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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 15

 

 

Continue from Part 14

Doug Cowling wrote (July 30, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < If we are to take Bach really seriously: would Bach not assume that those who propose to criticize his work should have been trained in the practical arts of musicianship, as a first step toward understanding his work and his expectations? >

This string has been speculative in the extreme. I would like to see specific examples of works where tempo, articulation and dynamics are changed beause the music is being performed in church. Is the opening of the Christmas Oratorio to be performed differently than its secular twin "Tönet Ihr Pauken"? That opening chorus has all of the so-called "hallmarks" of secular style: lavish colortura, hundreds of trills and written-out embellishments and many fragmented melodies.

At the same time, we have to be aware that aspects of the sacred genres have been misinterpreted until the researches of the HIP movement. A classic example is the Credo of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) which is written in the old "alla breve" notation. This movement used to be performed very slowly. It is only when research into the notation of the 16th and 17th centuries established that the tactus was much faster that HIP performers realized the tempo in many instances needed to be doubled. I remember the outcry when Richter adopted the tempos for the "Credo" and "Confiteor".

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 30, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: >>If we are to take Bach really seriously: would Bach not assume that those who propose to criticize his work should have been trained in the practical arts of musicianship, as a first step toward understanding his work and his expectations?<<

>>...daß ich einen Unterschied mache / unter dem Urtheil / so von der 'Composition' an ihr selbst / und unter dem Urtheil / so von der blossen 'Execution' (darauf doch vieles ankommt) gefället werden kan. Zu jenem / sagt das 'Orch.' sind nur rechte Kenner geschickt / und deren gibt es wenig/ zu diesem aber jeder Liebhaber / der nur ein gesundes Gehör und einen guten natürlichen Verstand hat. Diese machen den grösten Hauffen aus....<< p. 235, Chapter 6 "Beschützung des dritten Theils im 'Orchestre' 'Pars Judicatoria' genannt." by Johann Mattheson [Hamburg, 1717.]

["...that I am making a distinction between the type of judgment that can be rendered regarding the [quality of the] composition taken only by itself and the type of judgment regarding only the 'execution'/performance of it (upon which a lot
depends.) Regarding the former [the composition as such, as it appears on paper] only experts sufficiently trained and capable, of which there are only a few, can render a proper judgment, whereas regarding the latter [judging the quality of a performance], any music-lover who has good hearing and good, natural commonsense is suited/capable [for this task.] The greatest number of individuals belong to the latter group."]

It appears that Mattheson's sound judgment in these matters allows for music lovers, without the training and degrees required of experts who can better judge the quality of a composition on paper, to render a sound and fitting judgment on the performance of a piece of music as long as they have reasonably good hearing and can apply commonsense in rendering their judgments.

This means that any listener can participate in the discussions on this list and render an valid opinion, praising or criticizing a performance of a Bach cantata without feeling that they have to hear modern performances/recordings in a certain way as dictated by musicians and musicologists and be forced to think that the performances have to be good because certain experts say that they are.

If Mattheson were alive today and would read some of the comments regarding recorded performances of Bach's cantatas on the BCML, he would have to say:

"The experts with degrees and titles in music or musicology should not criticize other listeners who do not have years of music training or degrees in music for what they hear in the music. The judgment/criticism of such listeners is most important in regard to how the music comes across in performance.

The non-experts who tell other listeners that what these other listeners say about what they hear in various Bach recordings is silly, ridiculous or utterly wrong, should consider whether they, themselves lack healthy hearing or just simple commonsense when they criticize the opinions of others."

Discussion of musical matters, when it remains focused on a given subject and is conducted civilly without engaging in personal attacks (against someone with a different opinion) as some individuals are prone to doing openly on this list, may or may not lead to any resolution of differences between individuals, but the information that comes to the surface may be helpful to some readers who may be contemplating the pros and cons of certain issues that arise when probing more deeply into the music and program notes that serve to guide a listener. However, we could certainly do without the personal attacks which have recently increased dramatically after a few weeks of relatively calm discussions and information sharing about that which we care most about: Bach's compositions and the performances of his music.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 30, 2005):
< This string has been speculative in the extreme. I would like to see specific examples of works where tempo, articulation and dynamics are changed beause the music is being performed in church. Is the opening of the Christmas Oratorio to be performed differently than its secular twin "Tönet Ihr Pauken"? That opening chorus has all of the so-called "hallmarks" of secular style: lavish colortura, hundreds of trills and written-out embellishments and many fragmented melodies.
At the same time, we have to be aware that aspects of the sacred genres have been misinterpreted until the researches of the HIP movement. A classic example is the Credo of the B Minor Mass
(BWV 232) which is written in the old "alla breve" notation. This movement used to be performed very slowly. It is only when research into the notation of the 16th and 17th centuries established that the tactus was much faster that HIP performers realized the tempo in many instances needed to be doubled. I remember the outcry when Richter adopted the tempos for the "Credo" and "Confiteor". >
On that specific issue of "alla breve" tempos/tactus, some good resources are George Houle's book Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Performance, Perception, and Notation (1987) and George Stauffer's book about the B minor mass (BWV 232) (1997).

As for the anti-HIP backlash (and all its persistent and specious rationalization) to reduce and return performance practices to the pseudo-baroque understandings of the 1960s, listeners are free to prefer whatever they want to.

But I wish those listeners who prefer anti-HIP and anti-recent-expertise would allow those of us trained and experienced in HIP--i.e. serious scholarship and practice, taking more recent findings with due consideration--to do our jobs in good faith. We're not out to kill the music, or even to transgress it in any way, as alleged by detractors. But, it appears to me, the anti-HIP critics are the ones who are out to kill careers and disallow serious specialist investigation of the issues. The music gets reduced to their own naivete, which is then trumpeted as ultimate authority and backed by cleverly chosen source material, one-sided of course. The presentation is twisted so the HIP specialists and HIP fans are made to look like the ones who are under-informed, and dishonest and self-serving, while the criticism itself is somehow above having that lens directed at itself. The double standard is just incredible; and any defense played by me (or others) against this gets kicked in the head, as the offenders refuse to get under any magnifying glass themselv. That's why I scarcely offer such defense anymore: it's clearly only a waste of time and energy to play defense, since the offense is never going to give up with or without it. I've been off-list for most of a month now, and from observation of the discussion that happened during that time the offense never did abate.

Back to silence again, as I have some serious projects to work on, requiring full use of training and experience to do them well. Defensive discussion here (about my rights to do so) only wastes time and energy.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (July 30, 2005):
Seriousness : the horrible truth about Mr M.

I know that one should be especially careful when posting stuff which may hurt feelings, in this case, the feelings of Mattheson's fervent admirers. Still truth will out, and I cannot remain silent, especially since I have previously unjustly accused an innocent and my duty is to re-establish the truth in this matter.

Perhaps some of you remember the irrefutable evidence I gave here about Bach's assassination by Anna Magdelena Bach. The arguments I gave were so trenchant that they could only be bunted by repetition. Let me simply recall that they were based on a thourough analysis of the Kunst der Fuge's unfinished Contrapunctus. In this piece of work, Bach reveals that he is being slowly poisoned to his death and indicates his murderer : M/A (M is the first theme, and A its culmination.)

However there was one serious flaw in my reasoning : I thought to identify MA to Anna Magdelena Bach. But why shoud this devoted wife have murdered her husband? Nothing in her whole life indicates such homicidal tendencies. So please, whoever feels concerned, accept my humblest apologies for this unjust accusation.

But then, who is MA? MAttheson, young and - allegedly - talented musician, had to give up a promising musical career when he developped an untimely condition of deafness. As some have recently noted on this list, auditive deficency is often a sorry excuse for those who simply detest music. And how about Beethoven, did deafness diminish his genius? What really happened is this : Mattheson came across Bach's music; being no fool, he immediately realized his own utter incompetence, and conceived unconditioned hatred both for Music in general, and Bach in particular. In some respects he was a very lucid man, and to him Bach was music incarnate, and conversely. His outbust of hate was so sudden and uncontrollable that he immediately gave vent to it, deriding publicly the wonderful cantata 'Ich Hatte Viel Bekümmernis'. Later, he became more careful, since Bach became gradually more and more famous and appreciated by the cognoscenti. Mattheson knew that his influence on the music-lovers was his main weapon. So he paid lip service, adopting a pal-patting posture and secretly biding his time. He sowed poisonous seeds which were to fructify in a long-ranging plot aimed at perverting the appreciation of Bach's music appreciation and causing it to be forgotten by subsequent generations.

This aim he almost achieved, securing and destroying many scores (think of the missing cantata cycles), but mainly by mischievously disseminating erroneous and perverse ideas about the proper interpretation and appreciation of the music of his time. However he soon perceived that he could not completely succeed in this way; at best, Bach's music would be forgotten for a few decades only. This realization drove him completely mad, and he decided to destroy Bach himself..

For instance, he exerted a subtle influence on the young Adolf Scheibe. In his presence, he kept referring to Bach as 'that Italian gigolo' and such disparaging remarks; this eventually resulted in the well-known controversy which acted on Bach as a psychological venom. Still that was not enough; and now his hatred extended to other great composers of his time. He recruted a charlatan eye-surgeon to blind and weaken both Bach and Haendel; this cruel operation lead to their death after dismal years of blindness and suffering.

Some may find this theory far-fetched. However, consider the Salieri / Mozart affair. Perhaps it is a fake; yet it is plausible enough for Hollywood to make a movie out of it. The plot is based on Salieri's jealousy of Mozart's genius. But Salieri was a respectable and successful composer, whereas Mattheson was a downright musical failure; and Mozart for all his genius was less imposing a figure than Bach; so my theory is far more plausible!

By the way, a distinguished member of the list expressed mild scepticism at the idea that Bach should use so montypythonesque a method of accusing his persecutor. The point is, Bach always found it more natural to express his thoughts through music than through written words (unlike the logorrheic M.). This is why Bach's music will always be the frist and foremost source of insight into Bach's mind. Morevoer, while he was fully aware of the plot, Bach had a fatalistic approach to it. 'Ich habe genug...' 'Mid Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin...' I need not quote more evidence that he was in no mood for fighting. Still, when he understood that he was not alone, that Haendel too was on the psychopath's list, he decided to give G F a chance, in the form of a 'Quaerendo invenietis'. Had Händel perused KdF, he might have escaped the plot. As all know, Bach tried to meet Händel on two occasions, and failed...

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Life of Bach - Part 3 [General Topics]

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 31, 2005):
From the dedicatory introduction to Andreas Werckmeister's book, "Harmonologia Musica" [Quedlinburg, 1702]:

>>.eine solche Schrift von der Music / so doch bey der Welt sehr verächtl. ist / zu 'offerir'en / solte ich wol Bedencken tragen / allein wann ich ihre Würde / die vielen verborgen ist / ansehe / deucht mich nicht / daß mein Unternehmen so gar tadelhafft möchte erfunden werden : Die Music ist gewiß so gering nicht / wie sie etwa von unverständigen Leuten gehalten wird : denn was GOtt in der Kirche zu seinem Lobe / Dienste und Ehren zugebrauchen verordnet u. befohlen hat / das soll man billig hoch und heilig halten. Nun hat Gott nicht allein im A. T. den Gebrauch der Music bey dem Gottesdienste verordnet und vielfältig befohlen / sondern sie ist auch im N. T. wieder bestätiget / und durch Gottes Gnade in der Kirche erhalten worden: derowegen soll man sie billig höher und wehrter halten / als sie leider von der undankbaren u. unverständigen Welt geachtet wird: ja um so vielmehr /weil sie ewig zum Lobe Gottes bleiben und uns im Himmel erfreuen wird / wie wir dessen Apoc. 5. v. 8. 9. ein Vorbild haben / und unterschiedliche H. Väter und Gottselige 'Theologi' dafür halten. Wie es aber leider dahin kommen ist / daß viel Menschen nach den Regeln des grossen GOttes nicht mehr wollen einhergehen / ja sich nicht einmahl darnach befleißigen / wie sie durch die Gnade Jesu Christi ihr eigenes Heil suchen mögen: so ist es kein Wunder / daß sie auch den Befehl am rechten Gebrauch der Music verlassen und verachten / daher dieselbe leider in solchen Mißbrauch und Verachtung gerathen / indem sie offte zu eigenem Ruhm / zur Wollust / zu leichtfertigen Täntzen u. gar zu schandbahren liederl. Liedern gebrauchet u. angewendet wird / daß es gewiß vor dem H. Angesichte Gottes nicht kan verantwortet werden: ja diejenigen / welche den rechten Gebrauch noch gerne wolten befordern helffen / die werden von den Unverständigen wol gar vor 'Phanta'sten und Thoren gehalten.<<

[".I probably should have certain reservations before 'offering' [publishing] such a book as this on music, a book which the world would look upon very disdainfully/scornfully; however, when I consider its great importance which will not be apparent to many readers, then I think that I will not seriously be criticized for undertaking to have this book printed. Music is certainly not such a small matter as perhaps some people lacking understanding for such things think that it is, for whatever God has ordained and commanded to be used in church to praise, serve and honor Him, that is the very thing you should rightly promise soto cherish and uphold. It is also true that God did not only decree and repeatedly issue the command in the Old Testament that music should be used in church services, but He also confirmed this again in the New Testament and through His grace it has been maintained in the churches until the present time. For this reason you should justly place a higher value upon it than it unfortunately receives from the ungrateful and ignorant world, and this, all the more so, because music will last eternally for the purpose of praising God and will give us joy in heaven as already indicated in Revelations 5:8,9, and according to the ideas expressed by various saints and blessed theologians. But since it has unfortunately come about that many people no longer want to live in accordance with the rules established by Almighty God, and they do not even want to make an effort to seek their own salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ, then it is no small wonder that they disregard and despise the command to make proper use of music (to use music properly.) For this reason, unfortunately, music has been so abused and scornfully treated by these people by frequently using it for their own glorification, for satisfying their own personal desires and sensual
pleasures, for frivolous dances and even for shameful, immoral songs so that all of these things certainly can not be answered for in the sacred presence of God. To be sure, even those who would want to help further the proper use of music are then, in turn, considered by the ignorant to be unrealistic and foolish."]

Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) was an organist and cantor who, along with Bach, also faced the pressures exerted by the Calvinists whose main goal was to remove music, particularly figural music, from the church service. This statement by Werckmeister certainly reflects the ongoing battles taking place in his local region, battles which he experienced firsthand as he visited many churches in the surrounding area in his official capacity as the Royal Prussian Examiner of Organs in the Principality of Halberstadt. His comments regarding the misuse/abuse of music can apply not only to music outside of the church, but also to its improper use in the context of the church services, the very objections that the Pietists could easily raise in support of their crusade to rid the churches of figural music (like Bach's cantatas, particularly if the dance-like mvts. were treated in a worldly manner as 'lite,' fleeting entertainment rather than with an appropriate performance style ["Kirchen-Stylo"] in keeping with the demands of a church service.)

I find interesting Werckmeister's comment on "zu leichtfertigen Täntzen" ["too frivolous/superficial/facile dances"] which seems to be yet another indication that dance rhythms, when they do occur in Bach's cantatas, would necessarily have been treated differently in a church cantata in order to preserve the necessary dignity and seriousness appropriate to a church service: the expression of joy would be stately, impressive and moving, the performance of such music would be an affirmation of faith deeply felt which lacks the sense of the transitory, the shallow, and the fastmoving, and it would be devoid of distracting mannerisms which undermine the solidity and cohesiveness of the thought and affect to be projected to the members of the congregation.

Doug Cowling wrote (July 31, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < I find interesting Werckmeister's comment on "zu leichtfertigen Täntzen" ["too frivolous/superficial/facile dances"] which seems to be yet another indication that dance rhythms, when they do occur in Bach's cantatas, would necessarily have been treated differently in a church cantata in order to preserve the necessary dignity and seriousness appropriate to a church service: >
Thomas, you cannot make these vague statements without providing us with specific example. How fast would a gigue have to be performed (metronome marking?) before it becomes profane? Should the trills in "Jauchzet Frohlcocket" be removed as overly frivolous? How loud does the timpani have to play in the "Sanctus" of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) to be condemned as too secular?

In all of the sources which you have quoted, the writers are essentially contunuing the aesthetic apologetic which began with Monteverdi's employment of the "second practice". Composers felt compelled to defend the replacement of the "stile antico" polyphony by concerted music. We see this all through the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a literary cliche for composers to defend their music as liturgically appropriate. I;m sure that there was a body of conservative opinion in Leipzig which prefered the 16th and 17th century motets which Bach also performed on Sunday to his "new" music.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 31, 2005):
From p. 150 of Johann Friedrich Agricola's "Anleitung zur Singkunst" [Berlin, 1757]:

>>Die erste Art [des Recitativs] ist das Kirchen=Recitativ, und zwar mit Recht. Es wird so vorgetragen, wie es der Heiligkeit des Ortes gemäß ist. Es leidet nicht das Scherzhafte einer freyern Schreibart. Es fodert vielmehr hie und da eine lange Aushaltung, viele Vorschläge, und eine beständig unterhaltene edle Ernsthaftigkeit. Die Kunst mit welcher es auszudrücken ist, lernet man nicht anders, als aus einer überzeugenden Empfindung der Wahrheit: daß man zu GOtt redet.<<

["The first type of recitative is the 'church' recitative {the others are the 'theatrical' and
'chamber-music' types} and it is rightly called so. It is performed in a manner which conforms to the sacredness/sanctity of the place {the church.} It does not tolerate a non-serious treatment that might issue from a freer manner of composition/presentation; on the contrary, it demands here and there the ability to sustain long notes with good breath control, to execute many (types of) appoggiaturas, and maintain continually a noble seriousness. There is no other way to learn the art/skill with which this is to be expressed than by possessing the convincing feeling of the truth that you are speaking with God."]

There is no better way to express with greater clarity the essence of church music and its performance during Bach's tenure in Leipzig - Agricola performed this music under Bach's direction for a few years ('church music' here, in context, refers specifically to sacred cantatas having a number of recitatives and arias) than the phrase: "eine beständig unterhaltene edle Ernsthaftigkeit" ["a continually maintained, noble seriousness."]

p. 163

>>.so muß er [der Meister] denselben [den Schüler] sofort zu Kirchenarien anführen, in welchen man allen theatralischen und weibischen Schmuck bey Seite setzen, und als ein Mann singen muß.<<

[".and so it is that the singing teacher/coach must immediately direct the singing student to sing church arias in which you must put aside all the decorative and effeminate mannerisms/ornamentation and sing as a man would."]

The final statement appears to attack the 'lite,' dainty approach to performing any kind of church music.

Doug Cowling wrote (July 31, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < [".and so it is that the singing teacher/coach must > immediately direct the singing student to sing church > arias in which you must put aside all the decorative > and effeminate mannerisms/ornamentation and sing as a man would."]
The final statement appears to attack the 'lite,' > dainty approach to performing any kind of church music. >
So how would you perform the "Laudamus Te" in the B Minor Mass (BWV 232)? It is full of what I would call "dainty" and "effeminate" ornaments?

John Pike wrote (August 1, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] I am rapidly running out of patience with this thread.

The unjustified attacks on HIP performance is disgraceful. The statements Thomas has made about the characteristics of HIP performance are dogmatic, opinionated and unsustainable. He has not shown that the tempi chosen by HIP conductors are "too fast", although it is often the case that HIP performances are "faster" than some others. This is a vitally idistinction.

Regarding the obituary of Bach by CPE Bach et al, I have discussed Thomas' translation of "lebhaft" with my German wife, who confirmed that this would more usually be translated as "lively" and that "passionate" would be a translation one would consider more when referring to a person who argued his case in conversation "lebhaft".

Of course most people are capable of telling the difference between a good and bad performance, especially people on this list, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about differences in TASTE and different OPINIONS between different members of the group. Most of the recordings we discuss on this list are good to a reasonable degree, eg good intonation, correct notes etc etc. What you seem to be saying, and what I find so offensive and simplistic, is that HIP performances are, generally speaking, bad. With this latest quaotation, you also seem to be implying that, because Brad, Uri, myself and others don't share your views on HIP performance, we are incapable of detecting a bad performance and therefore in a very small minority of people who don't even have the most basic ability to tell the difference between a good performance and a bad one. Moreover, the implication is that HIP performers are bad musicians and incompetent. This is highly offensive and absolute nonsense (list rules prevent me from using a more appropriate expletive here).

Lets be clear about this. We are all entitled to our views and we are all qualified to say what we do or don't like. We all have our own opinions and our own taste, and that's fine. But that does not entitle anyone to make dogmatic and opinionated statements that HIP performance is poor and that HIP performers are incompetent.

When I write my comments about performances I have listened to, I am careful to include words to acknowledge that the comments reflect my own views or taste, and to imply that others may hold valid but differing views.

Please make your comments in future with a little more humility, or am I asking too much?

John Pike wrote (August 1, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Very well said, Brad. Very measured and spot on.

John Pike wrote (August 1, 2005):
Thomas Braatz quoted "For this reason, unfortunately, music has been so abused and scornfully treated by these people by frequently using it for their own glorification, for satisfying their own personal desires and sensual pleasures, for frivolous dances and even for shameful, immoral songs so that all of these things certainly can not be answered for in the sacred presence of God. To be sure, even those who would want to help further the proper use of music are then, in turn, considered by the ignorant to be unrealistic and foolish."]
How tiresome. Are you suggesting his comments could apply to current HIP performance? All I can say to this continued nonsense is that I beg to differ.

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 2, 2005):
This is simply to read into the record from a source with which J. S. Bach was quite well acquainted:

>>.der Kirchen-styl ist sehr unterschieden von dem 'theatrali'schen oder Cammer-Styl.<< p. 583

[".the church style {of composition and performance} is very different from the theatrical or chamber music style {of composition and performance}."]

'Stilo Ecclesiastico, gall. Stile pour l'Eglise, lat. Stylus Ecclesiasticus,' der Kirchen-Styl, ist voller Majestät, ehrbar und ernsthafft, kräftig die Andacht einzuflössen, und die Seele zu GOtt zu erheben.<< p. 584

["The 'Stilo Ecclesiastico,' French 'Stile pour l'Eglise,' Latin 'Sylus Ecclesiasticus,' German 'Kirchen-Styl,' English 'Church Style' is full of majesty, honorable (demanding attention and respect) and serious (solemn, ceremonious), strongly promoting devotions (reverent thoughts) {of the members of the congregation} and uplifting the soul or state of mind to God."]

from Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748) "Musicalisches Lexicon oder Musicalische Bibliothec" [Leipzig, 1732]

Johann Gottfried Walther was an organist, composer and theorist. He was a distant relative of Johann Sebastian Bach. Both were on friendly terms with each other. After negotiating with a Leipzig publisher for the publication of the above musical dictionary, Bach even served as a sales agent in Leipzig. He may also have served as proofreader and contributed articles himself. In any case, we can assume that Bach was familiar with most if not all of its contents and may at least made some suggestions for its improvement before it was published.


Alain Bruguieres wrote (August 3, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thank you, Thomas, for this interesting quotation from Walther (who

However reading this and other quotations you gave, I wonder. In other words I read the text you quote, and I don't understand the same thing as you do...

Baroque music, and especially Bach's music, is characterized by an all-pervading interplay between many musical languages or styles. I would suggest that when the composer uses a style/language outside of its natural context in such a way that the spirit of the piece is preserved (so that an inattentive listener would not even notice it) then he's touching the core of the Baroque idea. Countless examples come to my mind; the very notion of the Neumeister Cantata is based on this baroque principle (operatic techniques used in the church). But consider even the 48, surely you will agree with me that there you can find both the 'church style' and the 'chamber music style'. Similarly with the Partitas and Suites for Violin solo.

Walther was a great admirer of Bach's works and surely took no objection on this way of intermingling styles. Moreover - unlike Mattheson, he was certainly innocent in the matter of Bach's assassination :-) .

When a theoretician describes a style, he describes some abstraction, an archetypical and purely theoretical kind of music which is not actual baroque music, but one of its many ingredients. Identifying 'church style' with 'music played in a church' is about as naive as identifying curry with, say, cardamom, or believing that, if you know enough about pigments your're a painter... Walther is describing a few pigments here - not telling us about actual music. At least that's what I understand reading these words.

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 3, 2005):
Alain Bruguieres wrote: < (...)Walther was a great admirer of Bach's works and surely took no objection on this way of intermingling styles. (...) When a theoretician describes a style, he describes some abstraction, an archetypical and purely theoretical kind of music which is not actual baroque music, but one of its many ingredients. Identifying 'church style' with 'music played in a church' is about as naive as identifying curry with, say, cardamom, or believing that, if you know enough about pigments your're a painter... Walther is describing a few pigments here - not telling us about actual music. At least that's what I understand reading these words. >
A welcome perspective, thanks Alain!

On theory, criticism, preparation, and performance:

Serious musicians, given a reliable score plus adequate training/inspiration in stylistic conventions plus a healthy imagination and creativity (i.e. thinking through the music with careful understanding of its construction, irregularities, tensions, direction), will come up with something that sounds convincing if we deliver it with strong conviction. In cases where the composer is no longer with us, we must stand in for that role, to create something as fresh and alive as if the composer were directing it, taking full responsibility for every note and every phrase to get into a credible spirit of the music.

And in this admittedly difficult and risky task, it does not help if there are curmudgeons and self-appointed pseudo-theorists telling us what we must not do, and whom we must not employ, according to their own arbitrary dives into the material. The interminable fault-finding (and its accompanying lack of trust) ruins conviction. And it throws the music itself out of the spotlight, replacing the music with merely an unqualified critic's own opinions and a wish to heard. Well, the musical performance must serve much more than one noisy critic and his/her preconceived expectations; it must communicate with everybody present, at some level or another, to be done well.

As for theory, it is very valuable in training and rehearsal, to know what types of patterns are recognizable and important in the music; at least when the theory is put forth by people who really understand the inner workings of music (i.e. constructing something meaningful and useful, through their careful and broad observation of the material). But theory itself, and all the various tangents of possible criticism, must be left aside the moment one is onstage (or in the liturgical flow of a church service). The main thing that matters at the downbeat, and all the way through the piece, is good preparation plus conviction plus inspiration in the highly particular task at hand. It will be somewhat different every time the music is performed; that is a fact of life and of all living things...which is the same way music works, acting like a living thing, and moving through the time and space of the performance situation. Any theorists who would know even a fragment of this, from the perspective of actually doing this work (such as Walther himself, as composer/performer/teacher), are better placed to say something than any pseudo-theorists who have never been there.

And yet, even if one would "know" everything on paper that there is to know, from Walther or whomever in all his writings and compositions, it still must be left aside in the moments of performance; because excellent performance is not about books. Nor is it about mechanically reproducing someone else's ideas, no matter how well those might be prepared as simulacrum. It is about allowing the music to live in whatever moment and circumstances it is being presented, for the people who are in attendance, for the refreshment of their spirits and the edification of their souls. It must speak now. The performers, and the venue itself, are catalysts for the music to take on present life, and for the music to have something to say. The music saying something through the performers, and not merely vice versa.

Criticism (and especially pseudo-academic criticism), in such a moment where the music is to be heard, is just a destructive shouting in front of the music, prohibiting its forthright delivery to its audience. Such a critic does not trust good musicianship and good intentions of the performers, where the critic believes his own opinion is somehow more important (and somehow more interesting/deserving on center stage) than the opinions of those who are charged/entrusted with performing the piece.

In such an occasion, nothing suffers more than the music does: being squelched by prejudices and by lack of trust that something meaningful will occur, since the performers are not allowed to do our tasks in best faith. The criticism on center stage prohibits anyone else's free intake and enjoyment of the material: trying to hear it through and around the unwelcome critical blockage. Music, at its best, does not raise its voice to shout over self-important criticism. Rather, it expects criticism to listen in respectful silence, so that music's quietest moments can also be heard as part of the range.

Any critics or would-be-theorists who were there not to have the spirit refreshed, or to have the soul edified in open receptivity, have missed the main point: because music is an art of specifics, not generalities, and because (in part) it's about the carefully controlled--or inspired--frustration of expectations. Music sets up its own field of expectations as it goes along, and then it confirms or frustrates them as the piece continues to move. Anybody else's expectations only get in the way of this process.

And as a listener, and as a performer, I'd rather hear the music.

John Pike wrote (August 3, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] I don't think anyone would dispute this general principle, but surely that does not mean to say that every movment of every church piece must be performed with the utmost solemnity?

Neil Halliday wrote (August 3, 2005):
John Pike wrote < I don't think anyone would dispute this general principle (seriousness in church music), but surely that does not mean to say that every movment of every church piece must be performed with the utmost solemnity? >
Indeed, no, I have been gravitating to the Richter recording of BWV 147's opening chorus more and more, and it is anything but "solemn". Those 'rippling' semiquavers in all the parts brilliantly convey a sense of trembling with joy, in my view not inappropriate in a church.

(This 1961 recording must demonstrate Richter at the height of his powers; I notice that the choir sounds considerably more forced in BWV 10's opening chorus, recorded in 1974, which follows on the same Archiv CD.)

But I would be interested in some opinions comparing Leusink and Harnoncourt in BWV 147's chorale. To me, the former has the relaxed, flowing motion that seems appropriate; whereas the latter definitely sounds like music for a secular occasion - or is this just my opinion?

Peter Bright wrote (August 3, 2005):
[To Neil Halliday] Yes, this was a glorious period for Richter - wasn't his celebrated Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) released around this time?

John Pike wrote (August 3, 2005):
[To Alain Bruguieres] Thank you, Alain, for this very thoughtful e mail. I absolutely agree about the intermingling of styles. For me, the 48 and the solo violin works are some of the most spiritual music Bach wrote. I was listening to Rosalyn Tureck's 1975 recordings of the 48 on my way into work this morning and thought how deeply spiritual the music was. With so much music to listen to, just by Bach alone, I rarely get chances to hear these masterpieces, but when I do, just as with the solo violin works, which I was also listening to recently, I get a very strong sense of being in the presence of God, perhaps more so than many other overtly religious works by Bach.

Experienced musicians starting to learn a piece for the first time will ask themselves questions like "what type of music is this? What is it trying to say? What sort of moods are present? etc etc. In Bach, there may be multiple answers for any one movement, and, as has been said several times before, secular music is often recycled as sacred. There are no clear barriers between the styles. An excellent performance will often bring out these different facets. i am sure we are not supposed to say "OK This is a church cantata so I am suddenly going to get all solemn, even if that is not what the feel of the music is saying to me".

I was reading Uri's recent paper on the MBM yesterday. It is really fascinating to see how excellent musicians really think about every figure in the music and ask themselves very carefully what that is saying, and how it should be phrased/gestured to express that meaning. Take for example, the G-F sharp figure, described by John Butt, I think, as a "sigh" figure, or some of the other 4 figures, which various commentators have detected in just those opening bars of the 1st Kyrie.

John Pike wrote (August 3, 2005):
[Tp Peter Bright] And his fine 1958 recording of the SMP, still one of my favourites, despite my love of more HIP recordings.

Lew George wrote (August 3, 2005):
I have followed with interest the sometimes heated discussion over (mainly) tempi which suit best the performances of Bach's religious cantatas, and have learnt much from the historical quotations made by Thomas and others. I thank all concerned. It is wonderful to think that Bach's music can still be discussed with a passion that, at times, has verged on the Wagnerian on this site.

I have just listened to the religious and secular versions of BWV 30 by Harnoncourt and Rilling respectively. The former is slower by around 25% in the opening chorus on Rilling, thus reinforcing to me BWV 30a's buoyant "secular" quality. Psychologically, the lopitch (HIP inspired I would think) in Harnoncourt adds to a more sombre reception of his performance when directly compared with Rilling. The arias tend to be faster by Rilling, and have a livelier feel, especially in the female solos, no doubt in part due to the greater skill of Rilling's soloists. I will be interested to hear how Suzuki performs BWV 30 when he gets around to it, as there is a 26 year difference between the Harnoncourt (1974) and Rilling (2000) releases, and perhaps tempo in Bach has increased just as tempo in life has over this period.

The lighter choral textures and livelier solos perhaps contribute to a "secular" mood for Rilling, but, as God is not mentioned once in BWV 30a (even if a case could be made for implication), I feel the words play the key role in how the two versions of BWV 30 are received by listeners, and in how interpretation is decided by the musicians involved. My own reaction to the two recorded versions discussed was certainly influenced by the differing texts.

Chris Kern wrote (August 3, 2005):
I personally find it hard to appreciate and comprehend the discussions, lacking both a background in 18th century music and 18th century Lutheranism.

For my own personal aesthetic, "speed" and "seriousness" are not inextricably connected. I've been listening to BWV 147 by Harnoncourt and Leusnik this week. Harnoncourt is noticably faster, but I do not find that this makes me think "secular". In church, I have sung a number of hymns that had joyful lyrics and were sung and played (by the organist) at a rapid tempo.

Perhaps 18th-century Lutheran church sensibilities were different, but I find it hard to put myself in that mindset. I personally liked the Harnoncourt version of the BWV 147 chorale better than the Leusnik, and I'm not sure I can just ignore that personal reaction because it may not be what Bach intended. I like the contrast between the quick, "bouncy"-sounding ritornello and the slower singing of the lyrics. It seems to provide a good mix between the joy and the reverent thankfulness expressed by the lyrics of the chorale.

With the opening choral fugue, I don't find that a simple variation in the speed or expression of the music makes a difference between a "secular" and a "sacred" sound. The joy expressed in the trumpet line and the fugue itself are independent of the speed.

Since I am not listening to the music in a church setting, I see no need to push aside my own personal enjoyment of the fast tempos and force myself to prefer the slower tempos -- perhaps Bach is rolling in his grave; I don't know.

Doug Cowling wrote (August 3, 2005):
Seriousness & Tempo

Lew George wrote: < I have just listened to the religious and secular versions of BWV 30 by Harnoncourt and Rilling respectively. The former is slower by around 25% the opening chorus on Rilling, thus reinforcing to me BWV 30a's buoyant "secular" quality. >
We are merely reenforcing a 19th century Romantic myth when we suggest that a "sacred" style should be more "solemn" and that the principal hallmark of this solemnity should be a slow tempo.

A couple of points to be made here:

There is no evidence whatsover that the same music was performed at different tempos in a secular concert and a church service. I come back again and again to the opening of the Christmas Oratorio and its secular origin as "Tönet Ihr Pauken. It is the same music and I simply don't believe that Bach would have performed it at two different tempos.

The notion of slow solemnity comes from a 19th century misreading of the notation of the 16th and 17th centuries. The old "white" notation of breves and the like was pretty much superseded by modern notation by Bach's time, although we see it in movements like the "Credo" and "Confiteor" of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) where Bach is using it self-consciously as an "antique style" to symbolize the continuity of faith. The 19th century saw the alla breve notation and incorrectly thought the quarter note was equivalent to a modern quarter and performed the music at lugubrious tempi. Even up to WWII, the music of the 16th century was performed at these "solemn" slow tempi. It was only in the last 30 years that scholars have demonstrated that the music should in most cases should be performed at twice the tempo. Wagner's edition of Palestrina's "Stabat Mater" makes it sound like a scene out of "Parsifal". Modern performances of Byrd and Palestrina sound postively madrigalian compared to pre-war renderings.

If we look at the Renaissance music in the collections used every Sunday by Bach and his choirs, we see that the old "white" notation is used, and so there would be a very strong visual difference between the older "stilo antico" and Bach's "new' music. It's hard to know when tempi began to slow in the performance of older music. Could it have started by Bach's time? I tend to doubt that. Both the "Credo" and the "Confiteor" are followed by movements which are written in modern notation, and if we assume that there is a proportional equivalency, then it appears that Bach did not envisage a constant quarter note as tactus.

Another factor which helped create the "solemnity" of the church style was performance pitch. 19th century choirs performed 16th and early 17th century music at the pitches they found in the scores. The shift in performing pitch since the 16th century was enormous. A recent recording of the Victoria motets was pitched a major third higher than the score. The sound was bright and brilliant. The 19th century already peforming the music at too-slow tempos also laboued under the misconception that sacred music was hushed and dark because of the low pitch.

My point here is that our notion of sacred solemnity comes out of faulty 19th century performance practices which have been perpetuated by uninformed modern choirs and post-Romantic film scores.



Continue on Part 16


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