least have a mental list of who merited an original work and planned the appropriate cantata. I think that Bach, while writing the Passions, made a note to commission cantata libretti that would match various choruses and arias. In this manner, he would be planning for an occasional event which could happen the next day or in ten years.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 15, 2005):
<snip>
The very next paragraph of that particular Marshall article <snip> is this:

"In the manuscripts of the pre-Leipzig cantatas, on the other hand, the complete absence of sketches, the comparatively few, mostly minor or technical corrections (e.g., of voice-leading), and the normally relaxed appearance of the handwriting strongly suggest that at this time Bach worked a great deal from preliminary drafts which probably were subsequently destroyed. The autographs of most Weimar church cantatas can perhaps best be described as 'revision copies' -- an intermediate stage between the 'composing scores' of the Leipzig cantatas and the famous fair copies of many instrumental works. The invention of themes and the overall design of the formal movements were presumably worked out in advance, the final touches then added in the revision copy. In at least two instances -- Cantata BWV 61 (P 45/6) and BWV 185 (SPK P 59) -- the preliminary drafts were apparently so complete that Bach had a copyist write out large portions of the final manuscripts. Bach's slower production tempo in Weimar -- the church cantatas were mostly written at four-week intervals between 1714 and 1716 -- presumably encouraged this more leisurely routine."

Furthermore, this entire book by Robert Marshall is about Bach's compositional processes through his career, from Marshall's close study of autograph manuscripts and drafts and revisions. And yet, it's been quoted so selectively to look as if Bach DID NOT work from drafts! <snip>

Recommendation: really read Marshall's book, <snip>

These real experts, at least in these passages quoted today from Dürr and Marshall, did NOT say that Bach composed frantically for the upcoming Sunday, just a couple of days ahead, in any way that is "quite compelling" or otherwise. They have not dated the manuscripts to be necessarily THE SAME WEEK OR EVEN THE SAME MONTH as the first performance, no matter how many or how few drafts this was. <snip>

Who, expert or otherwise, is to say that Bach DIDN'T work some months in advance on any of these Leipzig cantatas (and hand the wet-ink pages to copyists, etc etc etc etc, some weeks in advance of the performance)? It hasn't been proven by the evidence presented! Sure, Bach's workload was large; but it wasn't necessarily as last-minute as our correspondent would have us believe on the faith of his quotations.
<snip>

Doug Cowling wrote (January 15, 2005):
<snip>
I would say that too much is being read into those posted analyses. Neither of them assumes that weekly composition was the rigid norm for Bach. I'm perfectly content to believe that Bach had a huge workload and that many of the cantatas might have been written under time constraints. The Bach household and the school must have been a copying sweatshop as numerous works were being prepared. The variety of copyists suggest that just about everyone who could use pen and paper was constantly involved in the preparation of performance materials.

My assertion here is that Bach's position was an extraordinarily complex job that required the highest degree of both artistic initiative and administrative oversight. Most of us would find daunting the administrative workload of planning and scheduling for an important musical establishment such as St. Thomas'. Add to that the pressure to compose brilliant original works as well as perform as a recognized virtuoso, and you have the reason why I have always said that Bach is the Greatest Person of the Millenium.

Charles Francis wrote (January 15, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< The very next paragraph of that particular Marshall article <snip> is this:
"In the manuscripts of the pre-
Leipzig cantatas, on the other hand, the complete absence of sketches, the comparatively few, mostly minor or technical corrections (e.g., of voice-leading), and the normally relaxed appearance of the handwriting strongly suggest that at this time Bach worked a great deal from preliminary drafts which probably were subsequently destroyed. The autographs of most Weimar church cantatas can perhaps best be described as 'revision copies' -- an intermediate stage between the 'composing scores' of the Leipzig cantatas and the famous fair copies of many instrumental works. The invention of themes and the overall design of the formal movements were presumably worked out in advance, the final touches then added in the revision copy. In at least two instances Cantata BWV 61 (P 45/6) and BWV 185 (SPK P 59) -- the preliminary drafts were apparently so complete that Bach had a copyist write out large portions of the final manuscripts. Bach's slower production tempo in Weimar -- the church cantatas were mostly written at four-week intervals between 1714 and 1716 -- presumably encouraged this more leisurely routine." >
In his early years, Bach may well have writen out sketches as a prerequisite for developing ideas. But did he really need to do this in his mature Leipzig years? It is quite possible to invent counterpoint while walking, resting or performing mechanical tasks, for example.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 15, 2005):
Bach's achievements

Doug Cowling wrote: < My assertion here is that Bach's position was an extraordinarily complex job that required the highest degree of both artistic initiative and administrative oversight. Most of us would find daunting the administrative workload of planning and scheduling for an important musical establishment such as St. Thomas'. >
Agreed!

< Add to that the pressure to compose brilliant original works as well as perform as a recognized virtuoso, and you have the reason why I have always said that Bach is the Greatest Person of the Millenium. >
I largely agree with that nomination, but for different reasons. Wait until you hear those brilliant original works of his in the tuning he expected!

There was a piece in the Guardian today that I read with great interest: http://tinyurl.com/5eflz
In my paper I came to a fairly similar conclusion, as to Bach's political subtext in the Musical Offering that "the king is a fink"...but again, for different reasons from the author of that story.

Leonardo Been wrote (January 15, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thank you Brad, very interesting (and appropriate) article* in The Guardian (UK) of 14 Jan 2005, indeed.

Excuse my ignorance: Your paper is? Found where?

Uri Golomb wrote (January 15, 2005):
Musical Offering -- against the king? [was: Bach's achievements]

Bradley Lehman wrote:
< There was a piece in the Guardian today that I read with great interest: http://tinyurl.com/5eflz
In my paper I came to a fairly similar conclusion, as to Bach's political subtext in the Musical Offering that "the king is a fink"...but again, for different reasons from the author of that story. >
I'll look forward to seeing your arguments on this matter. However, as a counter-balance to tpiece you referred to in the Guardian, here is an excerpt from David Yearsley's Bach and the meanings of counterpoint (Cambridge University
Press, 2002).

"Frederick [...] certainly enjoyed the challenges and possibilities of counterpoint, though this fact is often doubted by Bach scholars [in previous pages, Yearsley cites several scholars who indeed doubted Frederick's appreciation of counterpoint]. A well-rounded intellectual who prided himself on his ability to discusss any topic intelligently, Frederick was no stranger to strict compositional techniques. Because this branch of music was in fact afforded a great deal of respect by leading Berlin musicians, it becomes much harder to support the widely held view that Frederick had mostly contempt for counterpoint, a belief that is largely based on his infamous dismissal of a piece from a Berlin opera "because it smells of the church".

Frederick had frequently rejected operatic numbers by Graun when they did not accord with his tastes, yet the canonic passages found in Kinrberger's anthology of Graun's duets and trios had obviously passed the royal lithmus test. Frederick's nose was clearly not affected offended by all contrapuntal artifice, since it often courred not in the church, but at his court and opera. Though counterpoint by no means dominated the musical scene in Berlin, either in Frederick's private music room or on the stage of his oepra, it remained in robust health and continued to attract the attentions of theorists, composers, critics, and amateurs.

"In light of the more inclusive musical environment at Berlin I have tried to portray here, it is worth reconsidering a someimtes-doubted account of Frederick's interest in counterpoint found in CArl Friedrich Zelter's biography of his friend Karl Friedrich Christian Fasch, founder of the Berline Singakademie. On one memorable evening, says Fasch, he was playign continuo for a flute sonata by Frederick into which teh king had introduced a two-part canon (presumably between the bass-line and the flute part); to the king's astonishment, the quick-thinking Fasch extemporaneously introduced a third canonic voice into the texture. Fasch tried to credit Frederick's compositional skil for allowing this artifice, but the king assured his musical servant that he had only thought of the two-voice possibilty when composing the piece. Though Frederick acknolwedged that he had studied learned counterpoint with Graun, he admitted that his grasp of the subject did not match Fasch's, but registered his appreciation for the refinements of counterpoint: 'It always pleases me whenever I find that music concerns itself with the understanding; if a beautiful piece of music sounds learned, it is as pleasing to me as it is to hear pleasant conversation at table'." (pp. 155-156)

This is by no means the full extent of Yearsley's argument. His conclusions are (basically) that Frederick might have written the Royal Theme himself; that he would well have enjoyed (and certainly would not have been insulted) by Bach's use of counterpoint; and that Bach -- whose own politics, insofar as we know them, often tended to be pro-Royalist -- meant no insult.

As far as I recall (I don't have time to re-read the entire chapter) Yearsley makes no reference to the other side of the Offering-as-insult theory: that the piece was written in keys that would have been difficult for the amateur-flautist king to play, and that would have produced particularly harsh and unpleasant sonorities hardly consistent with the idea of praising the King (I would assume that Brad's argument would focus on the latter issue).

I did not quote Yearsley in order to say that I'm sure he's right, or to contradict the argument in the Guardian article -- merely to show that there is another point-of-view. I do find Yearsley's arguments largely convincing, but I haven't investigated the issue in great detail myself; perhaps, if I did, I'd come to a different conclusion.

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 15, 2005):
Musical Offering / Bach & Mother Church

Bradley Lehman wrote:
< There was a piece in the Guardian today that I read with great interest: http://tinyurl.com/5eflz
In my paper I came to a fairly similar conclusion, as to Bach's political subtext in the Musical Offering that "the king is a fink"...but again, for different reasons from the author of that story. >
Thankee for the heads-up on the very interesting article. Not sure I quite buy the picture of Frederick. A "bisexual misanthrope" might be an appropriate description of his personality - heavens the man was a cynic - not the ideal philosopher king, and certainly no one who you'd want to go fishing with. But he took his music seriously. Just because his taste, like that of so many of the era, was moving toward secular early classical doesn't mean he viewed the art as simply a method to improve the famously cheap entertainment available at Potsdam. (If this was the case, Frederick would have bought musicians and had them play: instead he bought accompanists and was a fine amatuer composer. And if serious music was of not interest, why did he want "old Bach" to pay a visit once festivities with Maria Theresa were over - for the moment?) Music may have been the only thing Frederick loved, except for maybe his hunting dogs. I've always looked at Musical Offering as more a kind of "dueling banjos" with papa Bach trying to reestablish his reputation as a master of a great musical tradition and thus improve the sliding stature of that tradition. As I understand it, we have no evidence that the final work was played by Frederick, so in a sense Bach lost. He certainly didn't put a brake on the development of the classical style. But JS had the last laugh. Musical Offering certainly ranks with one of the finest pieces of orchestral music ever composed. I collect editions and will always be a chump for a new one. In any case, if Bach thought the "king was a fink" so did everyone else in Europe and I suspect Frederick would have agreed or wouldn't have cared if Bach had thought so. So I can't see the work as a musical assault on the secular Enlightenment, but it would nice to think it was. It would certainly make me think the better of Bach. When you get down to, Bach did live in some very interesting times politically, but it's an aspect of his biography that is usually almost totally ignored.

Item 2:

A big cable channel in the US is EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network): the voice of the Roman Catholic establishment as defined by the present Pope. (One of their recent series dealt with Pious XII: The Religious Hero.) Some interesting theology of course: Mother Church has always put more thought into the creed than Jerry Falwell. They also have a weekly "In Concert Series" featuring mostly baroque religious music. Tonight the program was a an hour-long of motets written by members of the Bach family (exluding Sebastion: but all early 18th Century.) The ensemble was the Claire College Choir Cambridge: I've never seen the group before but they did a charming job with some lovely music. They were accompanied by a small organ, cello and a gigantic lute called a (sp?) Trebelao? Anyway, great fun, and on US television commercial free religious classical music is hard to come by in any format much less on television. Check it out. (Should note that while the introduction introduced the Bach family and said the music was based on "German sacred text" the words "Lutheran" or "Protestant" were never used. I wonder if the gents in the vatican aren't still a little irritated with Luther.)

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 15, 2005):
< Thank you Brad, very interesting (and appropriate) article* in The Guardian (UK) of 14 Jan 2005, indeed.
Excuse my ignorance: Your paper is? Found where? >
It's the top item in the list at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/essays.html

I'll turn that into a link to Oxford's site as soon as the PDF version is available for download from them, and as soon as the print version comes out. The first half is to be availwithin the next few weeks, and the second half in the May issue. (It was more than twice as long as the normal articles of that journal, and they had to split it!)

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 15, 2005):
< I just don't believe that Bach, who was so highly-disciplined, had a cantata libretto sitting around for months and then began to compose frantically each Monday morning. Even the deaths of rulers were probably anticipated and their commemorative music constantly on the compositional back-burner. The music for the recent funeral rites of the Queen Mother, which included several original choral works, was rumored to have been ready and waiting for 10 years! >
Recall the anecdote where Bach complained to his employers that the weather had been unseasonably gentle, and therefore not as many parishioners as expected were dying, and therefore Bach wasn't getting his expected income from playing the organ for funerals.

As for commemorative music for a ruler, composed in alleged haste, Cimarosa's requiem for a duchess is a pretty decent one. His new boss the duke brought him over to Russia, and 10 days later the duchess died and C had to write the requiem for the funeral. Welcome to Russia!

Dale Gedcke wrote (January 16, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] RE: Your January 14, 2004 posting on the above discussion:

My perception (which could be in error) is that you are over-reacting to the quotes offered by Thomas Braatz on the composing process of J. S. Bach. The quote listed by Thomas from Durr clearly starts off:
"Bach's Leipzig years, compared to his pre-Leipzig period, present a very different picture from the foregoing. There simply was no time for Bach to make a draft copy first and then a clear copy of the score."

It appears that Bach's process for composing cantatas was quite different at Weimar versus Leipzig. What I derived from the quotes was Leipzig pushed Bach to compose on a shorter, more hectic schedule.

Am I misperceiving what the experts are portraying?

John Pike wrote (January 17, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] Agreed. I agree with Brad that the composing cycle was probably complex, and he probably had several works in different stages of gestation in mind and on paper at any given time. Given his huge output, teaching, Collegium Musicum, funerals, weddings, organ inspection, recitals, home life and everything else, it is indeed totally incredible that he got it all done to the same level of genius.

John Pike wrote (January 17, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Brad, Thomas and Doug have all made helpful contributions to this discussion. However, I still am inclined to agree with Brad that what we see on paper does not tell the whole story. Bach will have spent much time thinking about the composition process from an early stage, probably as soon as he knew which texts he would be setting. He would probably have started thinking immediately about which earlier compositions he could recycle to save time, and many other things that he would do when he came round to actually writing the music out. Speculation, I know, but also common sense.

There is no doubt that in his earlier works, improvements were made to works over time since we have several versions of many pieces.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 17, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
>>what we see on paper does not tell the whole story. Bach will have spent much time thinking about the composition process from an early stage, probably as soon as he knew which texts he would be setting. He would probably have started thinking immediately about which earlier compositions he could recycle to save time, and many other things that he would do when he came round to actually writing the music out. Speculation, I know, but also common sense.<<
As we are speaking here primarily of Bach's first 3 or 4 years in Leipzig, where the pressure of time on Bach to compose quickly was the greatest, it would be best to keep the actual evidence in mind and then use common sense. Yesterday I spent about an hour or so looking at the detailed descriptions of the original 'composing' scores as given by the NBA KBs. In that time I quickly found 4 or 5 instances of what the NBA editors call "Vorausskizzen" [Skizze = sketch, voraus = ahead; hence the result of sketching something that will be used in composition before it actually appears.] These 'Vorausskizzen' appear directly on the 'composing score.' These 'Vorausskizzen' are sometimes short amounting to a single line passage of a few measures or can involve trying out how certain combinations of voices/parts will work out. These 'Vorausskizzen' may anticipate directly what will follow in the same mvt. or sometimes even be ahead by 15 to 20 measures. These 'Vorausskizzen' may be for a subsequent mvt. I remember once coming across such a 'Vorausskizze' which was recorded on the side or the bottom of a page of the score of a cantata. This 'Vorausskizze' pertained to an opening, single-line passage for an aria that is found in the cantata for the following Sunday.

This type of information from the original scores (remember that most of these scores are 'composing' scores and that Bach did not have time to do a 'clear/clean' copy of the same score) points into the direction of composing quickly without even having a gestation period for these musical ideas to develop. Here Bach has left a record of his trying out ideas that are not fully formed as yet, discarding or modifying the idea and then immediately applying it in the composition of the score.

If Bach had started these 'composing' scores, which are in many instances the only ones that have been found, a few weeks earlier, then it is rather curious that he would not have made a 'clear' copy for the performance of the work when the time came. Practically everything about the process of composition of these early Leipzig cantatas, as Dürr and Marshall have described, indicates that these cantatas, from inception to performance, were completed in the course of a single week. It is important also to remember that the bulk of Bach's cantata output falls into this particular time frame from mid 1723 to 1727.

John Pike wrote (January 17, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] I never cease to be amazed by all the activities crammed into the day.......composing, performing, bringing up children.............
add to that writing papers, e mails, software and all the rest of it, and now reading a British paper as well (The Guardian). Yes, like his great role model, I don't know how Brad fits it all in. Perhaps analysing Brad's typical day might help us understand how JSB did it as well!

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 17, 2005):
< If Bach had started these 'composing' scores, which are in many instances the only ones that have been found, a few weeks earlier, then it is rather curious that he would not have made a 'clear' copy for the performance of the work when the time came. Practically everything about the process of composition of these early Leipzig cantatas, as Dürr and Marshall have described, indicates that these cantatas, from inception to performance, were completed in the course of a single week. It is important also to remember that the bulk of Bach's cantata output falls into this particular time frame from mid 1723 to 1727. >
A couple of obvious practical commonsense questions suggest themselves:

- How long does/did it take to write out an entire full score of a Bach cantata with pen and ink, making a complete copy? (Remember, this is apart from the longer process of composing it in the first place.)

- For occasional pieces, i.e. those expected to have only a single performance on a known date, like these cantatas from 1723 to 1727: what reason would Bach ever have to make a second copy of the full score? In rehearsals and performance the full score would be used only by himself (or perhaps a deputy conductor in emergency), anyway. Why would he bother, if the original is aleast clear enough to read for the purpose of performance? (i.e. The observation that there isn't a second copy isn't an argument one way or another that any of this was a rush job.)

- How is the existence of only a single extant score an argument, one way or another, that the piece was written only a few days before performance and not some months in advance? (It's obviously not an argument for "months in advance", either, by itself; such an argument needs to be constructed from factors other than this one. I have done so, citing practical issues such as sufficient rehearsal/training time and the knowledge in advance of the liturgy and libretti to be used.)

In light of these three questions, the assertion "Practically everything about the process of composition of these early Leipzig cantatas, as Dürr and Marshall have described, indicates that these cantatas, from inception to performance, were completed in the course of a single week" looks to me to be an arbitrary conclusion that doesn't follow soundly from the evidence as presented.

Uri Golomb wrote (January 17, 2005):
Further to Brad's points: Thomas Braatz wrote (on Bach's "Vorausskizze"; my emphases added):

< This type of information from the original scores (remember that most of these scores are 'composing' scores and that Bach did not have time to do a 'clear/clean' copy of the same score) points into the direction of composing quickly WITHOUT EVEN HAVING A GESTATION PERIOD FOR THESE MUSICAL IDEAS TO DEVELOP. Here Bach has left a record of his trying out ideas that are not fully formed as yet, discarding or modifying the idea and then IMMEDIATELY applying it in the composition of the score. >
How do we know, however, how much time passed between the setting down of these "Vorausskizze" and the rest of the compositional work? Or between work on one movement and work on another movement? And how much compositional work was done away from paper -- by trying things out on the keyboard, or in Bach's own head? Such work could have been crucial, and could have taken up much time, yet left no trace, no proof that it has ever been done.

One could speculate that the Vorausskizze were written hours or minutes before the rest of the composition score. One could also speculate that Bach wrote these sketches immediately upon first seeing the libretto, as an "aide memoire" -- reminding himself the musical ideas he'd like to use; he then returned to them weeks later for the rest of the compositional work. Or perhaps some were written in the midst of the omposition process, while others preceded it by quite some time.

ALL these hypotheses are speculations, and one could easily come up with yet more hypotheses (for instance, that they represent a "summary" of another sketch, which he discarded -- but not before leaving himself with a reminder of the more useful ideas emanting from that sketch).

One could imagine Bach, having finished thinking about a piece of music for the moment, making a brief sketch to remind himself how far he got, and then proceeding to the next project. Then -- hours, days, weeks or months later -- he uses this sketch to remind himself of his previous ideas, and "picks up where he left off". Of course, just because we can imagine it, doesn't mean necessarily that this is how it happened; but the evidence could support this imaginary scenario just as easily as it could support the "he composed it all in two days" imaginary scenario. They are BOTH speculations.

I suspect that, in this case, speculation is all we have: that we cannot prove, one way or another, whether a given composition score represents days, weeks or months of work. (Months, that is, of INTERRUPTED work, in which Bach was also pursuing alternative projects). The creative process doesn't always leave traces; the evidence that does survive is bound to be incomplete and inconclusive.

Doug Cowling wrote (January 17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< I suspect that, in this case, speculation is all we have: that we cannot prove, one way or another, whether a given composition score represents days, weeks or months of work. (Months, that is, of INTERRUPTED work, in which Bach was also pursuing alternative projects). The creative process doesn't always leave traces; the evidence that does survive is bound to be incomplete and inconclusive. >
Given that paper was an expensive commodity, is there any evidence that Bach used other media in composing? Waxed boards were used in the Renaissance. Slates and chalk?

In the absence of written documents, it would be fascinating to know how the schedules and repertoire lists were conveyed to assistants responsible for getting music out of Bach's library, distributing parts for rehearsal, setting up the requisite stands and chairs in the gallery, posting rehearsal schedules, negotiating with instrumentalists, etc.

In my imagination I see a large slate blackboard painted with tables which at least showed the coming Sunday's arrangements chalked in -- perhaps even a month or two ahead. That is pure fantasy on my part, but I remain intrigued about the administration of the liturgy at St. Thomas and how it impacted on Bach's creative process. There must have been a central reference list; otherwise Bach would have been deluged by questions every minute of every day. And add to that the time required to father so many children!

Uri Golomb wrote (January 17, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< I remain intrigued about the administration of the liturgy at St. Thomas and how it impacted on Bach's creative process. There must have been a central eference list; otherwise Bach would have been deluged by questions every minute of every day. And add to that the time required to father so many children! >
On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense. However, it is quite likely that such a reference list would not have been preserved once it served its purpose. Neither Bach nor his employers and assistants would have thought of the needs of musicologists, historians and biographers centuries later; if it didn't serve their own practical purposes to preserve a document, then they wouldn't have bothered to keep it. So again, the surviving evidence is bound to be incomplete!

Doug Cowling wrote (January 17, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< Neither Bach nor his employers and assistants would have thought of the needs of musicologists, historians and biographers centuries later; if it didn't serve their own practical purposes to preserve a document, then they wouldn't have bothered to keep it. So again, the surviving evidence is bound to be incomplete! >
And yet Bach must have kept some kind of musical journal or index so that he could quickly reference what music he had performed the year before or when the last time he had revised a cantata. The way in which he set up the Orgelbuchlein manuscript shows a mind totally atuned to the progress of the church year.

Again this is all fantasy on my part, but we miss an important pat of Bach's genius if we ignore his working methods in dealing with the business and administrative work of his music. I've never been able to figure out when he had a quiet moment to reflect and compose. Perhaps he was like Mozart and the music appeared fully-formed to him and he merely had to copy it out like dictation.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 17, 2005):
< I've never been able to figure out when he had a quiet moment to reflect and compose. Perhaps he was like Mozart and the music appeared fully-formed to him and he merely had to copy it out like dictation. >
Nope. See (for example) the several dozen case studies in that Robert Marshall book (The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style, the Significance) and Christoph Wolff's Bach: Essays on his Life and Music. Both of these show a creative man who revised and reworked, revised and re-reworked, seeking to improve his products even after they were already "finished" and in some cases already published.

Just today at lunch hour I stumbled upon something I didn't know I had: the chapter "BWV 131: Bach's First Cantata" by Gerhard Herz,in his book Essays on J S Bach (1985). Now, to find time to read it.....

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 17, 2005):
Bradley Lehman asked:
>>How long does/did it take to write out an entire full score of a Bach cantata with pen and ink, making a complete copy? (Remember, this is apart from the longer process of composing it in the first place.)<<
This longer process, when perceived by composers living today and attempting to use their personal experience as a measuring tool to apply to a genius such as Bach, may not have taken as long as one would judge from our present-day perspective. Again, as described by Dürr and Marshall, the sketching out of a few kernel ideas seemed to go hand in hand with composing directly onto the copy of the score which would eventually be used for the performance(s). Cross-outs on a page where things did not work out as planned and starting a new page were things that did happen from time to time. We see almost all of the compositional processes (other than the fact that he may have had a few ideas swimming around in his head for longer than a week) in such a 'composing' score in Bach's hand. Bach did not take the time to write out a 'clear/clean' entire full score, because there simply was not sufficient time for this. Hence the notion of "the longer process of composing it in the first place" does not exist in regard to Leipzig cantatas that were referred to in an earlier message.

Brad asked: >> For occasional pieces, i.e. those expected to have only a single performance on a known date, like these cantatas from 1723 to 1727: what reason would Bach ever have to make a second copy of the full score? In rehearsals and performance the full score would be used only by himself (or perhaps a deputy conductor in emergency), anyway. Why would he bother, if the original is at least clear enough to read for the purpose of performance? (i.e. The observation that there isn't a second copy isn't an argument one way or another that any of this was a rush job.)<<
These cantatas were composed and written out by Bach to be used over and over again whenever these particular liturgical Sundays occurred in future years. By having 5 yearly cycles (projected) on hand, Bach would be able to choose from the already existing compositions. It is known that Bach loaned his sacred choral compositions to other music directors (and had some bitter experiences regarding their loss or non-return of these materials.) This would be reason enough to copy out a more legible 'clean' copy so that other musicians/composers would be able to work easily from Bach's own score and gain a good impression of Bach's composition. Mattheson emphasized how important it was for the composer to supply a clean, neat score and how the appearance of the score reflected the quality of the music. I am certain that Bach was aware of this requirement, but since he had no other option available due to the pressure of time, he had to accept the fact that they were left in this hurriedly composed state.

Brad asked: >>How is the existence of only a single extant score an argument, one way or another, that the piece was written only a few days before performance and not some months in advance? (It's obviously not an argument for "months in advance", either, by itself; such an argument needs to be constructed from factors other than this one. I have done so, citing practical issues such as sufficient rehearsal/training time and the knowledge in advance of the liturgy and libretti to be used.)<<
Why would Bach have on his desk 'composing' scores from several cantatas at the same time? There is no way that the important process of copying out the parts could really begin until the score was finished. The process of dovetailing activities, as described by Dürr, seems to be the only feasible one, since there is no evidence available for an extended working period. As already described before, the ink was hardly dry when the copying out of parts from Bach's rough and only copy of the score began. The fact that Bach might copy out one of the parts from the original score probably means that he might have been copying from the same score at the same time as the copyist was copying a different part. Having more than one person read from the same page seems to have been more common in Bach's time than most supporters of the OVPP/OPPP theory seem to be able to comprehend. Rather than ask about information which is not available to us, it would be best to reasonably come up with a commonsense conjecture that fits the available evidence. This has been done by Alfred Dürr who has probably examined the original sources cantatas more carefully than any other Bach scholar alive today. It would be best to write him a letter describing your reasons why you feel that he has reached 'an arbitrary conclusion that does not follow soundly from the evidence as presented.'

Uri Golomb asked: >> How do we know, however, how much time passed between the setting down of these "Vorausskizze" and the rest of the compositional work? Or between work on one movement and work on another movement?<<
Of course Bach did not mark down the hour of the day or the date when each section of the cantata was completed, but the fact that the 'Vorausskizzen' usually point to an upcoming section just a few measures ahead of the place where they are notated, or point to the beginning theme of a subsequent mvt. seems to make more sense when there is not a great gap in time consisting of days or week apart. Bach is composing directly here 'when the iron is hot.' There are other great composers who could compose quickly in this fashion (Mozart and Schubert other than Rossini are further examples of this.)

Uri asked: >>And how much compositional work was done away from paper -- by trying things out on the keyboard, or in Bach's own head?<<
Just as Bach was renowned for being able to improvise on the spot, often being inspired by the work of other composers, so it would appear that he would have great facility in coming up with new ideas/'inventions' as needed on the spur of the moment. There is no evidence that Bach actually composed at the keyboard. Improvised, yes, but not seated at the keyboard while composing. At most he would check his keyboard pieces after he had composed them to see if they were playable. This, in itself, is an indication that he was not 'Knight of the Keyboard' who would spend a lot of time checking each short section on the keyboard right after or even as he was committing it to paper. That he may have carried certain kernel ideas around with him for a while seems reasonable to assume, but most likely he would work intensively for only a few days. It is reported that he could hear a certain fugal subject and almost immediately know all of the possibilities for exploiting such a subject properly. What may take composers a long time to accomplish in their heads or on paper, may have been accomplished much more quickly by a genius such as Bach, probably only a little more than the actual amount of time that it takes to write all the notes down on the page.

Uri commented: >>One could also speculate that Bach wrote these sketches immediately upon first seeing the libretto, as an "aide memoire" -- reminding himself the musical ideas he'd like to use; he then returned to them weeks later for the rest of the compositional work.<<
But remember that this sketches (kernel motivs) are preserved for us in the 'composing' scores. Why would he once again write down from another sketch book a 'Vorausskizze' in the middle of a mvt. that he had already completed? It would be a waste of precious time.

Uri commented: >>Or perhaps some were written in the midst of the composition process, while others preceded it by quite some time.<<
I am bothered by the notion of 'by quite some time' Since this implies that Bach composed in fits and starts. It makes more sense to think of an orderly mind that did not focus on too many things at the same time. Genius tends to perceive things in what are called 'flashes of genius.' These might onlbe understandable to a genius which, I would offer, we are not. However, we can learn from statements made by geniuses: one which I remember reading many years ago, (I do not have the reference) is a description by Mozart where he describes that the entire mvt. of one of his symphonies flashed before his mind's eye and his greatest effort was to compose the score directly on paper as he saw every detail in his mind. Goethe relates how there were entire poems that would come to him while on his long walks, but if he did not write such a poem down directly, parts of it would inevitably and irretrievably be lost. Likewise Bach may have composed in the heat of the moment with ideas coming at him faster than he could write them down. He realized this and tried to capture these inspirational moments as they occurred. This process works best when the mind is concentrated on a single enterprise such as a cantata rather than attempting to jump about willy-nilly from one week's cantata to another one that may be weeks in the future. If we listen to the statements made by geniuses, which are few and far between, then we should be able to come up with a reasonable speculation of a rather unified, concentrated effort on one cantata without putting it aside where some of the freshness of ideas will inevitably be lost and are then more difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve.

Doug Cowling stated: Perhaps he was like Mozart and the music appeared fully-formed to him and he merely had to copy it out like dictation.<<
I had already written the above when I see that you mention this also. Yes, this is true genius at work. The mistaken impression might be that Bach always worked in the manner described above, but it certainly holds true for most of his cantata output (excluding the reuse of earlier pre-Leipzig cantatas and parodies) which followed the week-after-week composition process.

Brad Lehman stated: >>See (for example) the several dozen case studies in that Robert Marshall book (The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style, the Significance) and Christoph Wolff's Bach: Essays on his Life and Music. Both of these show a creative man who revised and reworked, revised and re-reworked, seeking to improve his products even after they were already "finished" and in some cases already published.<<
Here we have left, once again, the primary focus of this discussion which has been repeatedly stated as concerning the alleged myth that Bach composed his early Leipzig cantatas (which amounts to the bulk of his cantata production) on a week-by-week basis. The dispute here is not concerning Bach's entire oeuvre.

 

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Last update: ýSeptember 29, 2008 ý09:51:39