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Opera and the Dramma per Musica

Oper und “Dramma per Musica” [Opera and the Dramma per Musica]
an article by Alberto Basso
[pp. 48-63 from Die Welt der Bach Kantaten, Metzler/Bärenreiter, 1997]
Summary Translation by Thomas Braatz

It is understandable that many people use the terms, ‘opera’ and ‘dramma per musica’, side-by-side as obvious equivalents, particularly since dramma per musica generally appears as an addition to the title of an opera, the latter form being the highest expression that the music theater has achieved. In this way one could distinguish between the poetry of the libretto and the musical composition to which the text is set. However, it is just this distinction which leads to misunderstandings when considering Bach’s drammi per musica, his secular cantatas which carry this title, a title placed there by the librettist, but not by Bach. Bach’s drammi per musica secular cantatas were not composed with the intention to have them put on stage, but rather to have them performed by the singers and instrumentalists who were members of a collegium musicum. Such performances were intended to complement and embellish a celebration which could be an event that would take place in a public or private place (a coffee house or a banqueting hall or outside in a garden or on a city square).

Such drammi per musica have no direct connection with the complex, multifarious world of the music theater, but they might be something more like a spin-off of that kind of theater. They rather invite us implicitly to consider a more hypothetical rather than a real connection that Bach may have had to opera defined as an Italian melodrama and its milieu.

Bach might actually have had many opportunities to develop a genuine connection to the music theater, if his personal history and good fortune had been kinder to him. In all the places where Bach during his lifetime worked as cantor, organist, Kapellmeister or director of musical activities, it was fate that prevented him from also presenting himself as the author of a work of music drama, assuming even that he might have ever wanted to become an opera composer.

Already toward the end of his music apprenticeship, Bach had the opportunity to have contact with the German opera in Hamburg. His numerous visits from Lüneburg to Hamburg between 1700 and 1701 certainly did not have as their sole purpose simply to improve his skill in organ playing. In addition they also would have served to present to the young musician valuable opportunities to become acquainted with the various, current categories and styles of music available in Europe at that time. He would also have become acquainted with different views of life and about music-making that were no longer simply provincial. These views which, on the one hand, nourished as they were by an uninterrupted flood of international exchanges, were open for all kinds of new ideas, but which, on the other hand, were determined by local conditions and ultimately directed towards eliciting a response from a large circle of musicians and musical institutions. Among the latter was the Gänsemarkt Opera House that was established in 1678. This is where Bach was to become acquainted with the operas by composers like Johann Philipp Förtsch, Johann Sigmund Kusser, Reinhard Keiser and a still very young Johann Mattheson.

In addition, it is now well-established that the fifteen-year-old Bach, during his stay in Lüneburg, had the opportunity to experience performances of French and Italian opera music performed by the court chapel of nearby Celle. Particularly, however, it was instrumental music and the art of dance in the French style as practiced at the court at Versailles which was emphasized here with the support of Duke Wilhelm von Braunschweig-Lüneburg, who, incidentally, was married to a French countess, Eléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse. During the years 1670 to 1689, the duke had a theater built by an Italian, Giuseppe Arighini. After the opening of this theater in 1690 and for a while thereafter, an Italian opera group regularly performed operas there. Unfortunately, this group was disbanded in 1699 because the cost of their maintenance was too high. Thus Bach did not get to hear and see this opera company. A similar missed opportunity also occurred in Arnstadt where the Countess Auguste Dorothea von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel had a little theater built in which performances of comedies, operas, and concerts took place. It was also used to stage puppet shows with the 411 puppets which the countess had collected. It is not known whether Bach was actively involved in any of the musical activities which took place there during the time when he was the organist at the New Church in Arnstadt, but it can be reasonably assumed that he might have been in attendance as a member of the audience for some of the most important events.

In Weimar where Bach spent barely a half year in 1703, he might have gained more experience with the theater, if, instead of being hired in 1708 only as an organist but rather as the court concertmaster, a position which he was given only as late as 1714. Although Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar was a very pious man, this did not keep him from avoiding the competition with other princes to attain prestige. This could only be done by not allowing the cultivation of music at the court to be of secondary importance. For this reason the duke not only supported church and chamber music, but also maintained a fully scheduled opera ensemble in Weimar from 1696 to 1709. The leader of the ensemble, Gabriel Müller, who after 1709 went to the court in Dresden, was given the privilege to give performances elsewhere in the principality as well. There was as well a court poet, a lawyer, Johann Christoph Lorber, who was commissioned to supply the libretti for these operas. Often these libretti were moralizing in nature, as, for instance, the first opera which was performed in 1696: Von der denen lasterhaften Begierden entgegengesetzten tugendlichen Liebe [About the kind of virtuous love which is exposed to depraved carnal desires]. The music for this opera was probably composed by Georg Christoph Strattner. This experience with music theater lasted only until the end of 1709 and thus the circumstances that would have allowed Bach to compose productively for opera were once again denied him.

In Calvinistic Cöthen there was no place for any stage activities. Here it was primarily instrumental music that dominated the musical scene with relatively limited opportunities provided for vocal music such as event-related cantatas, serenades, songs with which Bach would have been actively engaged in composing and performing them. This is supported by documentary evidence.

The theater situation in Leipzig was completely different: the staging of plays, which in the 17th century took place only sporadically, experienced in the 18th century a veritable boom with the regular activities provided by the actors Johann and Friederike Neuber (the latter actress also known as a playwright influenced by Johann Christoph Gottsched and referred to simply as ‘die Neuberin’). She devoted herself primarily to performing in tragedies in which she personally appeared in men’s clothing and she was instrumental in spreading the theater reforms suggested by Gottsched, but, alas, the results of her efforts were meager indeed. When on August 8, 1727 she had received the right to perform in Saxony, ‘die Neuberin’ no longer needed to solely in the open air, but was granted instead the use of a small auditorium in the Fleischhaus in Leipzig for the performance of plays. In 1734 the Neubers succumbed to the merciless competition provided by a famous harlequin, Joseph, Ferdinand Müller, and had to give up this auditorium and to retreat to a barracks located near the Grimmaisches Tor (Leipzig city gate that led to the small town of Grimma) for their performances thereafter. After a confrontation with Gottsched in 1741, the Neubers left Leipzig for Hamburg but occasionally returned until 1748 when their troupe finally disbanded.

It was always a tradition in Leipzig that tragedies and comedies were provided with musical interludes either between two acts or when there was a scene-change. These intermezzi were generally performed by the City Pipers, musicians whose services were paid for by the Leipzig City Council. It could be that these performances came under Bach’s jurisdiction as Director musices of Leipzig, even if he was only indirectly involved. It is inconceivable that Bach with such assigned responsibilities would not at least have visited such performances. Unfortunately all traces of these intermezzi have been lost. Even more unfortunate is the fact that between 1720 and 1744 there was not a single operatic production associated with a music theater. This happened for two important reasons: the bankruptcy of the Opera House am Brühl (the first performance here took place on May 8, 1693 with an opera, L’Antigone delusa d’Alceste, by Nicolaus Adam Strungk, who, along with Georg Philipp Telemann, was the most important representative of this particular opera house in Leipzig) and secondly the hindrances caused by Gottsched and his theater reforms. There was a very active production of operas for this opera house from 1693-1720 with a total of 104 opera productions; in 1708, 1709, 1712 and 1716 there were even five operas being produced in each of these years. Two-thirds of these productions followed the Italian style and many were completely new. Unfortunately, all of these have been lost. After 1720 there were no more operas performed until 1744 when a visiting opera company from Italy led by Pietro Mingotti began putting on performances in Leipzig, but this lasted only until 1751.

In 1744 when the operas were once again being performed in Leipzig, Bach could no longer find anything in this musical art form that would interest him. He was then approaching the then contemporary musical styles and current language usage with reservations on his part, if not with complete disapproval. On a visit to Berlin in May and June of 1747, Bach’s critical attitude was evidenced in his positive and negative appraisal of the acoustics of the Berlin Opera House recently built by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff on a commission by King Frederick the Great. Bach’s assessment was based upon not only a profound insight into technical aspects but also upon his extensive experience with all the various environments where music was performed. This experience included not only churches, banquet halls or coffee houses.

Lacking any opportunity for music theater in Leipzig, the next place that the people of Leipzig turned to was Dresden. Dresden was not only the nearest city for such activities; it was certainly more prestigious in many ways compared to Leipzig. The production of Italian operas was just reaching its pinnacle at this time. It is naturally possible that Bach may have made his first acquaintance with the operas being produced in Dresden in September, 1717, when he was there for the competition with Louis Marchand which supposedly took place in Dresden. It was precisely in July of that same year that Antonio Lotti had been hired to establish a school for vocalists (a singing school) based upon an Italian model. This was in preparation for the opening of the court theater which was being built. The first opera performance under Antonio Lotti’s direction was to take place on October 25 in the Grand Hall. Giove in Argo was the first of three operas which Lotti had composed for the Elector of Saxony’s court. It was repeated again on September 13, 1719. This latter date was also that for the consecration the newly completed Court Theater, a part of a complex of structures which Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann had been designing and building between 1709 and 1728. We do not know whether Bach was present for a performance of this opera in October, 1717, but since he no longer was in the service of the Weimar court and had not as yet begun composing for the court at Cöthen, he may have been a part of the audience at that time and place.

From the documents available to us now, we cannot conclude whether Bach, after accepting his position in Leipzig, had any opportunity to attend any opera performances in Dresden. There were only two public performances of operas composed by Alberto Ristori, more specifically, one in September, 1726, Calandro, a Commedia per Musica, the other in February, 1727, Un pazzo ne fa cento ovvero Don Chisciotte, that were presented before the arrival of Johann Adolf Hasse on July 7, 1737, who officially became the court capellmeister in Dresden. We do know that Bach was present in Dresden in September, 1725, and in September, 1731. In 1725 Bach presented his petition to the elector as he hoped for a final decision in the matter regarding the musical directorship for the ‘old’ and ‘new’ church services that were under the auspices of the University of Leipzig. Bach gave two concerts on the Silbermann organ, but no other information about his stay is available. In 1731 Bach was once again invited to give an organ concert (on September 14th at the Sophienkirche) and this time he attended with his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, a performance of Hasse’s opera Cleofide which had had its first performance one day earlier and which featured Hasse’s wife, Faustina Bordoni, in the main role.

Now Bach never lacked opportunities, particularly after November 19, 1736, when Bach was given the title of court composer for the royal orchestra, to visit Dresden which he did on numerous occasions before and after this date. For example, in July 1733, when Bach formally requested his title, he gave Friedrich August II the performing parts for his Missa (Kyrie and Gloria of BWV 232) or in July and August, 1736, when Bach was possibly involved in the preparations for the extended festivities for the royal couple who would return from Warsaw after a two-year stay. On August 10, 1736, three days after the return of the royal couple, there was a performance of Alberto Ristori’s opera, Le fate, and it would have been possible for Bach to attend this performance, assuming that he was still present in Dresden on that date.

There is proof of three adoccasions when Bach visited Dresden: on December 1, 1736, Bach gave an organ concert in the Frauenkirche, in May, 1738, (Hasse’s Alfonso was performed on May 11) and in November 1741, when Bach was a guest of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. Other documents imply that Bach must have been in Dresden even more frequently than the dates listed above. Accordingly, we can assume that he would have been present at diverse musical events that took place at court and would have had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the distinct characteristics of Italian opera without, however, allowing them to influence his opinions on music generally. These views would have been firm and, in any case, were focused on different issues which did not allow for a comparison in particular with his sacred cantatas. Moreover, one should not forget that the style of Bach’s recitatives had nothing in common with short, uniform (monotonous) secco-recitatives composed by Italians or by German epigones who were generally of a mediocre quality and who often delegated the composition of such recitatives to their collaborators or students. The form of the arias, in contrast, was strophic, in two or three sections, notwithstanding the unimportant distinctions between secular and sacred cantatas, originated from the tradition that, to a great extent, was more widely practiced.

In order to obtain a better picture of the activities that made up the world of music theater in Dresden during those years when Bach might have had connections with it, the following list is presented. It contains with one exception, a Singspiel, only Italian operas which were performed in Dresden between 1734 and 1750 either in the Court Theater (Hoftheater) or at the Residenz Hubertusburg, in the little wooden theater built in the Zwinger in 1746, or in the garden of this unusual pavilion arrangement.



Date (Day/Month)

Cajo Fabricio

J. A. Hasse


L'artigiano gentiluomo (Intermezzi)

J. A. Hasse

Le fate

G. A. Ristori



G. A. Ristori

7.10.1736 *


J. A. Hasse



J. A. Hasse



J. A. Hasse


La clemenza di Tito

J. A. Hasse



J. A. Hasse



J. A. Hasse


La clemenza di Tito (Repeat)

J. A. Hasse



J. A. Hasse


La serva padrona (Intermezzi)

G. B. Pergolesi


J. A. Hasse


Numa Pompilio

J. A. Hasse

7.10.1741 *

Pimpinella e Marcantonio (Intermezzo)

J. A. Hasse

Lucio Papirio

J. A. Hasse


Didone abbandonata

J. A. Hasse

7.10.1742 *

Numa Pompilio (Repeat)

J. A. Hasse

Carneval 1743

Didone abbandonata (Repeat)

J. A. Hasse

Carneval 1743

L'asilo d'amore

J. A. Hasse

7.10.1743 *


J. A. Hasse

Carneval 1744


J. A. Hasse



P. Scalabrini

7.7.1746 +


L. Vinci

23.8.1746 +

Astrea placata

J. G. Scharer

29.10.1746 +


J. G. Scharer

8.11.1746 +


J. A. Hasse


Doris (Singspiel)

J. G. Scharer

13.2.1747 +

Don Tabarano (Intermezzo)

J. A. Hasse


P. Scalabrini

25.5.1747 +


P. Scalabrini


La spartana generosa

J. A. Hasse



P. Scalabrini

25.6.1747 +

Galatea (Repeat)

J. G. Scharer

28.6.1747 ++

Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe

Chr. W. Gluck

29.6.1747 ++


N. Porpora


Ercole sul Termodonte

J. G. Scharer

19.7.1747 +


J. A. Hasse

7.10.1747 *

La spartana generosa (Repeat)

J. A. Hasse

Carneval 1748


J. G. Scharer



J. A. Hasse


Leucippo (Repeat)

J. A. Hasse

Carneval 1748 +

Il natal di Giove

J. A. Hasse

7.10.1749 *

Attilio Regolo

J. A. Hasse


* Performance at the Hubertusburg
+ Performance in the little theater of the Zwinger
++ Performance in the Zwinger Garden

From the list it becomes obvious that a certain date appears on a regular basis: October 7, the birthday of the Elector Friedrich August II. Only once on this list does August 3, the elector’s name day, appear in 1737.

There were also special holidays in honor of the elector in Leipzig. These were celebrated ceremoniously, but since there was no music theater, these public functions were marked by congratulatory and tributary cantatas that were often designated as Drammi per Musica. Already during the rule of August I as well as August II (King of Poland), Bach was commissioned to compose such cantatas both for birthdays (May 12, 1727: BWV Anh. 9) and for name days (August 3) in 1727 (BWV 193a), 1732 (BWV Anh. 11) and 1733 (BWV Anh. 12). Other cantatas were performed on September, 1733 (for Prinz Friedrich Christian: BWV 213), on December 8, 1733 (for the birthday of the electress: BWV 214), and on February 19, 1734 (for the coronation of August III: BWV 205a). Under Friedrich August II (his title was actually August III) there was no lack of festive cantatas. The elector’s name day was celebrated on three occasions: in 1735 with BWV 207a, in 1740 with BWV 206 version 2a, in 1742 with BWV 208a version 3a, while his birthday (October 7) was celebrated with only one cantata, BWV 206 version 1a and in 1739 with a Serenata of which neither the text nor the music have survived.

Between 1727 and 1742 Bach was commissioned by the Leipzig authorities to provide the music for the festivities in honor of the elector’s family. For this purpose he performed a total of 15 compositions in public locations with Zimmermann’s Coffee House providing the main site for Bach’s Collegium musicum performances. For the latter Bach often reused earlier compositions and the librettist upon whom he relied was for the most part Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander). Nine of these cantatas have the subtitle Drama per Musica. Despite the implications of the subtitle, it should be noted that it does not relate solely to Bach’s cantatas composed for royalty but also to other similar works dedicated to public figures both of nobility and from the citizenry of Leipzig. The subtitle Dramma per Musica appears 15 times: BWV Anh. 9 (BC G 14), BWV 193a (G 15), BWV Anh. 11 (G 16), BWV 213 (G 18), BWV 214 (G 19), BWV 205a (G 20), BWV 215 (G 21), BWV 206 version 1 (G 23), BWV 206 version 2a (G 26), BWV 249b (G 28), BWV 30a (G 31), BWV 205 (G 36), BWV 207 (G 37), BWV 201 (G 46) and BWV 211 (G 48).

In the Bach Werke Verzeichnis the subtitle Dramma per Musica appears for the first time in 1725 for the cantata, Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus, BWV 205, a cantata using a text by Henrici-Picander written for the name day celebration on August 3 of August Friedrich Müller, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. The last cantata to carry this subtitle was Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Auen!, BWV 30a, probably also composed to a text by Henrici-Picander andperformed in honor of Johann Christian von Hennicke who became the owner of a manor on September 28, 1737. This time frame from 1725-1737 is very short even if allowing the assumption based upon some minor changes in the text that a repeat performance of BWV 206, Schleicht, spielende Wellen, may have taken place for the elector’s name day celebration on August 3, 1740. This cantata with the subtitle Dramma per Musica received its first performance in 1736 on the prince’s birthday (October 7). This relatively short time span (1725-1737) compared to the much longer span covered by the performance of operas at the court in Dresden, operas which, according to a wide-spread custom, also frequently appear with the same subtitle, Dramma per Musica.

The use of this subtitle, drama (or dramma) per musica, which replaced other similar subtitles like poema dramatico, rappresentazione in musica, tragedia musicale, drama rappresentato in musica, drama musicale, opera drammatica, and other similar subtitles, had come into existence even before the first half of the 17th century. For example, drama per musica can be found on the libretto of Il Titone by Giovanni Faustini (music composed by Francesco Cavalli) from 1645. Faustini frequently used this term and was followed in this tradition by other librettists: Minato, Busenello, Aureli, Noris, Cicognini and Apollini. By 1665 it was already in common use and appeared side-by-side in the annals of opera houses until the 1830s with a less frequently used form: Commedia per musica.

The concept behind drama per musica characterizes a dramatic category which indeed by its nature had to be dramatic – it was complete with dramatis personae – but not necessarily tragic (there are to be sure tragedies with a good outcome as well) and which was identified with the opera seria. The most important and fundamental criterion naturally was the type of performance: it was a matter of having a performance with sets, costumes and stage machinery and in which the main characters were of a serious nature (historic or mythologic) even if comic roles were tolerated in subplots.

In Leipzig where the lack of an opera house was perceived as a relatively great deprivation – it was closed in 1720 and opened again in 1744 – it had become customary to use the designation drama per musica as indicating that such works were not to be staged. It was almost as if they envisioned this type of imaginary theater as a substitute for the real thing which they were direly lacking. Nevertheless, such drammi per musica did have actors and a plot with dialogues. Based upon the purpose for which these compositions were designed, such works sometimes had titles like Tafel-Musik or Serenata (the latter term being the equivalent to the German concept of Abendmusik). All Bach cantatas carrying the subtitle Dramma per musica did indeed call for personified singing roles. The only exception here is BWV 215 which was performed on October 5, 1734 and which has on the printed program flyer Abend-Music, while Bach wrote on the score Drama per Musica overo Cantata gratulatoria. On the other hand, there are two other cantatas without the subtitle Drama per Musica that nevertheless have personified singing roles: the incomplete cantata BWV 216 from 1728 and its parody BWV 216a (perhaps from 1729), and a different cantata, BWV 212, from 1742 originally given the subtitle Cantate en burlesque and having a female character Mieke. Predominant are figures that are mythological (Apollo, Minerva, Merkur, Herkules, Midas, Pomona, Äolus, Phöbus, Pan, etc.) or allegorical (der Ruhm (fame), das Schicksal (fate), die Gerechtigkeit (Justice), etc. or figures representing rivers (Pleiße, Donau, Elbe, Weichsel). Only in two instances, the Coffee (BWV 211) and Peasant (BWV 212) Cantatas are people from everyday life represented: Liesgen and Schlendrian (BWV 211); Mieke and a peasant (BWV 212). Here the contrast between the opera seria with all of its variants: drama eroico, favola pastorale, favola boschereccia, melodrama, etc. all of which borrow their figures from history or mythology, and the intermezzo or opera buffa with all of their typical characters drawn from common life.

All of these drammi were composed for special occasions and performed en plein air or in special rooms or halls that were appropriate for this purpose. They demanded much less time from their singers and instrumentalists ranging from only 25 to 30 minutes for the shorter ones and up to 50 to 55 minutes for the longest which might be considered the equivalent to only a single act of an opera. For this reason the complete program could not depend upon only upon this single composition but had to be extended to include instrumental sections such as a concerto or an ouverture.

All of Bach’s drammi per musica consist of 9 to 15 mvts. Those with 9 mvts. are BWV 207, BWV 214, BWV 215; with 10 mvts. BWV 211 (Coffee Cantata in which the first mvt. is a recitative inviting the audience to listen to the cantata); with 11 mvts. there are BWV 193a, BWV 206 (both versions), BWV 249b, BWV Anh. 12; with 13 mvts. there are BWV 30a, and BWV 213; and with 15 mvts. there are BWV 201, BWV 205 and BWV 205a. The number of soloists is usually four, but is reduced to three in BWV 211 and BWV Anh. 11 and can be expanded to six in BWV 201. The chorus is always present except in BWV 211 (in the latter a Chor is indicated but is in reality intended for an ensemble of 3 soloists).

The presence of a chorus at both the beginning and end of a cantata is what distinguishes clearly Bach’s drammi per musica from those composed by Bach’s contemporaries and it does not matter whether they represent the German or Italian school of opera. The determining factor for the scope of the chorus (BWV 215 even has a double chorus) is the occasion for which a chorus is being composed: In almost every case, it is concerning a celebratory music which is of a festive, congratulatory, or tributary nature. The chorus embodies an undefined group of persons and its function differs very little from that of the great introductory choruses that appear in the cantatas composed for a liturgical service. To a certain extent Bach used the wisdom and depth he had acquired as a church musician in composing sacred music and applied this to the secular realm: in those places where a galant style would have been more appropriate, a style of music with more of a light entertainment quality and one conceived with the purpose in mind to delight the public who assembled in the coffee houses and gardens.

Only one of Bach’s drammi per musica has an instrumental introduction: BWV 249b. The latter even has two instrumental mvts. with one following the other directly. While this might appear strange at first glance, it could possibly represent Bach’s intention to distinguish this type of composition clearly from a genuine opera, and in doing so to ensure that the drama per musica, which was typical for Leipzig society, would not be considered as a kind of miniature opera.

A practice that can be established throughout these drammi per musica is the alternation of recitatives and arias (which also appear in the form ofduets). The number of recitatives reaches a maximum of seven (in BWV 201, BWV 205, BWV 205a) while the arias have only six (in the same cantatas mentioned, cantatas which have a maximum of 15 mvts. If you consider that operas like those, for instance, by Scarlatti, Händel or Hasse can generally have a total of 40 arias (this includes possible duets, trios, or quartets and would come to at least 12 per act), then you can get a fairly good impression of just how limited in scope Bach’s secular cantatas are. The latter are much more like his sacred cantatas, Kirchenmusik (Kirchenstücke, Concerti as he called them). Strictly speaking, the term ‘cantatas’ is a misnomer for both types of compositions commonly called secular and sacred cantatas in Bach’s oeuvre, but both types are more closely related to each other than to the opera. Notwithstanding the essential difference in the nature of the texts between secular drammi per musica and sacred cantatas, the only other essential difference between the two forms is the presence of the chorale in sacred cantatas.

The texts of the drammi per musica are all in German, but the music appears to belong more to the type found in Italian opera. Although Bach was acquainted with German opera (his acquaintance with the Hamburg opera in his youth and later some familiarity with the German language theater productions by Telemann, Keiser and Graun -- Bach at least knew what their Passion-Oratorios were like) and although Bach was well-informed regarding French-style theater productions, particularly the dance forms used in the ballets as practiced at German courts at that time, nevertheless it was the Italian style of opera with which he occupied himself most.

Nearby Dresden offered him ample opportunity to become acquainted with this style. Generally echoes of the musical events in Dresden must have been heard in Leipzig, a university town with its lively intellectual atmosphere in various fields and a commercial center important, among other things, for its publishing activities. At the court theater in Dresden, those who dominated the production of operas (the impresarios, librettists, and singers) were Italians. Predominant influences came from Metastasio (who did not even reside in Dresden), Stefano Benedetto Pallavicino, the son of the composer Carlo Pallavicino who was active at the Dresden court from 1666 to 1673 and then again from 1687 to 1688, who was succeeded after his death (Stefano’s) in 1742 by Giovanni Claudio Pasquini. A preference in hiring was always given to Italian or German musicians whether they followed the Italian style of opera out of convenience or a consciousness of the prevailing fashion.

It is evident from the list given above that German music theater is represented only by a single title, a Singspiel by Schürer, whereas the Italian music theater has 38 titles: 21 Opere serie, 3 Intermezzi by Johann Adolf Hasse, 4 by Paolo Scalabrini as well as 4 by Johann Georg Schürer, 2 by Giovanni Alberto, Ristori and 1 by Leonardo Vinci, Nicola Porpora and Christoph Willibald Gluck and, in addition, the Serva Padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, which might have captured Bach’s interest so that he later undertook a transcription of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater using a German text based on Psalm 51 (Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083).

As already indicated, we do not know how often Bach spent time in Dresden nor do we know which performances he may have attended. These, however, are not decisive factors if we want to discover any cause-and-effect relationships between Italian operas and Bach’s drammi per musica. The final conclusion can be no other than: Bach’s drammi per musica are secular cantatas that distinguish themselves mainly by virtue of their personified vocal roles and yet, otherwise, they are completely the same in regard to their form and style of composition as Bach’s other commissioned compositions. Beyond this the boundary between the secular and sacred is so vague that the transition from one genre to the other is very easy, taking into consideration, of course, the affect which the music is attempting to reflect.


Explanation of the Summary Translation

The purpose of my summary translation is to present material which is important to the ongoing BCML discussion and to do this as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The material is particularly pertinent at this time but is only available in German and not English. In the process of providing a rather free translation which does not attempt to account for every jot or tittle of the original, it is necessary to select and edit as well as amplify and explain what the author may have been trying to present as being clear and straightforward in German but sometimes not very apparent to a reader not so familiar with the current scholarship surrounding Bach's life and works. Some passages have been left out or simply summarized while others demand additional explanation. Sometimes the original German is quoted directly, but is then followed by my translation into English. Repetitious material has been excluded as have also the footnotes at the end of the article . A strict translation, of course, would have to account for these.

I sincerely hope that interested readers will find this type of summary translation useful in coming to terms with the results of current research which are not always easily accessible to those readers who need or want to know more about a specific subject such as this.


Source: An article by Alberto Basso Oper und “Dramma per Musica”
from Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten Vol. 2 Johann Sebastian Bachs weltliche Kantaten
editors: Christoph Wolff/Ton Koopman, published by Metzler/Bärenreiter, 1997, pp. 48-63.
Translated and summarised by Thomas Braatz (July 24, 2008)


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