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Perfect Execution / Precision / Perfection

Part 3

 

 

Continue from Part 2

On ‘imprecision (John Browning)

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 27, 2003):
I just came across an article in the NY Times by James R Oestreich noting the passing away of John Browning, noted pianist (and harpsichordist?) yesterday.

Here are two significant quotations from that article:

>>His tastes ranged back at least to Bach and Scarlatti, and he played harpsichord for his own enjoyment.<<

>>Mr. Browning liked to discuss the place of morality in musical performance. "There are choices you make, such as whether you use a finger legato or the pedal to hold an inner voice, or how closely you follow the composer's phrasing indications," he told an interviewer a decade ago. "You can cheat, but as I get older, I cheat less."<<
This statement seems to imply a general trend in the lives of many famous artists, Bach included: an early, youthful Sturm und Drang, Romantic period is later gradually replaced by one that is more conservative and more classical.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 27, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] When I was growing up with my parents' LP collection (about 100 classical albums, mostly from the mid-1950s to early 1960s), John Browning's debut album was my favorite (of anything). He recorded it when he was 25. Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov/Rachmaninoff, and two of the Bach-Busoni transcriptions. That copy of the LP was about worn out, and I'm glad they reissued it in 1999 on CD. I still enjoy it. I'm listening to it this morning in his honor.

He and Pennario (among others of that generation) were very good at bringing out music vividly, maximizing the color without getting into personal idiosyncracy. Brilliance, but not for its own sake or to draw attention to the performer; rather, in humble service of the music. A word that comes to mind is "poise." He also did some beautiful things with the hands subtly not together, just the right amount of the 'aprecision' we've been talking about...conveying the sense of freedom within a clear structure. Wonderful.

I have some of Browning's later recordings, too, but have never found them as engaging or interesting as that debut album. A performer who becomes "more conservative and more classical" can forget the basic methods of musical communication which (to some) are more intuitive than studied. Browning in that debut album had everything balanced just right (IMO) in that regard: his delivery of the phrases was curved so naturally, with a beautiful flow, a well-controlled expression of emotion. The moment a performer trades that in for a more cerebral-sounding approach (whether to "cheat less" or whatever, sticking more closely to a score's literal details), the music loses some communicativeness.

One can call this communicativeness a "Romantic period" or whatever: I'd simply call it "musical."

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 27, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] IIRC, there is an interview with Browning in volume 1 of Elyse Mach's Great Pianists Speak For Themselves. (I have only volume 2 at hand.)

Here is part of the Browning entry from The Art of the Piano by David Dubal:

"(...) Browning is a perfect example of the eclectic American pianist, involved with many styles, brilliantly equipped both technically and intellectually. Indeed, few equal his preparation for a performance. Everything has been passed under the lens of a microscope. Browning knows exactly what he wants to do with every note. (...)" [Then some examples of music in which he excels, and others in which he sounds cold or prosaic...] "His Rachmaninoff (...) glitters with cold intensity, and his recording of the Second Sonata is calculated to its boiling point. Browning is first and always a superb craftsman, with an unusual fastidiousness, musically and technically, and there is no such thing as a messy Browning concert. Indeed, Browning is always an amazing marksman who considers wrong notes to be practically inadmissible if not sinful."

I agree with Dubal's assessment. This goes along with what I was saying recently about the performer's communicativeness being an objective craft that goes into the preparation as hard work (and is not only intuition or instinct). Here are some salient points from the "Rachmaninoff" entry of Dubal's book:

"(...) As a performer, he had become for many the cynosure of the world of the keyboard. His fingers seemed to burn the very keys, so intense was his playing. At first, several critics were uncomfortable with his powerfully analytic mind. He lacked the casual and wayward sentiment of many of his Russian-trained colleagues. (...) Rachmaninoff filed and polished every note. (...) In whatever work he attempted, no matter how individual his statement, Rachmaninoff's way seemed the right one. Richard Baily, in an article, 'Remembering Rachmaninoff,' suggests, 'It was like being in the presence of God himself...Liszt's Dante Sonata was sublime in its sweep and emotional power. At the conclusion, I knew that Liszt was the greatest composer for the piano, and this was his finest composition.' (...) Listening to Rachmaninoff's enchanting recorded legacy, one realizes his kind of playing has little to do with the ideals of the present day. His playing, for all its formal logic, tonal gradation, and exquisite sound, makes literalists uncomfortable. The rubati at first seem out of character. His immense individuality in such works as Schubert's A-flat Impromptu or Chopin's C-sharp minor Scherzo sounds unidiomatic in a literal age, where caution is the watchword. (...) John Browning feels, 'Both Rachmaninoff and Kreisler had that thing which nobody has anymore—a type of elegance that seems to have died out. There's a certain kind of humanity in the performance that can bring tears to the eye. It happens very quickly--it can happen in a single phrase.' 'When he played a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song,' wrote Harold Schonberg, 'one immediately realized how unimaginative...most singers were. Only the very greatest vocal artists--a Lotte Lehmann or an Elisabeth Schumann--could shape a phrase with equal finesse and authority.'"

The expressivity of musicians such as these is not their ability to throw raw emotions out there during a performance. Rather, it is their ability to craft a delivery that draws the listener's emotions (and mind and body, all together) into play. Every note is
intentional. Every note serves the whole, with a purpose. Everything is in such a balance that the "rightness" is palpable, inevitable. The performer knows just how much to bend things out of literal alignment, to aid the intensity of the presentation. The 'imprecision' such a player brings into the interpretation, deliberately, is a tool in crafting those powerful effects. As Browning pointed out, it brings a humanity to the performance and that humanity brings a tear to the eye.

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (January 23, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] This makes me wonder if it is possible today for a new artist to 'debut' with a Bach album. It almost seems that we could not get the style of a new artist unless the music was Beethoven and after. Is it more difficult to stamp a work with your personality if it is pre-Beethoven? It seems that the previous discussions were saying that one has to have a kind of 'detachment' in order to perform Baroque and Classical music properly and that any kind of 'personality' is reserved more for Romantic music. Gould had his 1st recording more than 40 years ago, has their been another artist debuting with Bach since or before?

William D. Kasimer wrote (January 27, 2003):
< This makes me wonder if it is possible today for a new artist to 'debut' with a Bach album. >
FWIW, that's exactly what Magdalena Kozena did; her first CD for DG was of Bach arias from the Passions and Cantatas (currently available at BRO, by the way...).

Peter Bright wrote (January 27, 2003):
[To William D. Kasimer] Yes, although I think the very first major label release with Kozena on it was Charpentier's Te Deum & Messe de minuit on Ar(1997). This was followed by Novak's piano quintet and songs (1998), Gluck's Armide (1999) and Rameau's Dardanus (2000), also on Archiv and directed by Minkowski. No 100% sure but I think her earliest recordings were on Supraphon (a generally excellent Czech label), for example, Zelenka's Requiem in 1995, directed by Roman Valek.

Jeroen Deurenberg wrote (January 27, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Voor een logische volgorde van lezen, gelieve dit mailtje eerst
helemaal naar beneden te scrollen....

Ter info.
............................................................................

As a new member and big classical music fan, I've been following this list for some weeks with lotsa interest and pleasure. My special attention "of course" goes out to none other than J.S. "Non Plus Ultra" Bach; to his organ music in particular.

Two things strike me within the list. First, the amount of knowledgeable members out there. Second, the pleasant, reasonable and matter of fact atmosphere which provides for a healthy learning environment. So far so good. Looking forward to contribute!

Unfortunately I still don't play any musical instrument (musical virginity is my middle name), so I'm afraid I won't be able to give input from the musical practice point of view. Just in case someone is interested, I'll let you know when I finally decide to take up my first piano lessons, gosh that'll be One Fine Day...

Well then, here my firstling in BCML/BRML's already overburdened message traffic!

Thank you Tom B. for writing:

"This seems to imply imply a general trend in the lives of many famous artists, Bach included: an early, youthful Sturm und Drang, Romantic period is later gradually replaced by one that is more conservative and more classical".

Mindprovoking stuff cause immediately sprang to my mind words I'd recently read in "BrainSex" by Anne Moir and David Jessel (mind you, "sex" as in f.i. "sex difference", not as in "sex drive" or so, let's keep this list clean!), highly interesting book on the biological/neurological (next to: the social/cultural) basis for psychological/behavorial differences between men and women (Pandora Pockets, ISBN 90 254 5714 2). Translated from my native Dutch, they point out to the very fact that: "granddads have a clearly more tender and femininely coloured relationship with their grandchildren than they've ever had with their own children. This fits in with the - in accordance with their increased age - decreased concentration of male hormones".

First off, even as a relative musical layman, I would be tempted to second Tom's idea of an aging composers' trend towards "classical" restraint and mildness. But maybe even more importantly, could it be that this perceived trend is rooted in something rather profane, something which democratically hits composers and non-composers alike, cause it's all just a matter of, or rather lack of testosterone?

And like honest Mr. Browning (dunno his age) admitted: You can cheat, but as you get older, you tend to cheat less... I'm sure his wife would be content.

Jim Morrison wrote (January 28, 2003):
[To Jeroen Deurenberg] Welcome to the list.

Ah yes, Maastricht. I remember it well. I lived for a while near Landgraaf and Heerlen and miss the Netherlands very much. You seem to have a good sense of humor, tell me, do the people who live in Maastricht have a colorful nickname for the Aldo Rossi designed Bonnefantenmuseum? I always admired that place. When I first saw it, I thought perhaps it was a retirement home for Dutch astronauts. ;-)

More info at http://www.bonnefanten.nl/engels/algemeen/gebouw.htm

Jim (who like Brad had trouble with Frisch's Goldberg's but is thrilled by the companion disc, the reason I bought it, of the Goldberg canons andthe speculations/recreations of the songs that were used in the famous Goldberg quodlibet. Until reading the liner notes to the Frisch set. I have no idea that there was such controversy over just what the songs actually were that Bach used. Any further information on this issue would be appreciated. Thomas B.? You're a resident textual scholar. Any thoughts you could share?

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 28, 2003):
Jim Morrison stated:
>>Jim (who like Brad had trouble with Frisch's Goldberg's but is thrilled by the companion disc, the reason I bought it, of the Goldberg canons andthe speculations/recreations of the songs that were used in the famous Goldberg quodlibet. Until reading the liner notes to the Frisch set I have no idea that there was such controversy over just what the songs actually were that Bach used. Any further information on this issue would be appreciated.<<
According to NBA KB V/2, Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn (1799-1858) was the first to make the correct association although musicians before him must have known what 'Quodlibet.' Dehn noted under the notes in the copy once owned by the famous collector of Bach manuscripts, Georg Poelchau (now in the British Museum/Library, London) the complete texts of both folksongs:

Ich bin so lang nicht bey dir g'west
Ruck her "--"--"
Mit einem tumpfen Flederwisch
Drüb'r her, drüb'r her, drüb'r her.

[I haven't been with you (or at your place to visit with you) for such a long time. Move over (closer to me), move over, move over. "Mit einem tumpfen Flederwisch" is quite obscure without any additional context. Here are some possibilities: This could be a reference either to male or female anatomy. The DWB (equivalent to the full Oxford English Dictionary) indicates that 'Flederwisch' could mean a 'sword', but that it can also somehow be associated with a woman ("Flederwischjungfer.") More commonly it refers to a bunch of (Goose?) feathers (used for dusting?) But 'tumpfen' can be related to 'damp, moist, wet.' So now we have something feathery that is damp or wet. You will have to use your (wild?) imagination to put this together properly.

The last two lines -- some possibilities:
I am sitting here 'with a damp sword' or "you, with your damp, feathery duster"
"Drüb'r her" = come all the way over here to me, to where I am

----

Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben
Hätt' meine Mutter Fleisch gekocht
Wär' ich länger g'blieben./blieben.

[Eating only cabbage (Sauerkraut?) and beets [main staple of meals in off season all winter long and spring as well] has driven me away from here (home? or home of the master where the apprentice is living?) If only my mother (real? or the master's wife who has become the surrogate mother?) had cooked meat more often, I would have stayed here much longer and not have left to go elsewhere.] [Additional words supplied to enhance the text.]

Scholars have been unable to locate anything more about the source of the 1st melody and text (there is no earlier documentation of it.) As a result, we are left with only the incipit which Bach used -- there is no extant version of the entire song. Even the extension of the melody beyond the 10th note is completely hypothetical (some more recent sources have 'composed' the notes for 'ruck her" etc.)

There are some other folksongs that have the same incipit. The most interesting parallel is the connection with opening melody of the chorale, "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan" Another close parallel is the dance melody found in the 3rd mvt. of the Cantate burlesque BWV 212. It is more than a mere coincidence that the time of composition of the Goldberg Variations falls together with the performance of the 'Bauernkantate." (BWV 30a, BWV 212)

"Kraut und Rüben", the other song that is quoted in the Quodlibet is described in the NBA KB as Bergamasca-type tune/dance that has been given a German text. Here, in this instance, the entire melody is contained in Bach's Quodlibet.


Any other possible, interpretative suggestions or translations regarding the folksong texts are welcome. Perhaps some of the liner notes for the Goldberg Variations recordings have some other translations?

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 28, 2003):
Here some other attempts to extract meaning frthe rather cryptic folksong text that Bach included in the Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations:

Ich bin so lang nicht bey dir g'west
Ruck her "--"--"
Mit einem tumpfen Flederwisch
Drüb'r her, drüb'r her, drüb'r her.

I haven't been to see you for a very long time, so 'scootch' (sp.?)/slide over here. And when you come over here to me, bring along a damp duster (made of goose feathers) to dust me off from my travels (on foot, the same way Bach went to Lübeck to see and hear Buxtehude) and dust me off all over, all over.

I haven't been back to see you at your place for such a long time, so come on over here to me as quickly as you can, now that I am here with these stupid, wilted-looking goose feathers in my cap that is wet from the rain/or with these drab-looking feathers (the bad weather has caused this) which I stuck into my cap because I wanted to appear in special dress just for our meeting and thereby make myself more appealing to you upon my return. Now come over here, and I mean it. Enough of this nonsense! Don't be coy, or don't be shy just because you haven't seen me in such a long while and never really expected me to drop by again!

Once more to summarize the meanings in the DWB:

'der Flederwisch' = a duster made of goose feathers, but used pejoratively or jokingly "dagger, sword."

'Flederwisch' sometimes, but not often, occurs as 'Federwisch' where the connection between 'Feder' = feather and 'wischen' = to wipe or dust off becomes clear.
In the form 'Federwisch' the meaning encountered could be 'broom' (a longer handle but probably still with goose feathers)

the adjective 'tumpf' or 'dumpf' begins to occur in the middle of the 18th century ('hazy,' 'dull in feeling or sensation,' 'dampening of sound,' 'drugged,') but long before that time the following related nouns existed:
der Tumpf = a puddle or hole filled with water
der Dumpf = asthma, mucous, mold -- this word is related to English 'damp,' hence 'damp' is a possible translation as well. Perhaps dusting off someone who has come in from a long journey on dirt roads would require that the goose feathers on the duster should at least be damp for a more effective 'dusting off?'

'drüb'r' = the contraction of 'darüber' = 'over/about/beyond that'

There may be an ellipsis here with the verb 'kommen' ['to come'] understood:
'darüber kommen' = to make something become your own property (in essence 'to steal') [This is similar to a young person saying, "May I see that?" which means, "I'm going to take it, keep it and use it up.']; literally 'to come upon' like a bottle of wine, but to drink all of it'; to start something.

'her' = can be used as a command that something or someone should come to the speaker.


Precision, real precision

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 3, 2003):
According to your description of things, Tom, Bach wrote down EXACTLY what he expected to hear. We performers must only render the notes EXACTLY as they look on the page, lining them up into their neat little packages with all the rhythmic values and alignments exactly on time. And then the music emerges, supposedly.

Yes?

I submit that that's not good enough, not precise enough to Bach's expression. Not PRECISE enough! Not precise ENOUGH! We must, instead, seek out the musical gestures which he has notated, recognize them as gestures (not only a series of notes), and trace them back to their roots in effective musical communication: the techniques shown to us by good instruments and good taste, musicianship, and described by Bach's contemporaries and predecessors...techniques of bringing the music to life, off the written page. This quest for precision OF EXPRESSION inevitably leads us to bend the rhythmic values and rhythmic alignment so the music is no longer limited by the way it looks on paper. The music is, frankly, better than the way it looks on paper. The music is the infinite variety in those musical gestures, and can never be captured completely by notation. To express the music precisely enough [which as I said earlier is primarily an objective task, not one of merely throwing feelings around], we seek to go beyond the limitations of the page, having recognized literalism as a dead end. And THEN the music emerges: because we are playing MORE precisely (to the expression) than a merely literal approach can do. Bach deserves as much.

To merely render the notes exactly as they look on the page is to say that Bach was a soulless automaton as a performer, and expected the players of his music to be automatons as well. I believe Bach was a better musician than that.

A score is merely a rational representation of a series of sounds. If we want to play THE MUSIC precisely and effectively, we peer into all those interstices between the notes, and figure out why those notes are written as they are. Having determined what the musical gesture is, recognizing it from the merely rational representation, we then render it as communicatively as possible...restoring to it all the irrational and soulful elements as well, the components that cannot be captured in notation. That is musicianship: going beyond the limits of notation to play the music, precisely.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 3, 2003):
From the famous "Nekrolog" written by C.P.E. Bach, Agricola, Mizler, and Venzky in Leipzig, 1754 (Bach-Dokumente item 666):


In reference to J. S. Bach:

"In conducting he was very accurate, and in the keeping of time (rhythmic accuracy, precision) he was extremely secure (the tempi he used were generally very lively.)"

"Im Dirigiren war er sehr accurat, und im Zeitmaaß, welches er gemeiniglich sehr lebhaft nahm, überaus sicher."

"His hearing was so fine (capable of hearing the finest distinctions - rhythmic inaccuracies, intonation problems, as well as 'wrong' notes) that he was capable of discovering even the slightest mistake (divergence from the notated score in regard to rhythmic irregularities, inaccuracies in intonation, imprecision of all sorts) in the middle of any performance involving the many parts played and sung by an orchestra and choir."

"Sein Gehör war so fein, daß er bey den vollstimmigsten Musiken, auch den geringsten Fehler zu entdecken vermögend war."

Bach played on keyboard instruments compositions which he "in der größten Vollkommenheit selbst ausführte" ["played with the greatest possible perfection"]

There is nothing here regarding the slight imperfections, imprecision (or is the term now 'real precision' defined as its opposite?) which characterize the type of performance to which you have been alluding.

Brad, you stated facetiously:
>>Bach wrote down EXACTLY what he expected to hear. We performers must only render the notes EXACTLY as they look on the page, lining them up into their neat little packages with all the rhythmic values and alignments exactly on time. And then the music emerges, supposedly.<<

It appears from the above quotes that these things desired by Bach and held up by him as an ideal are all prerequisites for a good performance. Among these prerequisites we also find that living quality, "soul," which Bach undoubtedly also possessed without allowing "soul" to degenerate into a freedom that allows for sloppy, staggered attacks that are slightly offset from the prescribed notation because the instruments themselves tell us that this is the way it should be.

Jim Morrison wrote (February 3, 2003):
Troublesome meddler here, but could I interrupt this thread for a second and ask for some concrete recording examples from Brad and Tom. I think maybe we could use some shared listening experience here.

How about Brad giving us a short list of recordings that have the kind of real precision he's talking about and then a comparative list of recordings of the same composition where the performers fail to find the right musical gestures. (oh wait, he already did that, right, the Leonhardt Goldbergs with the Frisch. How about a choral/chorus example? Some Bach cantata recordings, perhaps, or the masses?)

And Tom, maybe you could give us a short list of the kind of sloppy performance that you object to, along with a short list of more perfectly performed ones.

I suspect it would be easier for those of us with non-musical backgrounds to follow the conversation if you and Brad could use specific recordings that you both have heard as references.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 3, 2003):
[To Jim Morrison] In the Bach cantatas that have chorus in them, offhand I can't think of any recordings that have the soulfulness (read: "expressive precision" and "spiritual intensity") I hope to hear. I haven't found any recording of a Bach choral cantata that makes me cry, or even gets me to pay close attention for more than a couple of minutes. Lacking that, I pretty well enjoy what I hear from most of the Herreweghe recordings. He brings out more soul than the average conductor, even though the notes line up.

In the solo cantatas I have a couple of favorites that do make me cry, and do hold me riveted: Alfred Deller with Leonhardt and Harnoncourt in BWV 54 and BWV 170 (recorded 1954, Vanguard); David Thomas with Parrott in BWV 82 "Ich habe genug" (Hyperion). In that Deller recording, I'm sure the lack of blend and lack of absolutely simultaneous attacks have something to do with it: I hear a small ensemble of players each playing their hearts out, as individuals cooperating in a soulful venture, and Deller's singing has such nuance also. The filler on there, the "Agnus Dei" from the B minor mass (BWV 232), also has that magic. This is the opposite of a homogenized 'perfection' of execution; rather, it is a gripping perfection of expression, making every moment (and the whole) an experience of great particularity. THIS piece, right NOW, feel the burn, cry your eyes out.

As for the B minor mass (BWV 232), I have quite a few recordings I like pretty well, but none really have that soulfulness as much as I'd want. (But I'm waiting for my copy of the Leonhardt to arrive from BRO; as I recall from hearing it 20 years ago on LP, it has its moments and I want to re-familiarize myself with it.) Herreweghe (twice) and Parrott are my favorites, I guess.


BWV 1070 suite, and Bach’s milleu / Adherense to the score

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 18, 2003):
< David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: (...) the Goebbel recording of the Orchesterouvertueren (the only recording I know of that also includes the g-Moll Orchesterouvertuere BWV 1070). >
Yes, that recording of 1070 by Musica Antiqua Köln (dir. by Reinhard Goebel) is lovely, and it's a fine piece. They play it with one player per part. As you'll notice in the booklet, it's currently attributed to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, not JSB.

This group has recorded many other 17th/18th century German Baroque compositions: it's their specialty. So have some other excellent ensembles, for example La Luna (Ingrid Matthews' group) and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. It helps give perspective to the other corpus of music out there, well worth hearing even if it's not by Bach.

Bach's music didn't appear in a vacuum. Familiarity with that other music by his colleagues and predecessors (and, as here, his sons) can really help us know how his own music "should" be played, and show us what (if anything beyond the household name) makes his stand apart. That is: I believe it's worth something to know his music from the perspective of the 17th century looking forward [i.e. the way it came to exist at all], not just the 19th and 20th centuries looking backward seeing Bach as the start of something. How else can we know what Bach himself was reacting to, and integrating into his own work?

And this is especially useful in knowing how to read Bach's scores, interpreting what the markings meant to him and his contemporaries, not automatically the same thing the notation means to general musicians now.

But meanwhile, Bach's music is performed quite readily by plenty of people who have almost zero background in the 17th century milieu it came from. That includes most of the other recordings that David recommended at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/message/10701
...Richter, Karajan, Rilling, the Thomascantors, Grumiaux, Helbich....

The musical qualities of some of these performances may be strong, and a lot of people might enjoy them, but that's beside the point: without an awareness of 17th century music and its practices, these performers really have no claim to primacy or special "purity" here, as David is suggesting. Rather, it just looks to me (overall) as if David is focused zealously on performers who have German names, plus a few other decent discs he's picked up here and there.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 19, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Firstly, I do agree that people should be aware of 18th (not 17th) century practices. That is why I included a lot of leeway in my selections.

My point was that while there might be a lot of recordings out there of Bach works (a there definitely is), and while it is good to have a variety of experiences (that is why I suggested the "Bach: Made in Germany" series: because it does exactly that), one should first look at the scoreand judge for ones self. That is why I pointed out both the good and the bad in some of the recordings I suggested. To me, the music should speak for itsself. The problem(as I stated earlier) is that oftentimes conductors try to inject more of themselves in the recordings and less of the music. While there should be a certain amount of the self inmusical expression, there should be a balance in it and the self should not overpower or overcome the music and how it reveals itsself. That is what I feel is happening in the Harnoncourt and the Rilling interpretation of Movement 1 of the Matthaeuspassion, for example. I don't know much about Harnoncourt's style, but in the case of Rilling I find that he himself is a very energetic individual and that that is what he brings to his recordings, and especially in the abovementioned case. I also would call your attention to the score of the Johannespassion, especially in the case of the Continuo parts. Here is another problem I have with Rilling (and most other conductors, with the exception of Rotzsch, Richter, and Ramin): they have the Continuo parts play once per switch of tone. The score, however, has held and sustained notes in ever continuo part (except in cases where it is more flowing, such as the 1st Movement or the Jesus Rezitativ "Stecke dein Schwerdt in die Scheide"). and in fact when the Continuo should be playing an f minor chord in 2nd inversion at the word "Kidron", 9 times out of 10 the conductors of the various recordings do not do so (with the abovementioned exceptions).

So, like I said, one should look at the score first and then compare it with the recordings.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 19, 2003):
< David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: (...) I also would call your attention to the score of the Johannespassion, especially in the case of the Continuo parts. Here is another problem I have with Rilling (and most other conductors, with the exception of Rotzsch, Richter, and Ramin): they have the Continuo parts play once per switch of tone. The score, however, has held and sustained notes in ever continuo part (except in cases where it is more flowing, such as the 1st Movement or the Jesus Rezitativ "Stecke dein Schwerdt in die Scheide"). and in fact when the Continuo should be playing an f minor chord in 2nd inversion at the word "Kidron", 9 times out of 10 the conductors of the various recordings do not do so (with the abovementioned exceptions). >
Consider this: 9 of the 10 specialists playing that music in recordings (the keyboard players, certainly, and some of the conductors) know more than you give them credit for.

It is the dogmatic modern listeners wedded to their Holy Scores (and an overly literalistic habit in reading them) who go around saying "Ni! Ni!" without really understanding what they're criticizing.

Figures (the numerals, etc) in a continuo bass part are not always PREscriptive, insisting what the keyboard player must play; they are sometimes DEscriptive, merely a so the musicians understand immediately what the harmony is. This is a fundamental concept in the art of performing continuo parts. Indeed, if the figures change over a bass tone that isn't moving, it's usually right not to play a new chord there; it's simply describing what the voice and any other parts are already taking care of.

See also Peter Williams' two-part article "Basso Continuo on the Organ" from Music and Letters volume 50 (1969) [that's where the first part was published; and the second part soon thereafter].

< So, likeI said, one should look at the score first and then compare it with the recordings. >
So, like I said, one should learn how to read a score in the manner the marks meant to the people who wrote it down, and not automatically assume that 20th century habits of score reading are correct for this music.

If you (David) have a problem with most performers, "with the exception of Rotzsch, Richter, and Ramin", keep in mind that it's your problem. It stems from your own expectations, and your own habits of interpreting score notation without extensive background in 17th and 18th century music. (The notation there really is a "different animal" altogether, more than you evidently realize.) It's possible that expert performers now know more about it than you give credit for, and more than the R triumvirate did.

Uri Golomb wrote (September 19, 2003):
< David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote: (...) I also would call your attention to the score of the Johannespassion, especially in the case of the Continuo parts. Here is another problem I have with Rilling (and most other conductors, >
This is really an appendix to Bradley Lehmans' message :I wonder which Rilling recording David is referring to here. I don't know either of Rilling's Johannespassion recordings, but I know enough of his other recordings to note this: In the 1970s and 1980s, Rilling usually sustained continuo notes to full length. Sometime during the 1980s (or early 1990s) he had a change of heart, and in most (perhaps all) of his later recordings -- certainly in the case of the secular cantatas he recorded in the 1990s -- he switched to short accompaniment.

The switch must have been a conscious one, and I guess it was motivated by consultation with musicologists: Rilling set up the Bach Academy in Stuttgart in the early 1980s (I think), and has been quite keen on keeping up-to-date on Bach research, perhaps more so after completing his cycle of the sacred Bach cantatas than in earlier stages of his career. He must have seen the arguments in favour of short accompaniments -- and found them convincing enough to make an alteration of his own practices. Doesn't that suggest something?

Incidentally, a few months ago I heard a recording of an Alessandro Scarlatti oratorio which, within it, featured the full gamut of responses to continuo playing in recitatives: in some recitatives, notes were sustained to full length; in others, standard short accompaniment was employed; and in others still, notes were sustained beyond the initial strike, but not to full length. The conductor, Estevan Velardi, also edited the score, and he attached to the album a CD-ROM with a facsimile of the manuscript which was his main (but not only) source. I checked it -- and all the alterations to the continuo came from the performers. (Or, perhaps, from another source; but I don't find this likely) The notation was always the same: looking (to modern eyes) as if players were requested to sustain full length, all the way through, in all recitatives.

I must admit that I find Velardi's solution even more convincing than the standard "always short accompaniment" employed in most recordings. Velardi's principle -- I don't know if he actually made all teh decisions, or simply allowed free reign to his continuo players -- seems to be "each case to be judged on its own merits", according to what seems most appropriate to the harmonies, the rhythms, and the mood of that particular passage. Which means that sometimes -- but definitely not always -- notes will be sustained to full length.

Of course, Alessandro Scarlatti is both geographically and temporally removed from Johann Sebastian Bach; the conventions of one (assuming Velardi's practice is historically sound) are not necessarily the conventions of the other. But intuitively, I find the idea behind Velardi's practice quite appealing...

Douglas Amrine wrote (September 19, 2003):
David Glenn Lebut Jr. writes: "Here is another problem I have with Rilling (and most other conductors, with the exception of Rotzsch, Richter, and Ramin): they have the Continuo parts play once per switch of tone. The score, however, has held and sustained notes in ever continuo part (except in cases where it is more flowing, such as the 1st Movement or the Jesus Rezitativ "Stecke dein Schwerdt in die Scheide"). and in fact when the Continuo should be playing an f minor chord in 2nd inversion at the word "Kidron", 9 times out of 10 the conductors of the various recordings do not do so (with the abovementioned exceptions). So, likeI said, one should look at the score first and then compare it with the recordings."
David, there is conclusive musicological evidence to support the playing of bass notes and chords of varying length in recitative rather than the notated continuously held notes. I do not maintain a musicological library in my home so I am unable to supply exact references to you, but I am sure that you could find chapter and verse on this quickly in any decent university library.

As Brad has pointed out, it is important to understand music by contemporaries of Bach - which means composers from both the 17th and 18th centuries, as we know for a fact that Bach was interested in 17th-century music (and, indeed, some 16th-century music such as Palestrina), and that he was greatly influenced by it. By familiarity and understanding of Bach's musical environment, we begin to understand Bach's music better.

In particular, we begin to understand Bach's notation, which was a reflection of common practice: he notated his pieces in such a way that they would be understood by his contemporaries. Yes, we should study the score, but there is no point studying the score if we don't understand the musical shorthand which Bach and his contemporaries were employing. A perfect example is the notation of recitatives in which composers did NOT notate exactly what they intended to be played. There are in fact many other conventions of 17th and 18th-century notation which may be misleading to the modern eye. Again, I'm sure that you will find plenty of articles and books about this in a good music library.

Peter Bright wrote (September 19, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: If you (David) have a problem with most performers, "with the exception of Rotzsch, Richter, and Ramin", keep in mind that it's your problem. It stems from your own expectations, and your own habits of interpreting score notation without extensive background in 17th and 18th century music. >
Well I guess the majority of us may have a "problem" then, to a greater or lesser extent (apart from you, of course).

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 19, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] I agree: every note's length is determined by the performers according to the musical character of the moment. And, it could be different from performance to performance of the same piece by the same people...every occasion requires performers to be alert and sensitive. Every room is different, every audience is different, every day is different....

Uniform shortness is just as unmusical as uniform sostenuto: because of the mindless uniformity, not because of the quantity of silence per se. (Admittedly, this is a value judgment by me, and I know that some people reading this will not agree.) Your Mr Velardi is thinking along good lines.

As I said in a Cantatas list posting from April:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/4382
it "all involves split-second reaction to what the singer is doing: playing by the ears much more than playing from the paper. The papersimply tells us when the notes start, and suggests the relationships among them; everything else is determined by the context of this particular performance."

Back to more concrete facts, as opposed to merely my value judgments:

Why do we expect a composer to be constrained to write down every note's length exactly as he expected it to be sound, no more and no less? That's a 20th and 21st century expectation, not 18th and especially not 17th.

Related areas are lute tablature, Spanish keyboard tablature, and 17th century German keyboard tablature (which Bach himself knew, and used as shorthand in some of his compositions!). Where the music is polyphonic, those systems do not (and cannot) show the exact release times of slower-moving notes while some other part of the texture is flowing in quicker note values. All releases are up to the performer to figure out, from context and experience. In those keyboard tablatures, even the correct octave for playing something is open to interpretation as the notation doesn't (can't) specify it.

Bach, for most of his career, used the more precise score notation instead of tablature where he expected the music to be played by people other than himself; but the tablature thinking habits (as a composer and improviser) were still in part of his brain. Any composer in a hurry--or having only a small piece of paper handy!--doesn't write down more than he has to, to get the job done adequately. That's important. A note that looks long on a page, in score notation and especially in manuscripts (i.e. not for publication), is not guaranteed to be a prescription to play that entire length. From tablature habits, and from writing down the music as quickly as possible, it may very well be merely an indication when the note begins, and zero information about its intended length. (In contrast, when he wrote short notes each separated by the correct quantity of rests--e.g., throughout the keyboard Partitas, for publication--we can be pretty confident he really meant silences there.)

It takes much less effort both to write and to read a "whole note" or "tied notes" than to clutter a score or part with rests. The context and the performer's interpretive skill, not literalistic parsing of the page, determine the actual sounding length. Performers of this music have to think like composers and improvisers, not merely follow some supposedly complete set of notated instructions as one expects from some later music.

Back to my value judgments:

Music is art. And it was intended by these composers for live performance, direct communication with listeners who are right there, not the "freeze-drying" of recordings. The note-lengths, along with articulation, dynamics, and many other details not handled completely by notation, are subject to "situational ethics." Performers, to play the music faithfully (borrowing David Lebut's absolutist term here), must use creative imagination and flexibility beyond merely following instructions; and, crucially, must be able to recognize when the instructions are not as precise as one might at first assume them to be.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 19, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Then why have the notes down at all?

If they are not always to be followed, why write them in at all?

If one Looks at the score of the Continuo parts for, let's say, the 1st Rezitativ movement(that is from "Jesus ging mit seinen Juengern" to "Sie antworteten ihm:"), there are many tied notes and held notes in the Continuo. In the section mentioned, in particular, 34 notes, of which 16 are tied. There are 18 key changes, of which 7 aren't even included in most recordings, especially in the Continuo parts. they occur at the following points: the word "Kidron", the second syllable of the word "verrieth", the word "Judas", the word "Hohenpriester", the second syllable of the word "dahin", the word "und", and the word "ihm". In other words, the 3rd beat of measure 2, the 1st beat of measure 6, the 1st beat of measure 9, the 3rd beat of measure 10, the 1st beat of measure 12, the 2nd beat of measure 13, and the 1st beat of measure 15. While in the Matthaeuspassion such omissions might be understandable (in other words, the listener could pick out when a key change occurs), it is less obvious in the Johannespassion, especially when most of these omissions occur right when a note is either lowered or raised a 1/2 step. Especially in these cases, although they occur with very minimal raising or lowering of tone, the color changes dramatically.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 20, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] I have had both Rilling recordings, and he does not do this in both recordings.

I have never heard of Rilling recording the Johannespassion in the 1970s or the 1980s. The two I know of (which one can find oftentimes in either retailers or on the internet CD sellers such as Yahoo! Shopping, Amazon.com, or cdnow.com) are dated 1997(/) (which actually might be from the 1980s or early 1990s) and 1996 (the one that was recorded for the Edition Bachakademie series).


How perfect was Bach? [Long.]

Santu De Silva wrote (March 12, 2003):
I firmly believe that it is not always perfection and clarity that makes great music.

This is a list about Bach Recordings, and mostly Bach CDs. We have come to expect some degree of "perfection" in these recordings, and since it's easy to talk about perfection in the sense of engineering and sound quality and mechanical things like tempo, and was the recording done in a single take, etc etc etc., that's what we spend time talking about.

Bach, too, has acquired for obvious reasons, a halo of perfection. Of course, his phenomenal compositional technique helps to foster our belief in Bach, The Perfect. Consciously or subconsciously --and I'm as guilty as the next guy-- we take The Perfection of Bach as an axiom; if there was something wrong with some recording, then it was someone else's fault! Nine times out of ten, of course, that works.

Now we have a quandary. Looking at The Matthew Passion (BWV 244), some see serious Anti-Judaism. Since Bach was perfect, presumably he had his theology completely and carefully worked out (after all he was the so-called fifth Beatle, or something) so if the Passion seems to communicate anti-Judaism, it must be deliberate.

I have a much simpler and naive attitude towards the matter. The crucifiction and its associated theology is complex, convoluted, mystical, and, most of all, misunderstood. For example, taking myself, I continue to misunderstand it, in spite of being acquainted with a great deal of writing on the subject. Some of the most intelligent people I know have tortured their intellects to make sense of the event. Fortunately, common sense came to the rescue, and I realized quickly the obvious resolution to the problem, but this was an avenue that was not possible for Bach: at his time, (and because of who he was,) the thought of becoming an agnostic would have been impossible for him.

The Apostle Paul, for one, agonizes over the problem of making sense of the crucifixion, and Luther's theology (as well as that of the Wesleys, the tradition from which I come) is heavily steeped in the thoughts of the Apostle.

Suppose we take as an axiom that music is the language of the emotions.

The problem Bach faces is to convert his emotional responses to the event of the crucifixion, filtered through whatever logic and reason he was able to bring to bear on the facts as he knew them, into music. Does his personal anguish leak over into what we perceive as a reasoned and calculated attack on the entire Jewish race? How reasonable is this perception? Do we convert our feelings about, say, some sniper in the DC area, into hostility towards his entire race? Do we convert our feelings about the court that sentenced him, into hostile feelings about the entire race of the majority of the members of that court? (Granted that the sniper was not Jesus Christ, does it mean that we move into prejudice high gear when we talk about Jesus, while we're much more level headed about ordinary people?)

When Bach uses thewords The Jews, must we assume that he meant the race? The Bible, written in part by gentiles and converts, uses that phrase to mean "the people in the courtyard who were, indeed, for the most part, members of the jewish majority." There were Romans and Samaritans, Greeks, and god-knows-all what else, but they had not been incited by the priests, obviously. There were also countless innocents, still at their lawful work, who were by no means involved in this demonstration. But the gospel writers used the words The Jews, because they were jews, and because in the oral tradition of those times, such phrases were passed along, and understood as appropriate. Of course, in the course of time, the phrases could have been misunderstood and taken literally, especially by young children. So Bach, 1700 years later, is stuck with the phrase The Jews, and cannot alter it without being reprimanded for fooling with The Word of God.

The music of the opening movement, Komm ihr Tochter (?), and all its confusion, sets the tone for the whole work. To my mind, the entire work drips with confusion, sorrow, and loss. There is agony, yes, but not accusation. If there appears to be hostility towards the Jews, it is in spite of Bach, and not because of Bach. There is accusation of particular individuals: Peter (By the servant woman), Caiaphas (by Judas), and so forth. But that is as far as accusation goes. We are watching a tragedy unfold, like a train-wreck in slow motion, and the sense of helplessness is infuriating. THere is no sense of "it was the stupid Engineer!" or "it was the brakeman!" Or Colonel Mustard, with a lead pipe. It was a kind of political and emotional avalanche, set off by Jesus himself, by clearing the Temple. The minor actions of Judas and company was nothing compared with that. (The actions of the Chief Priests was a matter of political necessity, similar to lots of things going on today in the US.)

I must grant that, from the point of view of Jewish lovers of Bach, it is not an easy work to live with, or listen to. But I doubt whether all the accusations leveled at Bach makes things any easier. One must assume that, long before Bach, enlightened Lutherans had come to terms with the idea that condemning an entire nation for the error of a few score of them, makes less than sense. Whenever this has happened, it has usually been an excuse for real reasons which lay deeper: disinformation, and other economic, social and political reasons.

Where am I going with this? I think it is puerile for anyone to associate the murder of Jesus with a particular nation. To blame mankind, or MAN, or Adam, well--I guess that's the kind of romantic principle that theologians love to promote. I prefer not to get into that. Where does it get you? The first thing that a pea-brain will think of is: "look, man, it wasn't me, you know; it was them Jews! Look, have you seen the movie? Did you see what they did to him?"

It makes even less sense to accuse a composer of "anti-judaism" if the only evidence for it is the use of certain gospel accounts in which certain phrases--which are commonly used in church circles—were featured. And I don't think it makes a lot more sense to say, well, he was an anti-semite (or whatever the phrase is) but we forgive him, 'cause he was so perfect in every other way. To make it absolutely clear, I'm not saying that Bach was confused into communicating (his own) anti-semitism. I'm saying that the theological attitude towards the whole thing is confused to begin with, and what could Bach do?

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2003):
http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/message/13366

[To Santu De Silva] Wonderful posting, thanks Arch!

A couple of comments here:

< Do we convert our feelings about, say, some sniper in the DC area, into hostility towards his entire race? Do we convert our feelings about the court that sentenced him, into hostile feelings about the entire race of the majority of the members of that court? >
I live close enough to DC that that threat (and case) last year was a visceral thing. I--physically and emotionally--was afraid to go to my usual places during those weeks, with the (perhaps irrational) fear of being assassinated at random. And, even as far away as this, while those two guys were still at large the police had roadblocks set up sometimes to check people's vehicles and licenses. Such events do take normal people back to more primal levels of reaction.

< When Bach uses the words The Jews, must we assume that he meant the race? The Bible, written in part by gentiles and converts, uses that phrase to mean "the people in the courtyard who were, indeed, for the most part, members of the jewish majority." There were Romans and Samaritans, Greeks, and god-knows-all what else, but they had not been incited by the priests, obviously. There were also countless innocents, still at their lawful work, who were by no means involved in this > demonstration. But the gospel writers used the words The Jews, because they were jews, and because in the oral tradition of those times, such phrases were passed along, and understood as appropriate. Of course, in the course of time, the phrases could have been misunderstood and taken literally, especially by young children. So Bach, 1700 years later, is stuck with the phrase The Jews, and cannot alter it without being reprimanded for fooling with The Word of God. >
This point is made very well in the essay "The Judeans" on pp 194-195 of The Complete Gospels (i.e. the Scholars Version, 1992-4). The editors explain that there were at least three different religions or cultural groups lumped under that phrase "the Jews" in various other translations of the New Testament; and they explain why they translate it three different ways here.

"In the Scholars Version, the placard placed on the cross reads: 'King of the Judeans,' and those stereotyped opponents of Jesus in the Gospel of John are regularly 'Judeans.' This terminological adjustment has been a long time in coming. The failure to observe crucial transitions in the history of Judaism has contributed to the tragic history of anti-semitism among Christians, which the new terminology will help put to an end. Further, it will set the historical record straight."

Fredrik Sandström wrote (March 15, 2004):
I am always surprised when people bring up the St Matthew Passion as an example of anti-judaism. The entire text of the SMP does not even mention "jews", except in the phrase Jüden König. Surely the St John Passion would be a much better example for those that feel a need to accuse Bach of antisemitism.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (March 16, 2004):
[To Fredrik Sandström] There is some relevence here, though. Remember the name Judas and the word "Jew" (and especially the German word for "Jew" or "Jews"- Jude or Juden) come from the same root. Many Christian theologians use Judas to symbolize the Jews and their reactions to Jesus and His mission and ministry.

I am not condoning Anti-Semitism here, merely pointing out a fact.


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