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Bach and Opera

Bach Opera

Lolita wrote:
Just a query - Did JS Bach ever compose an opera or pseudo-opera?

Inotmark wrote (September 10, 1999):
He never wrote an opera that was to be staged.

He was, however, criticized for using operatic techniques of composition in his liturgical music and passions, so you might say he wrote pseudo operas if you like.

There is a problem though, particularly in the passions, of narrative, since the music alternatively presents the story, (recitatives and some choruses) then comments on it from outside, (arias) and then speaks for the audience (chorales).

A lot of arias and duets and even some entire cantatas are entirely dramatic, but very difficult to stage. Cantata BWV 60, es ist genug, is a dialog between fear and hope which is as operatic as anything in its musical structure, but represents a psychological drama more than a physical drama.

Jaime Dean wrote (September 10, 1999):
The same situation can be observed in several profane cantatas - I could even say in most of them.

Tomas Schneider wrote (September 10, 1999):
(To Inotmark) Would you tell me, who criticized him for that? What source do you have for that?

Piet Wester wrote (September 11, 1999):
(To Lolita) I never stop dreaming of what would have happened if Bach had come to work in a place where he had to write opera's...

And what is Schubert had written piano concertos...

Inotmark wrote (September 11, 1999):
(To Piet Wester) In spite of some very expressive and dramatic writing in the Passions etc., I don't think we are missing that much. Most baroque operas have not survived due to the fact that better techniques were developed during the classical period for musico-dramatic development.

It is one thing to put together a performance of a passion with a college or church or community choir working on it all year, it is another to mount a staged production.

It is doubtful the opera-going public would support such a work, no matter what its musical merits might be.

Liszt did orchestrate Schubert's wanderer fantasy as a concerto, by the way.

Ryszard A. Rogacki wrote (September 26, 1999):
(To Lolita) Bach never wrote an opera in the strict sense of the term. His ideological (religious) conviction prevented him doing anything of the kind. He however used operatic (or Italian cantata) schemes in his cantatas and passions. In this compositions he was influenced by the vivar Erdman Neumeister who concipitad his religious text along the same structure as operatic text, this means an alteration of recitatives and arias.

Sven Berglund wrote (October 1, 1999):
< Ryszard A. Rogacki wrote: Bach never wrote an opera in the strict sense of the term. His ideological (religious) conviction prevented him doing anything of the kind. >
There is AFAIK no evidence whatsoever that this was the reason. There is a much simpler one: opera was not much in demand in early 18th century Germany. The only place where it flourished was Hamburg, and the Hamburg opera was already well supplied. Unless our hypothetical operatic Bach is emigrating, like Händel, he would have entered rather a narrow field.

Now, a close reading of the Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) might of course further refine our knowledge of Bach's religious convictions. Not to mention the Wedding Cantata (BWV 202), which actually refers to pagan deities, and the Appeased Aeolus (BWV 205), where they actually come down to Earth to celebrate an old prof's birthday. Serious heterodoxy here: maybe real paganism, IMNSHO. :-)

Johan van Veen wrote (October 4, 1999):
(To Sven Berglund) In a way talking about Bach as a potential opera composer is a waste of time. Talking about "what if" questions almost always is. However, it can be used as a starting point to discuss the true character of Bach as a composer. So here are some thoughts about this subject.

I think that the sort of composer Bach, Telemann, Händel etc. turned out to be, was in a way a matter of coincidence. They didn't compose the works they felt like composing but the music they were supposed to compose. Bach was expected to compose cantatas, therefore he did. (That of course doesn't mean that he didn't want to do so.) It was mainly a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

Would Bach have been a great opera composer, had he been at a place where he was expected to compose operas? That of course is an unanswerable question. But one of the complaints about Bach was that his cantatas were too operatic. More than any other composer he introduced the Italian opera style into church music, something his predecessor Johann Kuhnau had always resisted. Therefore one can safely conclude that Bach was able to compose in the Italian style which was en vogue in his days. On the other hand, another complaint about Bach was the complex and academic character of his works. They didn't fit in with the preference for a simple, uncomplicated style, which could easily be understood by everyone. That was Bach's problem: he had to navigate between the devil and the deep blue see.

Considering the highly dramatic character of Bach's Passions I am inclined to think that he would have been a great opera composer, but that his operas would have been totally different from those of his contemporaries. He would have been a great opera composer, but would he have been a popular and therefore successful one? I doubt it. I would like to reply shortly to what Sven wrote about paganism in the secular cantatas. (Although he was totally serious about it - or was he?) These themes - Greek gods and mythological figures - were all part of Western culture, and didn't have any real meaning at all. These characters are used metaphorically. Therefore you find them very often in music, composed in honour of kings and emperors. I think in a way the mythological stories are comparable to toady's fairy tales. Their use in secular music doesn't refer in any way to the ideas of the composer or his time.

Lolita wrote (October 5, 1999):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< Considering the highly dramatic character of Bach's Passions I am inclined to think that he would have been a great opera composer, but that his operas would have been totally different from those of his contemporaries. He
would have been a great opera composer, but would he have been a popular and therefore successful one? I doubt it. >
No... I doubt it too Johan.

Because he wouldn't have been understood by the people of those times. Bach was 200 years ahead of his time. A pure genius with quite a few years of bad luck on his side.
Bach's operas would've been the most classical of all operas, but as u mentioned Johan, 'would've', 'should've ' makes little sense in this discussion.

My original question dealt with the possibility of...not the should've of. - Per chance to dream. -

Sven Berglund wrote (October 8, 1999):
Sven Berglund wrote:
<< Now, a close reading of the Coffee Cantata might of course further refine our knowledge of Bach's religious convictions. Not to mention the Wedding Cantata, which actually refers to pagan deities, and the Appeased Aeolus, where they actually come down to Earth to celebrate an old prof's birthday. Serious heterodoxy here: maybe real paganism, IMNSHO. :-) >>
Johan van Veen wrote:
< I would like to reply shortly to what Sven wrote about paganism in the secular cantatas. (Although he was totally serious about it - or was he?) >
Well, Johan, I do not usually use smileys when I am.

< These themes - Greek gods and mythological figures - were all part of Western culture, and didn't have any real meaning at all. These characters are used metaphorically. >
You mean. metaphors are not meaningful?

On the contrary, it is precisely because they are that they can be used as such. Baroque poets just loved them: mythological metaphors added a whole new dimension. Anyone with the slightest bit of classical education would prefer: "Lo, Bachus leads hinymphs and satyrs to Pomona's temple" to "hi pals let's get drunk on the new wine" just because of the wealth of associations (and probably feeling slightly elevated, and superior to the plebs, and even excused).

And that is of course what happens in the best Bach example: the Wedding Cantata, where a host of pagan deities are brought in just to emphasize the fact that Spring has arrived. Or has it? Because Spring itself is just another metaphor: for young love. Double-blind metaphoric imagery, so to speak. A beautiful illustration of Baroque love of complexity, and richness, for its own sake. From the poet's point of view, a display of the skills of his craft.

Aeolus (BWV 205) is IMHO a tongue-in-cheek piece. The idea of Pallas Athene personally intervening between minor deities so as to ensure perfect weather for the birthday celebrations of her favourite son, Dr August Müller (My Müller! My August!), is still delightfully ludicrous. The students that commissioned the cantata must have loved the pompous old don dearly. Did they make bets on whether he would understand the joke?

< Therefore you find them very often in music, composed in honour of kings and emperors. >
And young married couples, and old profs. And in drinking songs. And in bawdy poetry, unfortunately none of it set by Bach (AFAIK).

< I think in a way the mythological stories are comparable to toady's fairy tales. >
The extensive use of fairy tales by contemporary composers was news to me. ;->

(Rather, in this context, I think mythology should be considered a sort of game: a ready-made formal pattern that can be introduced in other patterns.)

< Their use in secular music doesn't refer in any way to the ideas of the composer or his time. >
Not if you are referring to religious beliefs, that is. And I would like to extend this a bit. Every era has its set of commonly accepted cultural paraphernalia, some of them religious; they are just, so to speak, the basic furniture. When a composer - or other artist - uses them, it means no more than when I sit down in my favourite chair. Neither proves fervent, personal belief in the same. On the other hand, they are comfortable, convenient, and not something one consciously questions.

Thus, so much for Bach the Fifth Evangelist. Which is what I was really talking about.

Sorry for being long-winded. But that is what happens when you have to explain irony.

 

Bach Opera

Brent Peterson wrote (January 5, 2000):
It is of course a well-known fact that J.S. Bach never wrote an opera. My question is, simply, why didn't he? He wrote secular cantatas and secular concerti; held a purely secular "gig" for several years, etc. He copied and reworked secular music into such sublime creations as the Christmas Oratorio. Why such an aversion to secular opera? Was he more "pious" than Händel, Telemann, Vivaldi, Graun? (In fact, can you think of any other composer of the era who wrote no opera?) He certainly knew the styles inside and out. It seems strange to think that the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), and the St. John Passion (BWV 245), from a standpoint of form alone, are basically glorified Italian opera with its alternating recitative and aria. My point is only that there could be nothing inherently "sinful" in the form.

Now, here is one more topic for the scholars. Do we have any record of his attendance at, or any expressed attitude on, contemporary opera being composed by his colleagues? Hamburg was a regional opera centre and he was there on occasion.

Matt Edwards wrote (January 5, 2000):
(To Brent Peterson) I don't know that we necessarily need to view the absence of opera from Bach's catalogue, as an indication that he felt the genre was "sinful." It would satisfy my curiosity simply to say that perhaps he was to busy with his church obligations to venture out to staged works. Even when working in "secular" positions, possibly he preferred to write in genres with which he had grown to feel most comfortable. Other than that, I can't begin to speculate as to WHY he didn't contribute an opera or two.

Simon Crouch wrote (January 5, 2000):
Brent Peterson wrote:
< It is of course a well-known fact that J.S. Bach never wrote an opera. My question is, simply, why didn't he? He wrote secular cantatas and secular concerti; held a purely secular "gig" for several years, etc. He copied and reworked secular music into such sublime creations as the Christmas Oratorio. Why such an aversion to secular opera? >
In his job and in his location there was no real reason/opportunity for him to do so. I believe I'm remembering correctly that the Leipzig Opera house shut down before JSB arrived in Leipzig (through lack of support?). Secular cantatas could be performed with little in the way of stage props - real opera needs (and needed) considerable logistical support.

< Now, here is one more topic for the scholars. Do we have any record of his attendance at, or any expressed attitude on, contemporary opera being composed by his colleagues? Hamburg was a regional opera centre and he was there on occasion. >
Yes. He is known to have been a good friend of Hasse at Dresden and there's that famous recorded remark of his to his son Friedemann about going to hear the "ditties" in Dresden. Since the remark was recorded second hand, it's not clear what Bach meant by the quip! Since he maintained good relations with the Hasses, if he felt averse he probably kept his feelings to himself.

Stephen Birkett wrote (January 5, 2000):
Someone wrote:
< It is of course a well-known fact that J.S. Bach never wrote an opera. My question is, simply, why didn't he? He wrote secular cantatas and secular concerti ... >
Well technically maybe so. But there is no better example of baroque opera than say the Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (Jonathan Miller has even successfully staged it as an opera). Much of Bach's music is highly operatic; in fact he was often criticized for this by the church powers that were. I guess he knew where his bread was being buttered, so why look elsewhere when it wasn't necessary.

Philip B. Walsh wrote (January 5, 2000):
Perhaps the most "operatic" of Bach's secular cantatas is the "Coffee Cantata" (BWV 211), which has a plot, characters, conflict, etc.

Why didn't JSB write anything for the opera house? Speaking from my vast ignorance, I would guess that, having large numbers of his own children, he didn't need opera singers too.

Michaela Blaha wrote (February 28, 2000):
This subject was brought up some time back, but incidentally, I heard a radio show on precisely this topic the other day. I am in the exam phase right now, that means a lot of studying at home and being able to listen to a lot of radio... Our public radio station WDR3 has a couple of Bach-portraits a week this year, and the most recent one was on Bach and the opera.

According to this program, Bach could not have been totally uninterested in the opera because of the locations where he worked and their affinity to opera houses (I think they mentioned Hamburg as an example). However, as a Thomas-choirmaster (I hope this is the right translation), he had to sign a contract, which forbade him to compose anything in opera-style. The program was of the opinion that Bach's interest in opera can be detected in some of the cantatas. One of the examples given was "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" (BWV 21), and from there the duet "Komme Jesus und erquicke". Apparently Bach was heavily criticized for this one, because it was found to be too dramatic and to resemble a conversation between lovers.

I am just a "laywoman" and have not even intensively studied Bach's biography, but I would be interested in the opinion of the knowledgeable members on the . In any case, I ran into the recording of said cantata today (the Herreweghe version, with the Collegium Vocale, Barbara Schlick et al.,), and I have to say listening to it certainly made me smile, as it made some of the other people in the store. I can see why someone would find this "too passionate"

While we are at it, any recommendations for another good recording of this cantata?

 

Cantatas and opera

Continue of discussion from: Harnoncourt & Leonhardt - General Discussions - Part 5

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 18, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Too much ‘gesturing’, too forceful or exaggerated ‘gesturing’ begins to destroy the music for me and places attention on aspects of the musical performance that should be secondary and barely noticeable (not call attention to itself!) (...) Constantly an innovator, Bach constantly tried new things (a great variety of unusual instrumentation, and an ennoblement of certain dance forms) as he ‘pushed the envelope,’ but he certainly was not interested in making church music into operatic productions, as much as many today still wish to overemphasize Bach’s music in this way. Nowadays people conveniently forget that Bach’s sacred music (including the passions) was performed from crowded balconies with musicians standing out of view behind each other. The congregation did not really get to see them. Turning around to stare at them while craning one’s neck was simply not acceptable church decorum. >
Tom, you're right: Bach cantatas are not opera. But you've drawn a diametrically wrong conclusion from this observation, and you are therefore giving horrible advice where you're telling performers how to do their (our) jobs.

In opera, there are people and costumes and sets to look at (and some performers can get by on their looks, rather than their singing or acting). In cantatas, the music has to engage the listener's attention and imagination without visual cues. The obvious logical conclusion here, which is the OPPOSITE of your advice, is that it must be projected much more strongly to make up for the lack of things to look at!

As you have so cleverly pointed out, the listeners chez Bach could not even see the performers. What greater recipe for a listener's mind-wandering is there than when the music sounds merely pretty, and there is nothing to look at? The congregation were not looking at libretti or scores; nor are most listeners today. The music has to make its message on sound alone, and be engaging. Otherwise it's "oh, Bach music, how nice, PLONK" in the first 20 seconds.

The refining "ennoblement" of the music, the rounding-off of its rhetorical edges into a merely smooth and beautiful production, is a polite castration of its message. The words have NO impact if the listeners are asleep.

Bach's cantatas were designed to reach people: NORMAL people "where they're at" who showed up at church to hear the message, or just to show up. The music wasn't full of secret messages for the intelligentsia, or for people who walk around saying "coprolalia" when they mean "potty-mouth language" and "callipygous" when admiring a fine set of buttocks. It was supposed to reach the spectrum of people who can be found at any Wal-Mart today.

The way to a man's heart is with a broadsword. Subtle "secondary and barely noticeable" details ain't worth shit to a person who wasn't paying attention. "Overemphasis"--to you--is (I'd say) just barely enough to put across a message to the casual listener; at least it alerts him that something is happening, tells him he should maybe try to figure it out. Classical music bores the crap out of people today whenever the performers make the work too refined, too cautious, and forget how to communicate. I once spent six weeks as the house guest of someone who called it "musica de muerte"--and, given the way it's usually performed, she was right. If this paragraph is too crass, so be it.

When a Bach cantata (or whatever) has strong, grand gestures written in it, the performance should not sound politely 'rumbustious', or be calculated to delight a score-reader whose dearest wish is to hear the eleventh semiquaver delivered evenly. It should just kick ass. And when the music is gentler, it should move people the same way Willie Nelson does. (Sheryl Crow said recently, "When he [Nelson] sings, well, as a singer myself, he always keeps it real and I appreciate and look forward to that.")

Zev Bechler wrote (May 18, 2003):
[To Brad B. and Brad Lehman and Tom Braatz] I am interested to hear your opinions on the books that may serve as the best guide (not just introduction) to the KdF for the serious dedicated Bach layman-listener . If there isn't any, do you think it could be written ?

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (May 19, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< In opera, there are people and costumes and sets to look at (and some performers can get by on their looks, rather than their singing or acting). >
A number of recording contracts have been decided that way, and not only for opera singers. Fortunately, the trend of created stars more photogenic than musical seems to have subsided.

< The refining "ennoblement" of the music, the rounding-off of its rhetorical edges into a merely smooth and beautiful production, is a polite castration of its message. The words have NO impact if the listeners are asleep. >
The audiences won't actually fall asleep, though; they have been "ennobled" to a greater extent by modern customs.

< The music wasn't full of secret messages for the intelligentsia, >
Tell that to the numerologists, mediums of a more esoteric sort dedicated to affirming the premise that Bach knew what he was doing.

< When a Bach cantata (or whatever) has strong, grand gestures written in it, >
The audiences will not see that, although they might see you.

Johan van Veen wrote (May 19, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote: >>>"Overemphasis"--to you--is (I'd say) just barely enough to put across a message to the casual listener; at least it alerts him that something is happening, tells him he should maybe try to figure it out. (...) When a Bach cantata (or whatever) has strong, grand gestures written in it, the performance should not sound politely 'rumbustious', or be calculated to delight a score-reader whose dearest wish is to hear the eleventh semiquaver delivered evenly. It should just kick ass. And when the music is gentler, it should move people the same way Willie Nelson does. (Sheryl Crow said recently, "When he [Nelson] sings, well, as a singer myself, he always keeps it real and I appreciate and look forward to that.")<<<
In Bach's time the cantata was considered a 'sermon' on music. So it seems reasonable to believe that the way cantatas were performed is comparable to the way sermons were held. The language, metaphors etc in the sermons from the time of Luther onwards - who himself set a strong example in this respect - were pretty drastic and anything but 'subtle.'

(As far as Luther is concerned, just look at some of his chorales. If a minister in our time would use phrases like "das rechte Osterlamm (...) an des Kreuzes Stamm in heisser Lieb gebraten" (Christ lag in Todesbanden) I don't think all people of the congregation would swallow that.)

Bach's cantatas were no operas, but there were complaints about the 'operatic' style of his church music, so it doesn't seem too wrong to use some of the performance practices of baroque opera in his cantatas.

 

More on"Sacred" versus "Operatic"

Neil Halliday wrote (June 2, 2003):
I am intrigued by the different appearances, presented in the scores, of the secco recitatives in the SMP (BWV 244) on the one hand, and the SJP (BWV 245) and (all?) the cantatas on the other hand.

IN the SMP (BWV 244), the secco recitatives other than for Jesus (and Jesus does not have SECCO recitatives), have an "operatic" appearance, ie, they give long passages where the vocalist is entirely unaccompanied, with only an occasional quarter note appearing on the continuo stave.

In the SJP (BWV 245), ALL the secco recitatives give the appearance of the continuo always sounding, with whole notes tied over into the next bar. Jesus himself has only secco recitatives in the SJP (BWV 245); examples are shown in movements 26 and 28. Is it appropriate for Jesus to make an "operatic style" appearance, singing without any instrumental foundation, which would result from using the shortened note convention?

I have not yet been able to find a secco recitative in the cantatas, which is notated in what I have referred to as the "operatic style", as noted for the SMP (BWV 244), above.

I would like to conclude that Bach had a different - more operatic - effect in mind for the secco recitatives in the SMP (BWV 244), where he wanted to contrast Jesus with the various other players in the drama (evangelist, Peter, Pilate etc), whereas in the SJP (BWV 245), he decided to take a simpler course and give to all the 'actors', including Jesus, the same non-operatic treatment in the secco recitatives.

In the cantatas, the secco recitatives have, in contrast to their story-telling function in the Passions, a theological and didactic function, best sustained by a non-operatic, literal reading of the continuo part.

In any case, for me at least, the appearance of "operatic style" recitatives in the sacred cantatas is inappropriate, unmusical, and unwelcome.

Christian Panse wrote (June 2, 2003):
Neil Halliday you wondered:
< Is it appropriate for Jesus to make an "operatic style" appearance, singing without any instrumental foundation, >
For my taste it's far too strong to call recitatives with little accompaniment "operatic". In fact, the opposite seems true to me. Have a look at earlier passion compositions, e. g. those of Heinrich Schütz: Evangelist, Jesus, other soliloquents, all of them are performed without any accompanying instruments at all there, and it becomes obvious that this form of recitative is based on the older lecture tones in which the Gospel is still sung in many churches, and which themselves again derive from old forms of high ceremonial speech.

So I come to the opposite conclusion: the use of instrumental accompaniment adds a new dimension of artistic reflexion to the alone-standing word, and therefore makes the step towards "staginess".

Just my two cents,

 

The value of opera

Uri Golomb wrote (June 25, 2003):
< I fully agree (and indeed emphasise with Bach). Why corrupt that most noble art form - music - with visual distraction? And why push music into a supporting role for some trivial drama? >

Charles: are you seriously saying that all opera is trivial drama? And that opera, as such, constitues a corruption of music? Are the libretti of Monteverdi's and Gluck's Orfeo a greater corruption of music than the libretto of Bach's Peasant antata (BWV 212)? (I don't think any of them is a "corruption"; but there's certainly more nobility -- and indeed more ennoblement of music -- in the Orphic libretti).

What you're saying, in effect, is that Monteverdi, Purcell, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Britten and so many others have compromised and corrupted their art when they agreed -- often extremely enthusiastically -- to write operas? Is this really what you want to say? Do you really think music would have been better off without Orfeo, Dido and Aeneas, Giulio Cesare, Le Nozze di Figaro, Fidelio (notwithstanding my sceptical comments about it in an earlier mail), Boris Godunov or Peter Grimes? (If any of you miss a favourite composer or opera, rest assured that I did not mean this list to be comprehensive). And what about composers like Verdi adn Wagner, whose chief claim for fame is operatic? Do you really think we shoudl dismiss them out of hand for that reason?

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Nothing personal Charles, but I definitely agree with Uri on this one, and a step further, I doubt that Bach considered Opera to be a corruption and trivial. If he did consider it to be so, then why would he take his favourite son, Wilhelm Freidrich (sp?) to Hamburg and expose him to opera? Besides, I don't think that music plays a supporting role, but it seems quite clear to me that the music is the most dramatic and enjoyable aspect of opera-why would they record operas if the music wasn't the most important dramatic device? I would venture out to say that the libretto takes a back seat to the music: we put Mozart at the forefront of a poster, recording cover, program etc. of "Le Nozze de Figaro", not Da Ponte.

Again nothing personal Charles!

Riccardo Nughes wrote (June 25, 2003):
Bach and Opera

< But ever wondered WHY Bach never wrote an opera or something like it. >
An interesting answer to this question has been given by Rene' Jacobs in an interview to French magazine "Repertoire" in september 2001 (sorry, I don't have the time to translate from French to English) :

"Comment expliquez-vous que Bach n'ait pas écrit d'opera?"
"Bach n'était pas contre l'opéra mais contre le monde de l'opera. La vanitè de ce milieu, qui n'a guère changé jusqu'à nos jours, sa moltitude de parasites qui n'avaient que très peu à voir avec la musique, horripilaient Bach. De plus, il n'aimait pas voyager, ce qui est nécessaire pour un compositeur d'opéras. Hormis Lubeck, il n'a guère effectuè de déplacements importants. Non loin de
Leipzig se trouvait pourtant le plus grand centre d'opéra de ce temps, à savoir Dresde. Or, cet opéra était totalement italianisé. Hasse dominait, plus encore que Telemann et Keiser, la vie musicale de Dresde. Tout était en italien. Le compositeur était alors le serviteur des chanteurs. On connait le bref commentaire de Bach à propos d'un opéra qu'il avait vu a Dresde : "..ce ne sont que des chansonnettes..".

Il est vrai que les airs de Hasse sont inteminables. Un autre compositeur, Georg Kaspar Schurmann, dont je voudrais absolutement monter et enregistrer l'opéra Ludovicus Pius, se rapproche beaucoup plus de l'univers musical de Bach. Mais ce qu'il écrit reste un opéra seria sur texte allemande sans choeur. Bach, lui, n'aurait certainement pas pu se passer des choeurs [In the same interview Jacobs says he doesn't believe in the OVPP theory].

Peter Bright wrote (June 26, 2003):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] I've come late to this discussion, so forgive me if the point has laready been made, but could it not simply be the case that opera was not in high demand in Germany (unlike Händel's England) during Bach's time? Although it had been flourishing in Hamburg, I'm not sure it had really been widely accepted throughout the region. So, Bach may not have been drawn to opera because of a number of factors - commitment to the church, perhaps his own predisposition against operatic music, but also the practicalities and demands of the time.

 

Anybody wrote a Bach Opera?

Alain Bruguiéres wrote (April 27, 2005):
Bach wrote no opera. At least, none that we know of! On the other hand, many an aria, many a recitative, sounds like a fragment of opera.

Did anybody try to work out an opera based on Bach's work and, what's more, record the result? Sorry if this was discussed previously on the list...

Thanks in advance!

Doug Cowling wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Alain Bruguiéres] Sometime in the 30's (I think), the Metropolitan Opera staged a production called "Village Gossip" which was a conflation of the Coffee (BWV 211) and Peasant Cantatas (BWV 212).

The Phoebus and Pan cantata could be easily be staged as an opera. I wouldn't be surprised if it hasn't been done sometime in Germany.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Alain Bruguiéres] Ton Koopman has recorded a delightful semi-staging of the Coffee Cantata, set in what purports to be an 18th-century coffee house, with the three singers moving about between the player. It starts with the murmur of coffee-house conversation and the players tuning and improvising, and then the tenor rushes in, crying "Schweigt stille!" and thereby shushing the audience. It's made to look as if he catches Koopman by surprise -- the first few bars are unacomppanied, until Koopman "catches on" and starts playing with him...)

The effect is slighlty spoiled by the fact that father and daughter both sing their arias from the score -- the staging would have been much more effective had they sung by heart. But it's still highly enjoyable. The staging is part of Koopman's series of TV programs on the Bach cantatas (see details on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV211.htm, recording no. 20), but unfortunately I doubt if it's available commercially (I was lucky enough to record it when it was broadcast on one of Israel's cable channels).

And, of course, there have been several stagings of both Passions.

I sometimes toyed with the idea of creating a composite Bach opera, using movements from both sacred and secular cantatas; I even made a sort of mental list of arias that would be particularly suitable for such a venture. I'm sure I'll never actually go through with this, but I too am curious to learn if anybody has actually tried this...

Uri Golomb wrote (April 27, 2005):
Another Bach staging was Peter Sellars' version of two solo cantatas, BWV 82 and BWV 199; for my review of this, see: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Sellars[Golomb].htm

Philip Peters wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Doung Cowling] Director Peter Sellars is staging two cantatas to be sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in June in Amsterdam on the occasion of the annual Holland Festival.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] The cantatas BWV 82 and BWV 199 have been staged by Peter Sellars as if they were opera, starring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. See her fine recording of same, and the reports by at least one list member (Uri Golomb) who has attended a live performance of it: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV82-D2.htm
Uri's review: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Sellars[Golomb].htm

And, the Paul Goodwin recording of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) is from a staged production by Jonathan Miller: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV244-Goodwin.htm

Doug Cowling wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Philip Peters] Sellars' stagings have been brilliant, as was Jonathan Miller's recent TV staging of the SJP (BWV 245). However, those are not operas in the stricter sense. I have always thought that the secular cantata, "Geschwinde ihr Wirbelden Winde" is an opera. The fact that Bach calls it a "drama per musica" indicates that he had opera in mind when he wrote it. Does he use that term for any other cantata?

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 27, 2005):
< I sometimes toyed with the idea of creating a composite Bach opera, using movements from both sacred and secular cantatas; I even made a sort of mental list of arias that would be particularly suitable for such a venture. I'm sure I'll never actually go through with this, but I too am curious to learn if anybody has actually tried this... >
Such a pastiche could be very interesting and effective. What might be an appropriate plot?

(Please, please, let it be better than "Trail of the Pink Panther"...speaking of mediocre pastiches....)

Doug Cowling wrote (April 27, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < Such a pastiche could be very interesting and effective. What might be an appropriate plot? >
Actually, an opera pasticcio has precedent. Händel produced a number of cut-and-paste operas from several unrelated stage works.

Henri Sanguinetti wrote (April 27, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote:
>>I sometimes toyed with the idea of creating a composite Bach opera, using movements from both sacred and secular cantatas; I even made a sort of mental list of arias that would be particularly suitable for such a venture. I'm sure I'll never actually go through with this, but I too am curious to learn if anybody has actually tried this... <<
This is also on my mind for some time. Not caring about lyrics, just re-inventing a whole story. There are in fact chorus, arias that could match some operatic situations, staying in baroque fashion but not necessarily. And the "unity" of style is there, everywhere!

Uri Golomb wrote (April 27, 2005):
"new" reviews

The recent discussion on Bach and opera reminded me that I had on file a review of Deborah Warner's staging of the SJP (BWV 245). I thought this might be of interest to readers, so I sent it to Aryeh, who very kindly placed it on his website. You can read it on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/SJP-Stage%5BGolomb%5D.htm

I also took the opportunity to send in a review of Schiff's UK debut as a Bach conductor, in a series of concerts which included the keyboard concerti, some cantatas and suites, and the SMP (BWV 244); you can read that on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Schiff-Philharmonia-Bach.htm.

All the events reviewed on these pages took place in 2000, so they're hardly "news". However, I hope they will be of interest.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 29, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] You got one big problem. Unless one is not going to be true to the time, the Bible was off limits to the opera. Anyone else's religion seemed to be ok, but nothing from the Bible. Kinda hard to figure. Cantatas and oratorios (not to mention hymns) were used to praise God. And there were passion plays. Why not combine the two? It might have something to do with the reputation held by singers at the time. Might have been tough on the good citizens of Leipzig to find out that the performance of Bach's "Passion of the Christ" had to be postponed because the singer who was to play Jesus got into an argument with soprano who was to be Mary Magdalene and had left for Naples.

No if one was allowed to do a little creative editing with the words, you could patch together something like "Penelope of Ithaca" or, better yet, another version of "Rinaldo."

Doug Cowling wrote (April 29, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< You got one big problem. Unless one is not going to be true to the time, the Bible was off limits to the opera. Anyone else's religion seemed to be ok, but nothing from the Bible. Kinda hard to figure. Cantatas and oratorios (not to mention hymns) were used to praise God. And there were passion plays. Why not combine the two? It might have something to do with the reputation held by singers at the time. Might have been tough on the good citizens of
Leipzig to find out that the performance of Bach's "Passion of the Christ" had to be postponed because the singer who was to play Jesus got into an argument with soprano who was to be Mary Magdalene and had left for Naples. >
Anyone know what music was used at the Oberammergau Passion Play in the 18th century before its Wagnerization in the 19th century? Evidently the current production has a symphonic score with lots of Bach.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 29, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>You got one big problem. Unless one is not going to be true to the time, the Bible was off limits to the opera. Anyone else's religion seemed to be ok, but nothing from the Bible.<<
The Easter Oratorio (BWV 248) is about as close as Bach gets to performing an opera in a church.

Reasons:

Originally it was a pastora[this has nothing to do with church pastors, but with shepherds prancing about in the beautiful countryside] cantata, BWV 249a "Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen," which was performed in 1725 for Duke Christian of Weißenfels on his birthday.

Picander(?)converted the text from secular to sacred, but Bach did not designate it as an 'Oratorio' until the mid-1730s, although he used this recycled music before this date in a form that has not been definitively clarified. A newer edition [Hänssler-Verlag Stuttgart, 1962 - Diethard Hellmann ed.] has even added on a final chorale [transposed 4-pt. chorale taken from BWV 130,] much to the dismay of Alfred Dürr, thus hoping to make an original church cantata of this parody.

There is not a single quotation from the Bible, only a distilled dramatic presentation based loosely on New Testament reports. Also, a reference to any chorale or the inclusion of a final 4-pt. chorale is missing at the end. This sets it apart from the majority of Bach's sacred cantatas.

Konrad Küster, in his "Bach-Handbuch" [Kassel, 1999] pp. 468-469, calls this lack of a specific passage from the Bible as significant for characterizing a new direction in Bach's output. Unfortunately, Küster thinks that Bach first used the term 'Oratorio' for the initial version of the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) from 1725 and states that this is the first Oratorio that we have from Bach who was 40 years old at the time. Actually, the term 'Oratorio' in reference to this parody was not used by Bach until 1735 when he was already 50. [The Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), collection of 6 cantatas with decided emphasis upon biblical texts, is unlike the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) in quite a number of ways. In reality, the biblical texts are necessary to unify the elements of the Christmas Oratorio. The Ascension and Christmas Oratorios (BWV 248) are more closely related to the Passions than to the Easter Oratorio.]

Küster also points to the similarity and closeness between the 18th-century Italian oratorio and opera generally and thinks that Bach here was influenced by and made use of a congratulatory secular work, which is a variant of the court opera. However, in distinction to the opera, in Bach's Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) the singers 'playing their assigned roles' do not move (no body action, gesticulation, etc.) nor are there any entrances or exits for singers. The singers remain static from the beginning to the end and, most likely, were not even seen by most of the congregation present in the Leipzig churches where this Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) was performed.

There is a possibility that there was a greater laxness about rules concerning what was allowed during church services during 'high' holidays in Leipzig. There were traditions existing (no clear evidence regarding this in the Leipzig churches of Bach's time except that the University Church was different in a number of ways) in Saxony and surrounding areas which allowed in-church presentations, often with the congregation entering into the action, in portraying the key events surrounding the Birth of Jesus and the Resurrection. It would then be conceivable that the soloists would be positioned elsewhere than where they were usually stationed and might have joined in the action with some moderate movement. Of course, without firm evidence to back this up, this remains sheer speculation.

 

Heinichen on Church vs. Theater(Opera) Style

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 30, 2005):
>>Endlich und da und überhaupt der wahre Entzweck der 'Music,' ich meine die Vergnügung des Gehöres / kan und soll nirgends stärcker / und mit grössern Fleiß gesuchet werden / als in 'Theatralischen Stylo..'<<

["Finally, and above all, the ultimate purpose of music, I refer here specifically to entertaining (bringing a pleasurable listening experience to) an audience, can and should be sought nowhere else and not with greater diligence than as part of the 'Theater Style' of composing and performing."]

Found on p. 11, the 'Preface' to Johann David Heinichen's "Anweisung" [Hamburg, 1711.] In the latter book, Heinichen distinguishes in composition and performance practice between 'Kirchen-Stylo" and 'Theatralischen-Stylo' with greater emphasis upon the latter since he proudly announces in the preface his next Leipzig opera called "Carneval de Venise."

From this we can deduce that 'Church-Style' music has a different goal or purpose (and a different set of rules and restrictions) compared to the performance of operas. In contrast to the 'Church Style' of composing and performing, the 'Theater Style' allows for greater freedom on the part of the composer and performer. Heinichen contends that, contrary to superficial expectations, this greater freedom makes it more difficult for both composer and performer - there is a greater variety of techniques (including improvisatory elements) to be mastered and used in order to capture the audience with a wide variety of emotions which can change quickly and often.

Regarding the church modes with their distinguishing characteristics (Johann Gottfried Walther in his 'Musicalisches Lexicon.." [Leipzig, 1732] devotes 9 pages to detailed descriptions of all the modes), Heinichen states (Preface, p. 3): "Die alten 'Modi Musici,' die vielerley 'Contra-Puncte,' das 'Monochordum'' die vielerley 'Temperatur'en / nebst dergleichen andern 'Musica'lischen 'Mater'ien /seynd zwar zum Theil an sich selbst so gar 'absolute' nicht zu verwerffen / und gelten zum Theil/ ich sage noch einmahl zum Theil ' eben das / was die 'Vocales' unter denen 24. Buchstaben gelten.."

["The old church modes, the various kinds of counterpoint, the monochord, and all kinds of different temperaments (ways of tuning mainly keyboard instruments) along with similar other types of musical subject matter are, to be sure, taken individually,
not to be dismissed out of hand. They are to be understood, in part (and I emphasize this phrase, 'in part' once again) as simply belonging to music just as the vowels are an integral part of the entire alphabet of 24 letters.."]

 

Bach and the Theatrical Style

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 19, 2006):
The newest issue of "Bach Notes", Spring 2006 (American Bach Society), has an interesting lead article "Bach and the Theatrischer Stil". Details and the PDF version should be posted here soon: http://www.americanbachsociety.org/bachnotes.html

The author is Hans Joachim Marx. This is Reginald L Sanders's new English translation of the 1986 German version, from here: http://www.qub.ac.uk/music-cgi/bach2.pl?22=3583

The article explores connections between operatic style and Bach's church music, through Bach's own interest attending and studying opera. Part of this is to challenge the anti-operatic skew that has been in Bach biographies starting with Spitta's.

Part of the concluding paragraph: "In Bach's total output, including of course the late works, there are elements of the theatrischer Stil to be discovered that have remained concealed since Spitta's overemphasis of Bach as a church musician. Bach's late works are not to be conceived only with respect to the esoteric nature of their
counterpoint, or alone from the vocal polyphony of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). Instead, it seems to me, in hislate works he reaches the culmination of his compositional explorations, a summa musicae, with includes elements of the theatrical style."

Chris Rowson wrote (April 19, 2006):
Brad;ey Lehman wrote:
< The newest issue of "Bach Notes", Spring 2006 (American Bach Society), has an interesting lead article "Bach and the Theatrischer Stil". Details and the PDF version should be posted here soon: http://www.americanbachsociety.org/bachnotes.html >
I´ve long thought that Bach´s church music has substantial elements of poor man´s opera. Many of the cantata arias seem to me to show Bach following the latest fashionable trends, while the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), for example, follows that monumental first Kyrie with a gorgeous love duet, and continues in that vein.

I will be interested to read the article.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 20, 2006):
Freude verwirft keinen Ernst [was:Bach and the Theatrical Style]

[To Bradley Lehman] There is no doubt that Bach was influenced by all the various types of music with which he came into contact, including operatic music. He would absorb and transform these elements as needed, thus putting his personal stamp upon the compositions that came from his pen.

Spitta, acting according to prevailing concepts about the thrust of Bach's sacred music which constitutes the largest portion of his musical output, may have understated the above-mentioned connections between certain stylistic elements of the operatic style during Bach's lifetime and his church music. However, this understatement is not at all as flagrant as the overstatement in favor of operatic-style performances perpetrated by Harnoncourt and his epigones as they have attempted to change performance practices of Bach's sacred music to make them become much more like theater and dance music. Thus the latter perform and record these works with what is normally called the theatrical style of performance as described by some extremely important contemporaries and witnesses who should not and must not be simply overlooked by the present generation of performing artists who have already been conditioned to this present-day prejudice by existing recordings following the Harnoncourt school of performance practices which features generally faster than normal tempi and overly strong emphasis on the main beats along with the exaggerated profiling of dance rhythms as found in opera-ballet and chamber music.

When Hans Joachim Marx discovers in Bach's sacred music such musical elements that appear to have been derived from musical elements stylistically belonging to the "Theater-Styl", he will not, if he has carefully studied the historical record, conclude that Bach would have performed his sacred music according to the same "Theater-Styl" from which these elements arose.

The real and present danger is that Marx's article will serve as confirmation for advocates of Harnoncourt's performance style and mannerisms as evident in his recordings of Bach's sacred music. But this can only be case for those who misunderstand the historical record or deliberately wish to overlook it as they seek to add fuel to the movement to set right that which they perceive as an existing anti-operatic skew.

In addition to numerous quotations that I have already posted on this list from musician/composers who were Bach's contemporaries and who might well speak for him on this subject since we have no comments from him directly on this subject, here are a few worth considering:

Friederich Erhardt Niedt

p. 38, §3, chapter 4 "Vom Kirchen=Styl" ("On the Subject of Church Style") of "Musicalischer Handleitung" Parts 3 & 4, edited by Johann Mattheson:

"Ich richte meine Kirchen=Stücke auf Cantaten Art ein / doch alles serieux und modest, und habe insonderheit alle Passagien und Läuffe abandonnirt / weil unsere Frau Mutter=Sprache solche Italiänische Possen nicht vertragen kan."

("I compose all my sacred cantatas in the style of [chamber-music] cantatas, but everything is kept serious and modest [not extravagant or exaggerated]; in particular, I have abandoned the use of all florid passages and coloraturas [elsewhere Niedt states that he {as a professed Pietist, Niedt declared that any use of counterpoint is simply 'Bärenheuterey' ('a waste of time')} had banished from his church cantatas all fugues of any kind] because our native language [German] cannot tolerate such tricks as those which the Italian language is capable of.")

Johann David Heinichen in his "Neu erfundene und Gründliche Anweisung zu vollkommener Erlernung des General-Basses", Hamburg, 1711, distinguishes clearly between the ,Theater- and Kirchen-Stylo' in the performance of recitatives, specifically describing how each type of bc accompaniment is treated differently.

It is important to stress here once again that there is agreement among all these important composers/performers/writers from Bach's time that:

1. There are three styles of musical composition and performance:
a) Church style ("Kirchen-Styl(o)")
b) Chamber-music style ("Kammer-Styl(o)")
c) Theater and/or Opera style ("Theatral-Styl(o)")

2. Sub-categories of these styles exist
a) Recitative style under Church style differs from that used in either Chamber or Theater/Opera style
b) Instrumental style in one main category differs from that in the other two

3. Some sub-categories are found only under one main style:
Under Church Style: the 'Gebunden' (ligature)-style as found in chants. Mattheson makes clear that this generally slow, extremely legato style is not the style for all church music which includes motet-, madrigal-, and other styles as well.

I am including the following quotation by Johann Mattheson who in his "Der vollkommene Capellmeister", Hamburg, 1739, pp. 82-83, paragraphs 66-67, part 1, chapter 10, discusses the manner of composition for and performance style of instruments used in sacred music ("Kirchen-Styl"):

§. 66.
"In so weit nun der Instrument-Styl mit in die Kirche gehöret (ob er wol, gleich dem vorhergenden Madrigal-Styl, sich der Schaubühne und Kammer auch reichlich mittheilet) in so weit erfordert er, bey den in geistlichen Stücken gebräuchlichen Sonaten, Sonatinen, Symphonien, Vor- Zwischen- und Nach-Spielen, seine besondere Festigkeit, und ein im Gange wolgegründetes, ernsthafftes Wesen; damit es nicht nach einer losbändigen Ouvertür schmecke: denn in göttlichen Materien muß diese Schreib-Art ehrbar, wolbedeckt und kräfftig; nicht schertzend, nackt und ohnmächtig seyn, maassen sie eben deswegen bis diesen Tag aus des Pabstes Capelle | verwiesen worden, woselbst keine andre, als die zur Verstärckung der Grund-Stimmen höchst-nöthige Orgel und Baß-Instrumente zu gebrauchen erlaubet sind."

("In regard to as just how much this "Instrumental Style" [of composing and performing music] belongs in a church (even though it has much in common with theater and chamber music as pointed out in the previous discussion of "Madrigal Style"), to this degree it will be necessary to fulfill the demand that the use of this style [Instrumental Style under Church-Music Style] in sacred pieces where instruments are usually used such as in Sonatas, Sonatinas, Sinfonias, and Ritornelli, should exhibit a particular kind of strength/firmness/steadfastness and in its movement/tempo a well-founded, serious character, so that it does not begin to sound like an out-of-control ouverture; for it is necessary that in producing sacred music, the manner of composition must be honorable, carefully considered without rough edges or carelessness showing and powerful; not in a casual, light manner being completely exposed and unconscious of the environment of the church, nor in such a way that they [the sacred compositions] might for the same reasons even today be banished from being performed in the Pope's chapel, wheryou will find no other instrumental accompaniment allowed except for the organ and basso continuo group absolutely needed to support the voices by playing colla parte.")

§. 67.
Iedoch darff man deswegen nicht aller Lebhafftigkeit, ohne Unterschied, bey dem Gottes-Dienst entsagen, da zumahl die vorhabende Setz-Art offt von Natur mehr freudiges und muntres erfordert, als irgend eine andre, nachdem nehmlich die Vorwürffe und Umstände Anlaß dazu geben. Ja, der Instrument-Styl dienet vornehmlich dazu, daß er eben dasjenige über sich nehmen und heraus bringen soll, was den Sing-Stimmen nicht allemahl anständig ist, oder beqvem fällt. Faul, schläfrig, lahm, ist nicht ernsthafft, prächtig oder erhaben und majestätisch. Freude verwirfft keinen Ernst; sonst müste alle Lust im Schmerz bestehen. Ein aufgeräumtes Gemüth reimet sich am schönsten zur Andacht; wo diese nicht im Schlummer oder gar im Traum verrichtet werden soll. Nur muß die nöthige Bescheidenheit und Mäßigung bey dem freudigen Klange der Clarinen, Posauenen, Geigen, Flöten etc. niemahls aus den Augen gesetzet werden, noch der bekannte Befehl den geringsten Abbruch leiden, da es heißt: Sey frölich; doch in Gottes Furcht.

("However, you should not, for this reason, simply dispense with any kind of lively performance per se during a church service, particularly since the text being set to music often demands from its very nature more joyfulness and cheerfulness than any other kind, once the themes and circumstances have been determined [have given occasion for these themes to be used under these circumstances]. Indeed, the main goal/purpose of the Instrumental Style is to have the instruments take over and express that part of the text and music which is not appropriate or comfortable for the voices to express vocally. Performing in a lazy, sleepy or lame manner cannot be equated with playing the music in a serious, splendid, lofty and majestic manner. The expression of joy does not overthrow/overrule/quash the aspect of seriousness; otherwise all pleasure would have to consist of pain. A joyful spirit/soul/nature leads best of all to [proper] meditation/devotion, unless such devotion is carried on in a sleep or dream state. But pay close attention to the fact that the joyful sounds of the clarinos, trombones, violins, flutes, etc. must not fail to demonstrate the required modesty/restraint/reserve and moderation, nor should they, even in the smallest way, be detrimental to upholding the statement: Be joyful,
but be joyful in the fear of God.")

Johann Joachim Quantz in his "Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversière zu spielen." Berlin, 1752, p. 289, chapter 18 "Wie ein Musikus und eine Musik zu beurtheilen sey" ("How to judge a musician and a musical composition")

21. §.
Ueberhaupt wird zur Kirchenmusik, sie möge bestehen worinn sie wolle, eine ernsthafte und andächtige Art der Composition, und der Ausführung, erfodert. Sie muß vom Opernstyle sehr unterschieden seyn.

["On the whole, sacred music, let it consist of whatever type of music it may be, is of a serious, contemplative manner/nature both in its composition and performance thereof. It must be decidedly different from the Operatic Style."]

27. §.
Wird aber eine Serenate oder Cantate ausdrücklich für die Kammer gesetzet: so pfleget dieser Kammerstyl so wohl vom Kirchen= als vom Theatralstyl unterschieden zu werden. Der Unterschied besteht darinne, daß der Kammerstyl mehr Lebhaftigkeit und Freyheit der Gedanken erfodert, als der Kirchenstyl: und weil keine Action dabey statt findet, mehr Ausarbeitung und Kunst erlaubet, als der Theatralstyl.

["If a serenata or cantata is composed expressly for use as chamber music, then this Chamber-Music Style (of composing and performing) must be distinctly separate from the Church Style as well as the Theater (Opera) Style. The difference is this: the Chamber-Music Style demands greater liveliness and freedom of thought than Church Style, and because there is no action involved (in Chamber-Music Style as compared with Theater/Opera Style), it allows for greater exposition and musical artifice than the Theater/Opera Style does."]

Compare these observations issuing directly from Bach's time and place in history, and it becomes eminently clear how far many of the recordings of Bach's sacred music from recent years have wandered away from what was once considered the proper way to perform this music. Simply giving concert-hall performances of Bach's music in churches today without being cognizant of or deliberately overlooking these repeated descriptions by those who composed, performed and heard sacred music performed in Bach's day is misleading a listening public into believing that these performance groups have somehow recaptured the essence of what Bach had in mind and heard when he performed his own music.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 20, 2006):
< (...)
When Hans Joachim Marx discovers in Bach's sacred music such musical elements that appear to have been derived from musical elements stylistically belonging to the "Theater-Styl", he will not, if he has carefully studied the historical record, conclude that Bach would have performed his sacred music according to the same "Theater-Styl" from which these elements arose.

The real and present danger is that Marx's article will serve as confirmation for advocates of Harnoncourt's performance style and mannerisms as evident in his recordings of Bach's sacred music. But this can only be case for those who misunderstand the historical record or deliberately wish to overlook it as they seek to add fuel to the movement to set right that which they perceive as an existing anti-operatic skew.
(...) >
[Everything else trimmed, for space....]

A simple question: yes or no. Have you actually read Marx's article--either in its new English translation that arrived this week, or the 1986 German original?

Another simple question: this alleged "real and present danger" is a danger TO WHOM, or a danger TO WHAT? Is Bach's music really so fragile that it can be in any way ruined, or even harmed, by people who
allegedly "deliberately overlook" anything?

Thank you for any clarifications that may be offered.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 20, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>Quoting Mattheson 1728, as H-J Marx does in this article: "I have in the church...the same musical objective as in the opera, namely, that I want to stimulate affections in the mind of the listener and to move those affections in particular ways, toward love, compassion, joy, sadness, etc."<<
Yes, the same objective "to stimulate affections in the mind of the listener and to move those affections in particular ways, toward love, compassion, joy, sadness, etc." pertains to both the Kirchen-Styl (church style), Theatral-Styl (theater or opera style) and even Kammer-Styl (chamber music style); however, the outstanding difference in the manner in which this is to be accomplished is left to the vivid imagination of those who still wish to uphold the rash musical exaggerations emanating from the Harnoncourt school for performing Bach's sacred music. If Marx fails to explain fully the higher level of importance given to the distinctions between the three main stylistic categories that existed in Bach's time, then many readers will receive only an incomplete and biased picture regarding the performance practice standards that obtained throughout Germany in the first half of the 18th century.

As early as 1713 in his "Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre..." published in Hamburg, p. 113, Johann Mattheson writes as follows: "Den grösten Unterscheid macht man zwischen Kirchen=, Theatral- und Cammer=Musique...." ("The greatest difference [in the composition and performance of music] is made between Church-, Theater/Opera- and Chamber-Music Style....")

Hopefully, some readers by now will know what Mattheson really meant when he tried to explain "Freude verwirfft keinErnst" in the Church Style of performance which emphasizes majesty, power, seriousness, with tempi well-founded and serious in character, joy moderated by modesty, moderation and a serious attitude, and a very apt phrase by Mattheson: "not in a casual, light manner being completely exposed and unconscious of the environment of the church."

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 20, 2006):
< If Marx fails to explain fully the higher level of importance given to the distinctions between the three main stylistic categories that existed in Bach's time, then many readers will receive only an incomplete and biased picture regarding the performance practice standards that obtained throughout Germany in the first half of the 18th century. >
So, the direct answer would be "NO" - you haven't read Marx's article, and haven't really much clue which German writers or which Bach compositions are discussed within it.

Any guesses by you at what "many readers will receive" from that article are therefore meaningless. "Many readers" implies actually "reading" the piece.

Furthermore, the Marx article isn't about "performance practice standards" but rather about composition, and about the stipulations of Bach's position (as Marx describes, "really only formalities" of Bach's contract, not to offend reactionary musical super-conservatives too much in his manner of composition).

Marx at one point quotes a 1704 source by Neumeister about the new type of concerted church music (i.e. the type familiar to us as Bach cantatas) as compared with operatic composition; and then Marx points out: "With this comment, he was reacting to the critics, particularly the pietistic clergy, who feared that the devotion of the listener would be destroyed by various affects within a single aria."

To see more of this article's contents, one will just have to read it oneself. I'm weary of describing several of its points, only to have them shot down wishfully by a non-reader using it as yet another personal excuse to thrash Nikolaus Harnoncourt "and his epigones".

Smell windmills on horizon? Calumniate intelligent musicians!

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 20, 2006):
BL: >>I'm weary of describing several of its [Marx's article in translation] points....,<<
< And yet you are unable to offer some short, clear answers to the questions that I have raised: >

Not "unable". *Unwilling* to discuss another researcher's seriously scholarly work, under such an absurd situation as this where the work is trashed and thrashed by a guy who doesn't even bother to read it first, but begs to have everything handed to him so it (and I personally!) can be thrashed further. No thank you.

Read the piece and cease speculating about it. Or, if you don't care to read the piece, cease speculating about it.

Pay the nominal annual fee to subscribe to the American Bach Society, as any normal citizen can do, and this semiannual newsletter will arrive to your mailbox just as it does to mine. If you have questions why its editor included something, ask him directly. No speculation by me is going to answer any of your questions, but it will only draw more wild speculation by you....against me, against the editor/translator, against the article's author, against Nikolaus Harnoncourt, against 18th century church music, against "HIP" in general, against anything you are in a mood to thrash.

I recommended a perfectly ordinary piece of current Bach scholarship, as an interesting new resource directly on the topic of Bach cantata style, and it's been thrashed multiple times already by somebody who won't bother to read it first. It's even been turned into an allegation of my inability to summarize the material, to the satisfaction of somebody who refuses to read it or entertain any of the piece's arguments...without even knowing what those arguments are.

This is absurd. Lass mich in Ruhe!

The society and its newsletter: http://www.americanbachsociety.org/bachnotes.html
...and the lead article in the Spring 2006 issue is "Bach and the Theatralischer Stil" by Hans Joachim Marx, newly translated to English by Reginald Sanders. That's the new resource that started this thread, which quickly became an absurd thread thereafter.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 20, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
BL: >>That's the new resource that started this thread, which quickly became an absurd thread thereafter.<<
BL: (at the beginning of this thread)
>> Part of this is to challenge the anti-operatic skew that has been in Bach biographies starting with Spitta's.<<
This initial provocative statement by Brad announcing this lead article implies that most, if not all, Bach biographers are guilty of interpreting Bach's sacred music as Church-style music according to what the historical record, as given by Mattheson and others, shows is the appropriate way to view this aspect of Bach's music. Marx and those who would become his potential followers are interested challenging this view by pointing to 'operatic musical elements' which seem to appear in Bach's late sacred works. The 'clear and present danger' for those who tend to view these matters simplistically is to assume that Bach, therefore, performed these operatic musical elements in a manner similar to that of the opera where, according to Mattheson, much greater freedom and license is granted to the performers than would be the case in Church-style music.

BL: >> It's even been turned into an allegation of my inability to summarize the material..<<
With the contents of a reasonably short magazine article in English before you, it should prove not very difficult at all to answer my main question: Does Marx make any attempt at all, if even perhaps only in a footnote, to explain Church Style to the reader in so far as it governs both compositional elements and performance standards? Knowing the answer to this question in advance might lend even greater credence to Marx's scholarly effort and could possibly sway those list members who do not have access to this magazine to purchase a subscription. Providing some clear answers as direct, specific responses to only a few specific questions would not infringe upon the copyright attached to this article, since the entire article or large portions thereof are not being reprinted/copied.

>>.to discuss another researcher's seriously scholarly work, under such an absurd situation as this where the work is trashed and thrashed.<<
Legitimate, factual criticism is not 'trashing and thrashing'. It is the avoidance of answering legitimate questions directly, questions regarding the specific thrust of this article that has been recommended, which is suspect.

 

Article - Opera and Dramma per Musica

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 28, 2008):
Thomas Braatz contributed a summary translation of the article Oper und "Dramma per Musica" [Opera and the Dramma per Musica] by Alberto Basso [from Die Welt der Bach Kantaten, Metzler/Bärenreiter, 1997].
See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Opera-Drama[Braatz].htm

Thomas Braatz wrote:
"This article on Bach's relationship to opera and the definition of 'Dramma per Musica by a noteworthy Bach scholar, Alberto Basso, has until now only been available in German.
I felt that it was important that this excellent presentation of information which is very pertinent to the ongoing discussion of Bach's secular cantatas should be shared as quickly as possible with BCML members who are trying to obtain a better understanding of this aspect of Bach's life."

 

Actus Tragicus- the "Bach Opera"

Peter Smaill wrote (September 6, 2009):

The Edinburgh International Festival (founded in 1947) closes today and it is safe to say that Bach 's Cantatas have never had such a high profile as this year, with packed audiences listenig to excellent productions as are to be expected from John Eliot Gardiner, Masaaki Suzuki, John Butt, Ricercar Consort and Cantus Cölln.

However, the "see" ticket was for the first production outside the German-speaking world of the Opera constructed by the late Herbert Wernicke. Entitled "Actus Tragicus", it assembles BWV 178, BWV 27, BWV 25, BWV 26, BWV 179 and the eponymous BWV 106. These are Cantatas heavily involved in the theme of mortality; and Wernicke juxtaposes the repetitive and obsessive world-centred actions of the mundane current age against the exquisite spiritual longings for the hereafter expressed in the Cantatas.

Like many I arrived with forebodings but left deeply impressed by the skill with which the Cantatas are put to use outside their liturgical context. A fuller account is at http://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/article/20277-tragic-endeavours-staatsoper-stuttgarts-actus-tragicus/?. The picture of the staging, like a cut-through doll's house showing flat dwellers caught up in the treadmill of daily life, is the key to the conception.

At the end, the choir reprise to the section "Es ist der alte Bund" from BWV 106, the whole thus closing with the beautiful descending ululation by the soprano on "Herr Jesu", at which point only the symbolic corpse of the Saviour is left illuminated on the empty stage. The effect was astonishing in that such a divisive matter as belief in our age (often it seemed, against our age) ?is worked out without any compromise and to great emotional effect.

I hope this production will travel and that many more will have a chance to see (like it or not!) what can be made of the Cantatas in this format.

Douglas Cowling wrote (September 6, 2009):
Staged Cantatas

Peter Smaill wrote:
< I hope this production will travel and that many more will have a chance to see (like it or not!) what can be made of the Cantatas in this format. >
Peter Sellars directed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in a staged performance of "Ich Habe Genug" (BWV 82). Hunt played the cantata as the final moments of terminally-ill patient -- tragically ironic given her own death a few years later. The theatrical conceit was widely acclaimed as a way in which to capture Bach's end-of-life meditation in a comprehensible medium for a modern audience which has no historical interest in a "holy death."

Remind me to tell Sarah Palin that I will be asking my "death panel" to perform this cantata in my closing hours.

Ed Myskowski wrote (September 7, 2009):
Actus Tragicus

Peter Smaill wrote:
< Entitled "Actus Tragicus", it assembles BWV 178, BWV 27, BWV 25, BWV 26, BWV 179 and the eponymous BWV 106. These are Cantatas heavily involved in the theme of mortality; and Wernicke juxtaposes the repetitive and obsessive world-centred actions of the mundane current age against the exquisite spiritual longings for the hereafter expressed in the Cantatas. >
Thanks for bringing this production to our attention. In defense of the current age, has not there always been worldly contrast to the spiritual quest? Consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as an example which comes immediately to mind. And not to diminish Bachs spiritual longings, but he is in the same tradition which virtually exterminated the native American populace in a quest for gold, all in the name of Jesus under the sign of the Cross. The Great Nations of Europe Coming Through, as the Randy Newman title has it.

Glen Arpstrong wrote (September 7, 2009):
[To Ed Myskowski] There are some interesting reviews of the opera on the net. I especially liked the one titled, "Bach as Kitchen Drama" from instantencore. I'll try to e-mai it Another, liking it to watching the proverbial paint dry, isn't worth your time.

 

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Last update: ýSeptember 20, 2009 ý17:07:01