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Bach Composing
Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Bach's 'hurried' method of composing cantatas

Continue of discussion from: Events in the Lutheran Church Year - Part 2 [General Topics]

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 16, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>One of the first steps in Bach's cantata composition would have been to look at the entire year and see where concerted music was required. I believe that too much has been made of Bach's "hurried" method of Monday to Saturday cantata composition. Bach clearly had the whole year in mind when approaching the daunting task of providing cantatas -- his printing of the cantata librettos is an important piece of evidence.<<
I do not see the printing of cantata texts a few months in advance as evidence proving that it was necessary for Bach to complete the composition of his cantatas weeks or months in advance. It is just as plausible, feasible and reasonable (based on evidence in the autograph score and original parts) to consider the printed booklets as a syllabus providing only the words sans music in the same way that many a professor at a college or university, in preparing a lecture series for first-time delivery, will conceivably have an outline established in advance but may wait until a time much closer to actual delivery to 'flesh out' all the details, which, in the case of Bach, would be the setting of the words to music. Bach was not only extremely competent and resourceful but confident that his compositional abilities would allow him to fulfill his requirements with very little time to spare between finishing the score, copying out the parts and rehearsing the composition in time for the designated Sunday performance.

Contrary to the objection that the printed text booklets mandated that the composition be completed weeks or months in advance, there is much evidence that speaks for Bach's regularly waiting until the week or so before the actual performance before commencing with the process of getting musical ideas and setting all the notes down on paper. With the exception of the 'silent' periods in church when Bach could devote more time to composing Passions, Oratorios, or Feast-Day Cantatas, he would jot down a musical idea to use in the cantata for the following week while still finishing the composing of this week's cantata. Calling upon Anna Magdalena Bach, otherwise fully occupied with household chores and bringing up many children, to copy some violin doublets while the main copyist or copyists were still finishing the copying out from the score all the other parts with Bach occasionally copying out a single part
here or there -- all of this appears to supply evidence that the process of composing and assembling the autograph score and the copying out of parts occurred in very quick succession, often with the composition of the final chorale left for Bach to complete very late at night before the next day's rehearsal after the copyists and Anna Magdalena had already gone to bed. There are quite a few final chorales from the cantatas which were composed and copied out by Bach personally, at the last minute, without the help of the usual copyist(s). Copying out a chorale part would have been the easiest task for a good copyist, so why did Bach have to do it himself so quickly at the last moment? Certainly, he could have prepared a simple 4-pt harmonization of a chorale, already prescribed by the printed booklets weeks in advance, but he did not follow this procedure. Some final chorales have been lost or do not even have the slightest indication as to which text is to be sung (the least important element necessary for the singers in Bach's mind would be the text since it was already supplied months in advance in the printed booklets or perhaps it was a familiar chorale text which could easily be sung from memory -- often Bach supplied only the incipit in only one of the parts).

The first rehearsal (and most likely the only one) took place at a prayer service on Saturday afternoon before the Sunday performance. A 'dress rehearsal' of sorts took place very early (c. 7:00 am service) Sunday morning at the 'other' church (the 'other' church is the one where the main performance of the cantata for a given Sunday did not take place). The same choir and instrumentalists would then later sing the 'main' performance at the main service in the other church as indicated in the printed booklet. It is all too often forgotten that both singers and instrumentalists were able to sing and play excellently from sight - sight-reading being an absolute prerequisite for their participation in the 1st choir and orchestra. During the years when his yearly cantata cycles in Leipzig were being composed, Bach must have been quite confident with the performance capabilities of his musicians. This allowed him the freedom to wait until the last moment before committing his musical ideas to paper and preparing the parts necessary for the imminent performance that was predestined to occur weeks, even months earlier.

I can even envision Bach composing and copying out the parts for the final chorale after Saturday's rehearsal and before the early Sunday morning 'dress rehearsal', this despite the fact that it was already known for weeks or even months earlier which verse precisely from which specific chorale text would be presented at the end of the cantata.

Douglas Cowling wrote (January 16, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< I do not see the printing of cantata texts a few months in advance as evidence proving that it was necessary for Bach to complete the composition of his cantatas weeks or months in advance. >
I'm not disputing the fact that Bach composed the actual music while under the gun. What I'm asking here is for a broader concept of Bach's "compostiional process." His meticulous revsions and refining of libretti indicates that he was engaged on the process for a long time before he actually set pen to paper. Although it is not demonstrable, I would suggest that the intimate union of text and music in his works suggests that Bach's music grew out of an extended reflection on the text. The contrast with Handel's indifferent and slapdash approach to libretti is arresting.

I would propose that Bach's "compostional process" began with a survey of the entire church year and, in practical terms, which Sundays and feast days required cantatas. For instance, the 26th or 27th Sunday after Trinity only occurs roughly once a decade when Easter is very early on March 25 or 26. Therefore, "Wachet, Betet" (BWV 70) and "Wachet Auf" (BWV 140) were written in the knowledge that they would probably receive, at most, two performances over 20 years!

More significantly, the Parts of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) are geared to a very specific calendar sequence. There is no Part for the Sunday after Christmas because the Third Day after Christmas replaced the Sunday observance. Bach however, adds a part for the Sunday after Circumcision (Jan 1) because in that year a Sunday fell before Epiphany on Jan 6.

I haven't checked the calendrical possibilities, but it would seem that the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) was performed in this sequence:

Part 1: Friday, Dec 25 - First Day of Christmas
Part 2: Saturday, Dec 26 - Second Day of Christmas
Part 3: Sunday, Dec 27 - Third Day of Christmas (replaces Sunday after Xmas)
Part 4: Friday, Jan 1 - Feast of Circumcision/New Year's
Part 5: Sunday, Jan 3 - Sunday after the Circumcision
Part 6: Wednesday, Jan 6 - Epiphany

It is inconceivable that Bach would begun a project as massive as the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) without a long-range overview of the church year. I've often read commentaries which talk about "missing" cantatas, but a close look at the church year reveals that each annual cycle was different. Bach, the consummate church musician, was raised to know the intricacies of the calendar as a firstep in any compositional project. Lists of the liturgical observances during Bach's professional life would tell us much of his approach to the composition of sacred music.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 17, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>I'm not disputing the fact that Bach composed the actual music while under the gun. What I'm asking here is for a broader concept of Bach's "compositional process." His meticulous revisions and refining of libretti indicates that he was engaged on the process for a long time before he actually set pen to paper. Although it is not demonstrable, I would suggest that the intimate union of text and music in his works suggests that Bach's music grew out of an extended reflection on the text. The contrast with Handel's indifferent and slapdash approach to libretti is arresting.<<
The numerous revisions and the refining of libretti were due to the changing conditions which Bach had to contend with: different vocalists and instrumentalists with different capabilities (better or worse) than those he had available to him when the cantata was first composed. This brings up another reason why Bach would choose to 'wait until the last minute' before actually composing a cantata: how could he rely upon the fact that a certain solo vocalist or instrumentalist would be available for a given performance weeks or months in advance (illness, death in the family, etc.)? Bach's chances for 'pulling off a good performance' in which he 'show-cased' the extraordinary abilities of a musician were enhanced by waiting until the week before the performance, perhaps even inviting the vocalist or instrumentalist to sing or play something for him which would demonstrate what the voice or instrument under the control of a given individual was truly capable of. This would inspire Bach to include or emphasize certain notes or phrases which he might otherwise not have included if he were thinking more generically, abstractly months in advance of a performance. Bach, through experience, had probably come to the conclusion that composing just prior to a given performance would avoid the necessity of having to perform further revisions for a first performance of a cantata. All of Bach's revisions were not necessarily an attempt to improve a composition, but rather represent an effort to salvage some great music at the expense of some greater moments of musical performance which were possible earlier only because he had some superior vocalist or instrumentalist available to him at the time of the works conception and inception.

>>I would propose that Bach's "compositional process" began with a survey of the entire church year and, in practical terms, which Sundays and feast days required cantatas. For instance, the 26th or 27th Sunday after Trinity only occurs roughly once a decade when Easter is very early on March 25 or 26. Therefore, "Wachet, Betet" (BWV 70) and "Wachet Auf" (BWV 140) were written in the knowledge that they would probably receive, at most, two performances over 20 years!<<
There is no evidence to suggest that Bach planned "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140) in advance of its first performance in 1731. This 27th Sunday after Trinity occurred only twice during Bach's tenure in Leipzig: in 1731 and 1742. For many years it was believed that this cantata originated in 1742 (Spitta hailed this as a very mature work by the great master), but more recent research has made clear that it was first performed in 1731 and was probably composed shortly in advanced of this performance. Bach was simply filling in a gap in his yearly cycles of cantatas. It does not seem that this was a momentous occasion which loomed before him years before it actually occurred.

>>More significantly, the Parts of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) are geared to a very specific calendar sequence. There is no Part for the Sunday after Christmas because the Third Day after Christmas replaced the Sunday observance. Bach however, adds a part for the Sunday after Circumcision (Jan 1) because in that year a Sunday fell before Epiphany on Jan 6.<<
This would seem to provide evidence that Bach assembled and composed the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) for a specific season (1734-1735). Parts 3 and 5 were performed only in St. Nicholas Church. The Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) does not seem to have been performed as a unified whole in one church throughout one Christmas season. There is no evidence that it was ever performed under Bach's direction after that although it is generally assumed that parts of it were. The sequence of holidays/feast days (1734-35) was repeated in 1739/40, 1744/45 and 1745/46. There is something unusual about Part IV that makes it possible for this part to be performed by itself without any relation to the rest of the oratorio. In this single instance (Part IV), there is a continuo part for harpsichord (with figured bass in Bach's hand) which was added for a later performance (to play simultaneously with the organ or replace it).

>>It is inconceivable that Bach would begun a project as massive as the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) without a long-range overview of the church year. I've often read commentaries which talk about "missing" cantatas, but a close look at the church year reveals that each annual cycle was different. Bach, the consummate church musician, was raised to know the intricacies of the calendar as a first step in any compositional project. Lists of the liturgical observances during Bach's professional life would tell us much of his approach to the composition of sacred music.<<
It does not appear that there was such a 'long-range overview of the church year' for planning purposes despite that fact that the sequence and dates of Sundays and Feast Days were established for everyone to read and know. (This is similar to having the printed texts of the cantatas prepared by Bach months in advance - there is no obligation that would force him to begin composing well in advance of any predetermined date. The composition of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) could easily have taken place during the 'quiet/silent' period in Advent, 1734. This is quite possible for a composer such as Bach with the experience which he had acquired in composing 5 yearly cycles of cantatas. Almost all of the choruses and arias from cantatas BWV 213 and BWV 214 were parodied/recycled by Bach and are found in Parts I-IV, and mvt. 7 of BWV 215 was parodied as mvt. 47 of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). There are even a few other, conjectural possibilities for a parody such as "Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen" BWV 248/43 from a lost congratulatory cantata of the Cöthen period. What is likely, however, is that Bach, when composing the two secular cantatas mentioned above, already had in mind the possibility of reusing the material in a sacred format such as the cantatas of the WO (BWV 248).

 

Composing and performing a Cantata every week

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 26 - Discussions Part 2

Anne Nessie Russell wrote (November 6, 2006):
Just because J.S. Bach composed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year and just because his choir and instrumentalists performed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year does not necessarily mean that he took less than a week to write it. Is there evidence to prove that he did not work in advance?

I know this is contemporary and not Bach's time, but choir leaders prepare anthems and such months in advance these days. People work on several works every week at choir practise. Is there evidence that Bach did not do this?

Douglas Cowling wrote (Novem7, 2006):
Nessie Russell wrote:
< I know this is contemporary and not Bach's time, but choir leaders prepare anthems and such months in advance these days. People work on several works every week at choir practise. Is there evidence that Bach did not do this? >
Thank you, Nessie, for making an appeal to common sense and parallel experience. This is not documentary evidence and therefore does not have the same force as written documents, but it does help us conjecture about Bach's working environment.

Julian Mincham wrote (November 7, 2006):
Nessie Russell wrote:
< Just because J.S. Bach composed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year and just because his choir and instrumentalists performed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year does not necessarily mean that he took less than a week to write it. Is there evidence to prove that he did not work in advance? >
Fair enough--but as to the composition I don't see how he could have done much in advance of the texts. Furthermore, think of the logistics. In the first two years at Leipzig there were over a hundred cantatas to be rehearsed and performed almost from the day Bach took up his post. How does the concept of 'working in advance' help us to understand how he did this? Only in that several of the cantatas from the first cycle (but a decided minority) were based upon earlier cantatas. But this seems not to have been the case in the second cycle. A work had to be prepared for every Sunday and that means one a week (pretty much). Maybe he prepared 40 of them 'in advance' in the first two weeks (I'm joking) and then sat back for a while.

But you see how, in the relentless context of continual pressure of these first two years the idea of 'working in advance' doesn't (to me) seem to throw much light on how the miracle was performed.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 7, 2006):
Anne Nessie Russell wrote:
>>Just because J.S. Bach composed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year and just because his choir and instrumentalists performed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year does not necessarily mean that he took less than a week to write it. Is there evidence to prove that he did not work in advance?<<
The only evidence that has been suggested is that Bach was required to submit texts to a printer (and pay the printing costs from his own pocket) 6, 7, or 8 weeks in advance. It is one thing to have completed the choice of texts feasible for setting to music, but it is yet another to make the assumption (a giant leap of faith!) that Bach would begin composing and completing cantatas and have the parts copied out from the score weeks in advance of the actual performance. This type of procedure would hamper his ability to experiment with new musical structures and methods and make other necessary adjustments concerning orchestration on a week to week basis. Experimentation of the sort that Bach engaged in would require him to obtain the effects of a nearly perfect performance weeks in advance of actually performing it so that he might determine from week to week what works well and what does not. It makes much better sense to assume that he waited for the final/actual performance in church (not in some decrepit school room for teaching music) in order to obtain a better sense of what was good, what could be improved and what was better left out entirely in the future. Again, the comparison with present-day methods is fraught with difficulties that arise from not taking fully into account what we do know about the circumstances in Leipzig during Bach's tenure there.

It seems more reasonable to consider the cantata booklets as syllabi which provide an outline of the course that one will take. One knows in advance what will come up when, it stays in the back of one's mind, but the main attention remains directed toward the present work which demands direct and full attention until it is finished.

>>I know this is contemporary and not Bach's time, but choir leaders prepare anthems and such months in advance these days. People work on several works every week at choir practise. Is there evidence that Bach did not do this?<<
There is at least some evidence that he did work on a tight schedule with little advance preparation (only the Saturday rehearsal before the Sunday performance(s), and this is more important than relying upon a present-day situation as an ill-chosen source of information in this regard (with all the music already composed and printed and ready for study well in advance) which bears little or no resemblance to the situation in which Bach found himself.

Here is an example to demonstrate the frenetic pace that church composers faced during Bach's time, a pace that simply would not allow for ample time to begin composing well in advance as well as rehearsing over a period of weeks prior to the actual performance:

[From the MGG1 [Bärenreiter, 1986] article on Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) by Adam Adrio:

>>Im Sommer 1722 vermittelte der Gothaer Hofkapellmeister Stölzel seine Berufung zum Kapellmeister des Hofes in Zerbst. Sein dortiges Amt trat Fasch zu Michaelis 1722 an. Zwei Monate nach seinem Dienstantritt forderte der Leipziger regierende Bürgermeister, Hofrat Lange, Fasch zur Bewerbung um das Thomaskantorat auf. Sie scheiterte vermutlich an der Weigerung Faschs, wissenschaftlichen Unterricht zu erteilen. Das neue Amt nahm die Kraft des Komponisten und Kapellmeister Fasch sofort in hohem Maße in Anspruch, mußte er doch »gleich in dem ersten Kirchenjahre von 1722 bis 23 einen doppelten Jahrgang (Kantaten) ... componiren ... hierzu kam noch eine starke Passion und 3 Serenaten zu den hohen Geburtstagen«.<<

["In the summer of 1722, Stölzel, the Court Capellmeister at Gotha procured his (Fasch's) appointment to the position of Capellmeister at the court in Zerbst. He officially took up this position on Michaelmas Day of 1722. Two months later, after having assumed this position, the presently governing mayor of Leipzig, Privy Councilor Lange, requested that Fasch apply for the position of Thomaskantor. The preliminary negotiations most likely failed because Fasch refused to teach Science. His new position as Court Composer and Capellmeister in Zerbst took up a great amount of his time as he was required "immediately during his first church year (1722-1723) to compose a two-fold cantata cycle {two cantatas for each Sunday and holiday}.in addition there was a lengthy {"strong"} Passion and 3 Serenatas for the birthdays of royalty."]

Information of this type is much more useful than present-day analogies in obtaining a clearer picture of the conditions that Bach may also have experienced in Leipzig.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 7, 2006):
Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725) composed over 2000 cantatas for the church services in Weißenfels between 1685 and 1725.

Georg Philipp Telemann served as Court Capellmeister (1706-1712). In the legal agreement signed when he accepted the position (March 11, 1707), the demand was spelled out clearly that in addition to supplying ordinary 'table'music ("Tafelmusik") he would have to compose a new yearly cycle of cantatas every other year based on the texts that would be given to him.

Eric Bergerud wrote (November 7, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] This is all well and good and sure would have fit the 19th century schedule for Bach's output. However, unless the 20th century musicologists have slippa bit concerning the flurry of output, one is indeed looking at an average of one cantata per week for over two years. If they were prepared in advance, where and when?

Alain Bruguières wrote (November 7, 2006):
[To Julian Mincham] I concur with Julian. Working in advance supposes that one has sufficient spare time and one uses it for work rather than drinking wine, pipe-smoking, making babies and enjoying life generally. Besides, if Bach worked on two, three or more cantatas simultaneously, that must have been very taxing: shifting constantly from one task to another consumes more energy than exerting one's faculties on one task for a substantial length of time. Moreover, undoubtedly Bach had many collaborators, but I have no doubt that he did all the composing himself, and besides, the coordination of all those collaborators must have required a tremendous work and a exceptional sense of organization. Yet each week we have an entirely original work which shows at the same time a level of artistic quality never surpassed (and a very high level of complexity, too), a level of understanding of the implications of the text which must have required a time of quiet reflexion-not to say meditation, and an immense ingeniousness in the manner of devising the music so as to convey this understanding. To me this achievement is completely crazy, and if in addition I were to believe that he could work on several cantatas at a time, I would find it crazier still.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 7, 2006):
I have just located a more complete quotation by Fasch:

»Hier hatte ich gleich in dem ersten Kirchenjahre von 1722 bis 23 einen doppelten Jahrgang auf den Vor- und Nachmittag des Gottesdienstes zu componiren, daher bey jedem kleinen Festtage, der mir einfiele, ich selbige Woche 4 Kirchenstücke componirte; hierzu kam noch eine starke Passion und 3 Serenaten zu den hohen Geburtstagen«

>>I immediately had to compose during my first "Church year" {we know from Bach that his "Church year" began with Trinity and not with Advent as in the liturgical year; I assume here that Fasch's began with Michaelmas) 1722-1723 a 'double' cycle of church cantatas, one for the morning service and a different one for the afternoon service, and for this reason I composed 4 cantatas a week including those needed for every little Feast day that I could remember; in addition there was a well-orchestrated(?) ["stark' = 'strong'] Passion and 3 Serenatas for royal birthdays.<<

Eric Bergerud wrote (November 7, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725) composed over 2000 cantatas for the church services in Weißenfels between 685 and 1725.
Georg Philipp Telemann served as Court Capellmeister (1706-1712). In the legal agreement signed when he accepted the position (March 11, 1707), the demand was spelled out clearly that in addition to supplying ordinary 'table'music ("Tafelmusik") he would have to compose a new yearly cycle of cantatas every other based on the texts that would be given to him. >
I'm not at all sure what this proves. I don't think when one is really deep into a cantata that one often thinks, "Ah, Bach, prolific gent wasn't he?" I don't know enough about Krieger to even guess how many of his works we have. I am a serious Telemann fan and rank him as fully the equal of Vivaldi. I have several of his religious works and they are good. But, as I recall from the notes, the majority sunk into obscurity long ago and are gone. As much as I like Telemann's instrumental works, they don't have the inventiveness of Bach's. If he really did compose 2000 cantatas I'd bet everything I own that they included many that were lightly reworked and probably more that would be worth only a single listening. (Handel was prolific too in his own way: how many of his operas would rank with a Bach passion?)

As Ed points out, it doesn't really matter how things were done at Leipzig, what counts is that they were done. And what amazes is not the speed or quantity but the overall quality. Would anyone like to start a thread of "ten worst Bach cantatas? or JSB's dog days?" I've actually tried a couple of times. I looked over my collection and took some CDs that rang no bell in my head and promised nothing special in the liner notes. Every single one of them was good. Of course I like some cantatas better than others, but I honestly don't think one can say Bach composed a dud. (Maybe there's some kind of Darwinian dynamic at work and the duds were all lost. Personally, I'd sure like somebody to find them in an attic in Iowa and let us all judge for ourselves.)

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 7, 2006):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< Besides, if Bach worked on two, three or more cantatas simultaneously, that must have been very taxing: shifting constantly from one task to another consumes more energy than exerting one's faculties on one task for a substantial length of time. >
All great composers work on various compositions simultaneously: I can't understand why we have to postulate this Rosssini-like midnight haste. During the long periods of time which Mozart needed to write his operas, he was also writing other works large and small. Common sense (I know, that's not a documentary source!) tells us that Bach must have needed a large period of time to write an immense work like the SMP (BWV 244). It must have been a work in progress while he was also writing cantatas, orchestral works and organ pieces. It's a Romantic notion that composers have to lock themselves away from the world and write in some inspired Byronic reverie.

Composition was a craft for Bach and his powers of organization and self-discipline must have been prodigious. I will always believe that Bach approached music in a systematic way with a long range plan. I would postulate that Bach's "planning" times, when he looked at the church year and assembled libretti and worked on large scale works ,were during the two "closed" times when there was no concerted music: the four weeks of Advent before Christmas and the five weeks of Lent before Easter. I suspect he even used the December time to plan for the following Good Friday and Easter and the March-April Lenten time to plan for the following Christmas.

A third time which might have served for planning were the weeks of the summer Sundays after Trinity when there were few major festivals and relative inactivity (if a weekly cantata could ever be considered inactivity!) I might guess that this was the time that did his serious reading, consultation with poets, and commissioning of cantata texts.

I believe that Bach's naturally comprehensive personality (all those compendia and collections of works!) meant that he knew what the entire year and perhaps beyond looked like: a work like the SMP (BWV 244) must have been the product of years of reflection and planning. At any given moment, Bach's desk must have had several works in progress. Did he have a grand 5-year plan for his cantatas? He certainly stopped writing them when he finished what he needed.

That Bach was able to write incredibly quickly is never in doubt. But his genius is not dependent on that capacity to write to deadline: there were dozens of other chuch composers who had the same schedule. And he was always able to rise to the challenge of important occasions.

Now ... Before this supposition is eviscerated with acid comments and dismissed out of hand as a fantasy, may I say that we will never be able to reconstruct Bach's working method. There just aren't enough documents. However, all the above suggestions are factors which we can see in the careers of other composers, especially those who were in church positions in the 17th and 18th centuries. I don't believe that my vision of Bach the ComprehensivePlanner does damage to him, If anything, I am constantly amazed at his ability to live a contrapuntal life.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 7, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Fair enough--but as to the composition I don't see how he could have done much in advance of the texts. >
Ah, but that is the point which started the thread: the existence of the printed libretto booklets is a rare bit of actual evidence, which demonstrates that the texts were available for a minimum of a few weeks in advance of performance.

J.M.
>>But you see how, in the relentless context of continual pressure of these first two years the idea of 'working in advance' doesn't (to me) seem to throw much light on how the miracle was performed.
Not so much the idea of 'working in advance', as the opportunity to work on several ideas simultaneously (as evidenced by notes in the margin, cited by Thomas Braatz). This may seem like a trivial difference. It is not. My personal experience does not relate to music, and so is OT here. But if they ask me, I can write a book!

Thanks for the new thread title.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 7, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Common sense (I know, that's not a documentary source!) tells us that Bach must have needed a large period of time to write an immense work like the SMP (BWV 244). It must have been a work in progress while he was also writing cantatas >
Sorry to snip off so much surrounding material, but I think this is an essential point which we have neglected to introduce so far on this thread. It is worth emphasis.

Common sense? Not so common, alas.

Raymond Joly wrote (November 7, 2006):
What is "strong" music? -- Composing and performing a Cantata every week

Thomas Braatz, quoting Fasch, came across a rather strange wording: "eine starke Passion", which he tentatively translated as "a well-orchestrated(?) Passion".

A very likely conjecture. Here are a series of occurrences of the adjective in Mattheson's GRUNDLAGE EINER EHRENPFORTE, 1740 (quoted after the 1910 edition): 192, 196, 200, 202, 203 twice, 204, 205, 211. It always has to do with something being big, but it is not always clear what exactly is big. The various contexts suggest various interpretations: either the work sports a large number of parts (Braatz's orchestration) or it was played by a large body of musicians; sometimes the work seems to be "strong" on account of its duration or its striving towards greatness or solemnity. (P. 210 and Anhang, 28, a "starker" singer or violinist is just a very good one.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 7, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>All great composers work on various compositions simultaneously<<
Where is the solid evidence of this with Bach? Sketching out a few notes of next week's cantata in the margin of this week's cantata does not really qualify in my book for 'working on various compositions simultaneously.' An idea in a sketch book is simply a 'kernel' which may or may not be picked up for developing fully later on. Now if you say that Bach in the middle of composing an aria for a cantata 4 weeks into the future, put it aside for a few hours or a day or two to return to an otherwise still unfinished chorale fantasia planned for 6 weeks into the future, then I have to say "Prove this with some solid evidence from the autograph scores!"

>> Common sense (I know, that's not a documentary source!) tells us that Bach must have needed a large period of time to write an immense work like the SMP (BWV 244). It must have been a work in progress while he was also writing cantatas, orchestral works and organ pieces.<<
Common sense could just as easily lead to the conclusion that the Passions were composed during the quiet period Lent. Common sense would also see Bach, after finishing the Passion working ahead slightly to
include the festive 1st Day, 2nd Day and 3rd Day of Easter cantatas which come without much breathing space in quick succession after Easter Sunday.

>>I will always believe that Bach approached music in a systematic way with a long range plan.<<
This is quite self-evident from an examination of works which are conceived of as a cycle: a half dozen of these and two dozen of those, a yearly cycle of chorale cantatas, etc. Bach might even plan in advance the tonalities and the general forms that he might intend to use, but beyond this his inspiration and work would lead him to concentrate on one immediately pressing thing/composition/mvt. at a time as much as this was possible. Once Bach had an idea in mind, he could immediately perceive all the musical possibilities and limits (as related by one of his sons who sat next to him when he heard the opening fugal subject played by an organist whom he had never heard before). With this type of composing mind, it becomes only a matter of getting the ideas down on paper as quickly as you can. To stop in the middle of this process and turn one's attention on a completely different type of mvt. planned for an unrelated composition weeks apart, jot down a few more measures, then return to the first composition really does nothing more than cause distraction and a lack of concentration while destroying/losing the initial inspiratory feeling which had guided Bach's pen before the interruption occurred.

>>I suspect he even used the December time to plan for the following Good Friday and Easter and the March-April Lenten time to plan for the following Christmas.<<
I rather suspect that Bach, with an eye toward that which is most practical, would use Advent for composing a Magnificat, some cantatas for Christmas and New Year and perhaps even Epiphany, all of which occur in short succession. His work schedule during Advent would not allow for rehearsals of Christmas music until directly before the performances; this besides the fact that it is known that Bach was very concerned about his best boy singers overusing their voices and becoming hoarse due to the numerous activities of the Kurrende (a type of carol singing) which was in direct conflict with Bach's goal to provide the best music possible for the season. There was really no time to be concerned here with composing a Passion. He could never be certain which soloists (each with unique capabilities) would be available to him months into the future.

>>a work like the SMP (BWV 244) must have been the product of years of reflection and planning.<<
And then again perhaps not. During Lent preceding the 1st performance of the SMP (BWV 244), Bach could have relied heavily on previous compositions (mvts. such as arias, turbae, etc. of which we no longer have a record). Passion-Pasticcios were common during Bach's time: a composer would patch together various mvts. from various composers and include some works of his own. With Bach it is easy to imagine that he had quite a number of his own compositions ready to insert into a new Passion. The Evangelist part with ariosos and the Turbae along with a few arias were most likely completed during Lent preceding the first performance on Good Friday. All of this is quite reasonable given the known circumstances (the methods used to create Passion-Pasticcios) with which Bach would have been well acquainted.

>> Did he have a grand 5-year plan for his cantatas? He certainly stopped writing them when he finished what he needed.<<
Very likely Bach did have such a grand 5-year plan, but it may only have been a practical idea which he considered because he had observed other church composers doing this with the goal in mind to build of a reservie of cantatas and recycle them as necessary.

>> But his genius is not dependent on that capacity to write to deadline: there were dozens of other church composers who had the same schedule<<
Or perhaps an even more onerous one (Fasch, for instance), but then Fasch is about as close to Bach as we can get (unfortunately the great bulk of Kuhnau's work in this direction has been lost). It is quite clear that Fasch began composing 4 cantatas a week as soon as he assumed his position, along with an extensive Passion and some birthday cantatas for extra measure. Fasch, like Bach, being thrown directly into the maelstrom of musical activities, had to begin composing immediately without any let up in this manner, never really catching up (during a quiet period - his church may not have had any at all) and never having the luxury of composing cantatas even two or three weeks in advance. Think about it!. This was not easy, but it was expected of a composers like Graupner, Fasch, Heinichen, Bach and others. The quality of Fasch's music is quite high. I have heard only a few instrumental pieces by Fasch. They sounded like the best Telemann or Zelenka could compose and come close to approaching some of Bach's compositions. Are there any Fasch cantatas recorded and performed reasonably well?

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 7, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
>>... "eine starke Passion", ...It always has to do with something being big, but it is not always clear what exactly is big. The various contexts suggest various interpretations: either the work sports a large number of parts (Braatz's orchestration) or it was played by a large body of musicians; sometimes the work seems to be "strong" on account of its duration or its striving towards greatness or solemnity....<<
Thanks for following up on this one. I had the sense that "stark" also implied the onerous task of composing a really good, lengthy Passion with interesting arias using a variety of different instruments, possibly even a double chorus. The contrast here is that many Passions before this time were really fairly simple and hence quite short in comparison.

I have just found out that the Fasch Passion is the "Passio Jesu Christi" with the Brockes text, the same one that Händel and others used. Fasch shortened the text slightly but added a number of chorales of his own choosing.

For 5 of the yearly cantata cycles Fasch composed, he wrote the texts himself. He composed at least 8 yearly cycles of cantatas, perhaps even as many as 5 additional ones. Of the 8 yearly cycles, a number of them are double cycles! He also composed 4 operas (all of them lost).

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 7, 2006):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< Besides, if Bach worked on two, three or more cantatas simultaneously, that must have been very taxing: shifting constantly from one task to another consumes more energy than exerting one's faculties on one task for a substantial length of time. >
All great composers work on various compositions simultaneously: I can't understand why we have to postulate this Rosssini-like midnight haste. During the long periods of time which Mozart needed to write his operas, he was also writing other works large and small. Common sense (I know, that's not a documentary source!) tells us that Bach must have needed a large period of time to write an immense work like the SMP (BWV 244). It must have been a work in progress while he was also writing cantatas, orchestral works and organ pieces. It's a Romantic notion that composers have to lock themselves away from the world and write in some inspired Byronic reverie.

Composition was a craft for Bach and his powers of organization and self-discipline must have been prodigious. I will always believe that Bach approached music in a systematic way with a long range plan. I would postulate that Bach's "planning" times, when he looked at the church year and assembled libretti and worked on large scale works ,were during the two "closed" times when there was no concerted music: the four weeks of Advent before Christmas and the five weeks of Lent before Easter. I suspect he even used the December time to plan for the following Good Friday and Easter and the March-April Lenten time to plan for the following Christmas.

A third time which might have served for planning were the weeks of the summer Sundays after Trinity when there were few major festivals and relative inactivity (if a weekly cantata could ever be considered inactivity!) I might guess that this was the time that did his serious reading, consultation with poets, and commissioning of cantata texts.

I believe that Bach's naturally comprehensive personality (all those compendia and collections of works!) meant that he knew what the entire year and perhaps beyond looked like: a work like the SMP (BWV 244) must have been the product of years of reflection and planning. At any given moment, Bach's desk must have had several works in progress. Did he have a grand 5-year plan for his cantatas? He certainly stopped writing them when he finished what he needed.

That Bach was able to write incredibly quickly is never in doubt. But his genius is not dependent on that capacity to write to deadline: there were dozens of other chuch composers who had the same schedule. And he was always able to rise to the challenge of important occasions.

Now ... Before this supposition is eviscerated with acid comments and dismissed out of hand as a fantasy, may I say that we will never be able to reconstruct Bach's working method. There just aren't enough documents. However, all the above suggestions are factors which we can see in the careers of other composers, especially those who were in church positions in the 17th and 18th centuries. I don't believe that my vision of Bach the Comprehensive Planner does damage to him, If anything, I am constantly amazed at his ability to live a contrapuntal life.

Alain Bruguières wrote (November 8, 2006):
I'd like to answer somewhat belatedly to Doug's answer.

Alain Bruguières wrote:
<< Besides, if Bach worked on two, three or more cantatas simultaneously, that must have been very taxing: shifting constantly from one task to another consumes more energy than exerting one's faculties on one task for a substantial length of time. >>
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< All great composers work on various compositions simultaneously >
I don't know. Perhaps we have positive information that some did; apparently we have no information concerning Bach in this respect. However it is my experience (not as a great composer, just as a scientist) that, when I am under low pressure, I enjoy having various mathematical tasks going. I work on one task for perhaps a week or two, then if I get stuck I give consideration to another task, and so on. However when I am under considerable pressure with various administrative and organizational tasks, I tend to concentrate on one particular mathematical task whenever I manage to get some 'free' time to devote to research, because it takes time to set aside other considerations and concentrate on the maths, and shifting from one maths subject to another also takes time.

That is my personal experience, I know that it is that of many fellow mathematicians and I think it is a general fact about people who perform very heterogeneous tasks under pressure. I may be wrong on that, though, but let me assume I'm right.

I find it unlikely that Bach, during the months when he had to produce one cantata a week, having to shift constantly between all sorts of activities including musical composition, would have found it convenient, during the periods when he did compose, to shift constantly from one composition to another. I would find it more plausible that, when he managed to get an hour or two in a stretch, he worked on one sinpiece of work.

Now of course Bach was not an ordinary person...

< I can't understand why we have to postulate this Rosssini-like midnight haste. I never postulated such a thing.
During the long periods of time which Mozart needed to write his operas, he was also writing other works large and small. Mozart was probably not under the same kind of pressure. Common sense (I know, that's not a documentary source!) tells us that Bach must have needed a large period of time to write an immense work like the SMP. It must have been a work in progress while he was also writing cantatas, orchestral works and organ pieces. >
I more or less agree. We cannot say that Bach spent more time on the SMP than on any cantata, in proportion to the work's duration. My feeling is that Bach gave as much of himself in the cantatas as on the SMP. Perhaps the SMP cost him the same effort as a cycle of 6 cantatas or so... we simply don't know.

< It's a Romantic notion that composers have to lock themselves away from the world and write in some inspired Byronic reverie. >
True, I never indulged in this notion, especially concerning Bach.

< Composition was a craft for Bach and his powers of organization and self-discipline must have been prodigious. I will always believe that Bach approached music in a systematic way with a long range plan. >
I think so too.

< I would postulate that Bach's "planning" times, when he looked at the church year and assembled libretti and worked on large scale works ,were during the two "closed" times when there was no concerted music: the four weeks of Advent before Christmas and the five weeks of Lent before Easter. I suspect he even used the December time to plan for the following Good Friday and Easter and the March-April Lenten time to plan for the following Christmas A third time which might have served for planning were the weeks o the summer Sundays after Trinity when there were few major festivals and relative inactivity (if a weekly cantata could ever be considered inactivity!) I might guess that this was the time that did his serious reading, consultation with poets, and commissioning of cantata texts. >
I'm not so sure. Perhaps he used those periods of time to compose the longer works, precisely.

< I believe that Bach's naturally comprehensive personality (all those compendia and collections of works!) meant that he knew what the entire year and perhaps beyond looked like: a work like the SMP must have been the product of years of reflection and planning. At any given moment, Bach's desk must have had several works in progress. Did he have a grand 5-year plan for his cantatas? He certainly stopped writing them when he finished what he needed.
That Bach was able to write incredibly quickly is never in doubt. But his genius is not dependent on that capacity to write to deadline: there were dozens of other chuch composers who had the same schedule. And he was always able to rise to the challenge of important occasions.
Now ... Before this supposition is eviscerated with acid comments and dismissed out of hand as a fantasy, may I say that we will never be able to reconstruct Bach's working method. There just aren't enough documents. However, all the above suggestions are factors which we can see in the careers of other composers, especially those who were in church positions in the 17th and 18th centuries. I don't believe that my vision of Bach the Comprehensive Planner does damage to him, If anything, I am constantly amazed at his ability to live a contrapuntal life. >
Obviously Bach had to be a Comprehensive Planner, nobody ever denied this here. The point is you cannot plan everything in life, and it is not clear whether he had the possibility of planning in advance as you suggest. He may also have been compelled to do his planning on a short term (at least during the years when he produced the cantata cycles).

I'd be curious to know whether someone ever reconstructed (tentatively) a standard Bach week during the 2nd yearly cycle under discussion, evaluating how much time he might have devoted to such and such activity. That may help in our present discussions!

Eric Bergerud wrote (November 8, 2006):
[To Alain Bruguières] When nobody is telling me what to do I am as feckless as anyone in the great state of Minnesota. (In theory, I suppose, I should have stayed on the military lists and refrained from Bach cantatas. But it's more important to me even though I rather doubt I'll perform in public any time soon.)

However, I find when I am under the gun, and I do work better with a deadline, that "multi-tasking" is impossible. When a book manuscript gets going, it's "good bye cruel world." As I write history I think I often forget where I am. It is tiring, but in a strange way, it's a kind of "high." But trying to think about a different subject is almost impossible, indeed when forced to do so, I could lose a day or more if thrown out of the groove.

This is simple anecdote. Some people do compartmentalize their life very well. And Bach was a world class genius. But to me the new time frame given for his Leipzig cantata production (almost everything in the first three years) almost makes sense. It would have been a kind of total immersion, but I could see that working very nicely. Now I could certainly see Bach looking at his cycles as cycles rather than simply one cantata after another. Think of the cycle has the book and the cantatas as chapters.

I'd add this too. No matter how oddly satisfying it is to leave the normal world, after a while you want back. Forwarding the absolutely last edited page to a publisher is almost like getting out of jail. So I could easily see Bach at some point early in his Leipzig years thinking: "There, that's enough cantatas. Let's do something else." But I'm not Bach either.

 

BWV 62 / Composing and performing a Cantata every week

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 62 - Discussions Part 2

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 21, 2006):
Nessie Russell wrote:
< Just because J.S. Bach composed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year and just because his choir and instrumentalists performed a new Cantata for almost every week of the year does not necessarily mean that he took less than a week to write it. Is there evidence to prove that he did not work in advance? >
Julian Mincham responded:
< Fair enough--but as to the composition I don't see how he could have done much in advance of the texts. >
Apologies for any lack of clarity in the thread. I noticed in Boyd (OCC: Bach), in an article signed by Robin Leaver (RAL) regarding BWV 62, the following:

<Not many of Bach's preliminary sketches have survived, but there is one for this movement [BWV 62/4]; it is an earlier form of the extended ostinato, which was clearly composed before the voice part. <end quote>

Not necessarily in advance of the text, I hasten to point out. But the preliminary sketch seems significant.

RAL has the uncanny knack (or just plain bad luck) to enter the most controversial of our threads. You may recall him as the source, in the same volume, of the statement (citing Wolff (1982)) of a 1723 performance of BWV 80x.

Harry would probably advise against pointing this out, but I cannot resist. In the OCC, the entry for *number symbolism* directly precedes the two for Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland, a total of precisely three. Surely this cannot be coincidence?

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 21, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
>>Not necessarily in advance of the text, I hasten to point out. But the preliminary sketch seems significant.<<
All preliminary sketches are significant because there are extremely rare. In one of the examples most frequently referred to, Bach sketched the musical line (theme) on the score of one cantata for a mvt. which he included in the cantata which was to follows a week later. Better yet, there is an example how Bach, in the middle of one aria, sketches an idea for use in the following aria. When he finally gets to the next aria, he changes a number of things to arrive at the final form. As AlfredDürr speculates about the amount of Bach's sketches that were possibly lost (some say these would have existed in large numbers), Bach, like many organists and composers of his time, must have had a huge capacity for storing musical ideas in his mind/brain. Today's composers/musicians would spend much more time writing down notes to themselves than Bach most likely did. [p. 10 of Alfred Dürr's "Bachs Werk vom Einfall bis zur Drucklegung", Breitkopf&Härtel, 1989.] Thus the loss of such sketch materials may not have been very large at all.

 

Bach's Challenges

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 123 - Discussions

Paul T. McCain wrote (January 1, 2007):
We'll never know, of course, how things went for Bach before Sunday, but there is every indication from all that we do know that Bach was incredibly busy and during those years when he was cranking out Cantatas for every Sunday in the Church Year, save for the respite of Advent and Lent, it was simply the case that he was far too busy with all his duties to approach his task in a leisurely manner with plenty of time for copying and extensive rehearsals. He was rushed, harried and pressed on all sides, which makes his accomplishment with the Cantatas even that much more impressive.

Douglas Cowling wrote (January 1, 2007):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< We'll never know, of course, how things went for Bach before Sunday, but there is every indication from all that we do know that Bach was incredibly busy and during those years when he was cranking out Cantatas for every Sunday in the Church Year, save for the respite of Advent and Lent, it was simply the case that he was far too busy with all his duties to approach his task in a leisurely manner with plenty of time for copying and extensive rehearsals. He was rushed, harried and pressed on all sides, which makes his accomplishment with the Cantatas even that much more impressive. >
I have never suggested that the composition of the cantatas was a leisurely affair. Bach's industry was prodigious but it was not supernatural. The printing of the cantata libretti indicates that the planning of the cantatas began months before. Bach had decided what the sequence of movements would be and probably had "sketched" them in his mind. He may have even been able to compose complete scores mentally in the way that Mozart was famous for. He may have had a system of sketch books which did not survive. The music was surely gestating and developing before he came to put pen to paper. This is not a denigration of Bach's genius but a homage to his extraordinary self-discipline and creative powers.

The proposal that Bach's performers did not require rehearsal because one document compliments the sight-reading abilities of a particular singer does not solve the problem of how the musicians preprared such complex music. That there was a Saturday "dress rehearsal" is undeniable -- common sense tells us it was a necessity. However, the proposal that it occurred during the Saturday afternoon prayer service is an impossibility. Bach would never have used a public liturgy of the church as rehearsal time. The 'opus Dei" the work of God demanded the best even it was matins at 5 am with a few choirboys or a late afternoon with a few of the especially devout.

Nor can we assume the popular myths that cantatas end with a simple chorale because Bach was dashing them off late at night. There are plenty of cantatas (e.g. "Christen Ätzet deien Tag") which close with large-scale choruses as demanding as their opening movements.

At this juncture, we have to admit that we just don't know enough about the day-to-day, hour-to-hour relationship between the composition of the music, the copying of the parts and the bureaucratic organization of rehearsal.

And this comes to my larger point.

This forum is best served when we recognize that a question is open and that a conclusion cannot be forced on the basis of the extremely slim documentary record. I think it is worthwhile speculating about how Bach brought his works to life. It is not worthwhile to dismiss <> impressions and theories which help us try to keep the question open. I hasten to add that Paul's posting was a model example of how a speculative suggestion might be made.

Paul T. McCain wrote (January 1, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] I was not suggesting that you were saying that Bach did his work in leisure. I understand you were responding to some of the speculations that Bach's work was done in a rushed fashion, with no time for rehearsal, etc. I agree with your comments. It would be interesting to know how much advance planning and work Bach did on the Cantatas. We know he did not have Cantatas to write or perform during Sundays in Advent and Lent.

However he did what he did, his achievements are astounding, given the work load that he bore throughout his life. Of course, folks in his day did not have telephones, television or the Internet to distract them!

I'm not even sure that people of Bach's day, unless they were uber-wealthy enjoyed anything approximating what we today regard as not only a luxury, but even a necessary: the leisure of a 40 hour, five day work week, with "weekend leisure."

Overall, I've become convinced that 21st century folks are terribly lazy compared to the people of earlier times.

Blessings on your new year Doug.

 

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