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Bach Books

Bach's Choral Ideal

by Joshua Rifkin

Part 2

 

 

Continue from Bach's Choral Ideal [by Joshua Rifkin] - Part 1

John Pike wrote (May 23, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] I think this e mail demonstrates why it is crucially important for you to read the whole book and not rely on the summaries made by Brad and Uri, excellent though they were. As I have insisted throughout, the arguments are complex and not amenable to quick summaries. I am not trying to be difficult when I insist that people interested in this should read the book. For someone who can afford the entire NBA and the time for extensive study, this is not a tall order.

The rosters referred to by Rifkin are of each individual choir. Although Bach rarely had much to do with choirs 2,3 and 4, he was responsible for ensuring that they were adequately supplied with musicians. I am trying to write from memory but phrases such as "so that at the very least an 8 part motet can be performed" makes it clear that Bach is not concerned solely with concerted church music in the "Entwurff". He is trying to ensure that each of the 4 choirs is adequately constituted so that, despite illness etc, there will always be enough singers to do all the types of music that will be required of them. This is NOT limited to cantatas, although it does include them in the case of the first choir. Not all the singers will necessarily be needed all the time, but if each choir is adequately constituted, the greater the chances of being able to perform all types of music. By increasing the number of singers in each roster to 2,3 or even 4 of each register, you increase these chances after allowing for illness etc., which Bach specifically refers to in the Entwurff. The point is to read the document carefully, attaching importance to every little detail included, such as the bit about "so that at the very least an 8 part motet can be sung."

Doug Cowling wrote (May 23, 2005):
Bach's choirs

John Pike wrote: < The rosters referred to by Rifkin are of each individual choir. Although Bach rarely had much to do with choirs 2,3 and 4, he was responsible for ensuring that they were adequately supplied with musicians. I am trying to write from memory but phrases such as "so that at the very least an 8 part motet can be performed" makes it clear that Bach is not concerned solely with concerted church music in the "Entwurff". He is trying to ensure that each of the 4 choirs is adequately constituted so that, despite illness etc, there will always be enough singers to do all the types of music that will be required of them. This is NOT limited to cantatas, although it does include them in the case of the first choir. Not all the singers will necessarily be needed all the time, but if each choir is adequately constituted, the greater the chances of being able to perform all types of music. >
As you can gather from my previous posts, I am very interested in the liturgical context of Bach's concerted music, especially as it relates to the "other" music which was sung, principally the "motets" by the other composers and the variety of performance styles of the congregational chorales. Because the focus of our discussions is almost exclusively on the cantatas, we rarely even look at the repertoire which Bach's singers performed.

Thomas has very kindly sent me some of the catalogue descriptions of the choral music which was in use in St, Thomas' during Bach's tenure as Cantor. The list is very impressive. There were 5, 6 and 8-part motets by composers such as Lassus, Praetorius and Handl. This is not hack music by second-rate composers! This is first-rate late Renaissance and early Baroque music which would be a challenge to any choir.

The point here is that although we obsess over Choir 1 which sang Bach's cantata, Choirs 2 and 3 performed an impressive repertoire which in many cases required proficiency equal to that needed for Bach's music. An 8-voice motet by Lassus can be easily as difficult as a chorus in a Bach cantata. In fact, I would say that the chief requirement for being in Choir I was the need to be a quick study and learn difficult new music in short order.

It strikes me that it would be a valuable resource for some scholar to reconstruct the music lists for each of the four choirs on several important days of the church year. Then we would see a Bach cantata as only one item (albeit the crown) in an impressive and complex musical program.

A look at the whole repertoire would certainly assist our discussion of the performing forces required.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 23, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote: >>But you don't know what his claims are, exactly, because you haven't read his book!!<<
From what I can gather from a few rather reticent individuals who have reported on this book (and also Yo Tomita's assessment as well,) there is nothing earth-shakingly new or different in this slightly expanded/documented lecture that Rifkin has been giving in various places over the past few years. It is primarily an attempt to present what he thinks is important to know about his theory of OVPP which he has offered in printed form elsewhere. Perhaps as an educated person who has a great interest in this theory, you have purchased and read in one afternoon this English document and have found it to be persuasive. I do not begrudge you this pleasure and no doubt it will be very instructive since, I assume, you will not be able to read or understand directly the original document upon which this OVPP is seemingly based.

John Pike wrote (May 23, 2005):
<>

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 23, 2005):
Thomas Braatz writes: "From what I can gather from a few rather reticent individuals who have reported on this book (and also Yo Tomita's assessment as well,) there is nothing earth-shakingly new or different in this slightly expanded/documented lecture that Rifkin has been giving in various places over the past few years."
Did Brad, John or Uri - who were cajoled into saying a little about this book - say that there is nothing 'earth-shakingly new or different' about it? I don't think so. But why read a book when it is easier to decide in advance what it says, for then you can rubbish the contents with impunity, without having to worry about engaging with the argument it contains.

"Perhaps as an educated person who has a great interest in this theory, you have purchased and read in one afternoon this English document and have found it to be persuasive."
As it happens I haven't, but then I also haven't decided it contains nothing 'earth-shakingly new or different' nor have I found it necessary to rubbish it or its author.

"I do not begrudge you this pleasure and no doubt it will be very instructive since, I assume, you will not be able to read or understand directly the original document upon which this OVPP is seemingly based."
Why, thank you, kind sir! But why do you assume I cannot speak German?

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 23, 2005):
John Puke wrote: >>I think this e mail demonstrates why it is crucially important for you to read the whole book and not rely on the summaries made by Brad and Uri, excellent though they were.<<
I, personally, would not say that they were excellent, but rather somewhat informative, as a step in the right direction. Somewhere I am certain that I have read or heard it stated: "If you can't really explain something well to another person, then you yourself really do not understand the material well enough and need to study it more." I assume, in this instance, that 'another person' is one with reasonable basic knowledge about Bach's performances in some of the churches of Leipzig.

>>As I have insisted throughout, the arguments are complex and not amenable to quick summaries.<<
This is no reason for anyone who has read and studied this book to hide behind the mystery of an eminently logical presentation which remains inscrutable to a non-reader of this book and which must be seen directly in order to obtain the numinous experience that can only when the book is in one's own hands.

Certainly it should be possible to highlight the key points of Rifkin's arguments without making the entire structure of his reasoning collapse as a house of cards would.
<>
>>but if each choir is adequately constituted, the greater the chances of being able to perform all types of music.<<
Yes, but this 'constituting' (assigning each of the 55 pupils {in 1730, after the greatest portion of Bach's sacred music had been composed and performed at least once} to each of the 4 choirs took place on the very first day of the school semester. During the school and church year after that point, very little shifting about from choir to choir took place except for very special reasons. This was not like the flexibility inherent in a work pool as defined in a previous message. These rosters were relatively fixed and the 3rd and 4th choirs were not of very much concern to Bach (he was actually quite angry on one occasion when he was asked to conduct the motet sung the the 3rd (motet) choir. He felt that this is what the prefects were there for and that it really was not his main concern.

Admittedly, if Bach populated his 1st and 2nd choirs with a total of 36 (minimal size)["wenigstens" is Bach's own choice of wording] with 16 singers in each (distributed properly over the 4 voice parts), then the other choirs (3 & 4) would have only about 10 singers in each if they were equally divided. The 4th choir would all sing unison, but the 3rd would have to have up to 8 'Concertisten' in order to sing the motets from the part books ("Florilegium Portense").

>>By increasing the number of singers in each roster to 2,3 or even 4 of each register, you increase these chances after allowing for illness etc., which Bach specifically refers to in the Entwurff.<<
So Bach is not going to increase mechanically the number of singers in each roster in order to avoid losing some singers along the way because of illness, etc. Bach is not going to be afraid to do what he needs to do in order to achieve good performances of his sacred music as he indicated with an ideal size of 16 singers in the choir. "Each roster" as you indicate it, certainly was not of concern for the unison-chorale 4th choir, and from appearances, Bach might have been able to get along with a dozen singers (1 Concertist and 2 Ripienists per part) in the 3rd, motet choir while allowing the 4th choir to diminish in numbers to less than 10 rather unmusical singers. (Unfortunately many of the latter group did not show much promise in advancing in their 'unmusical' abilities.)
<>

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 23, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote: >>Did Brad, John or Uri - who were cajoled into saying a little about this book<<
Since when is asking for information about the contents of a book called 'cajoling?'
<>

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 23, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] The task is impossible: to explain ANY content adequately to an unreceptive person who's ready to judge (pre-judge) the "excellence" or "informativeness" (or not) of a summary without examining the thing that is being summarized.

Beg for an explanation, get explanations from AT LEAST THREE OTHER MEMBERS who have read the book, and then pre-judge them all wrong or inadequate or uncritical?

How dare there be any judgment of our engagement of this material, or any supposed "difficulties" thereof?!?!?!?

If we can't explain this book to a person who refuses to listen to us who have read it, <>

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 23, 2005):
<>

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 23, 2005):
John Pike wrote: >>I think this e mail demonstrates why it is crucially important for you to read the whole book and not rely on the summaries made by Brad and Uri, excellent though they were.<<
Thomas Bratz wrote: < I, personally, would not say that they were excellent, but rather somewhat informative, as a step in the right direction." >
But YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK!!! How do you know whether or not their summaries are excellent? John HAS read the book, yet, with impunity you question his assesment of their summaries?!!

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 23, 2005):
Thomas Braatz writes: "And you don't even understand German properly in order to read the Entwurff' in the original!"
And here we come to the crux of the matter - Thomas Braatz SPEAKS GERMAN. That is what any and every argument/discussion comes down to in the end - "I speak German better than you so anything you have to say counts for nothing". And no-one else, it would seem, speaks German well enough - not Joshua Rifkin, not Andrew Parrott, not Dr Pike, not even Dr Pike's wife (for all that she is German!) - no, no-one else speaks or understands German as well as Thomas Braatz. And so he is right and they are wrong. Oh, if it were really only that simple........

Stephen Benson wrote (May 23, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < This is a reasonable expectation. >
It would also be a reasonable expectation that someone with pretensions to intellectual integrity would adhere to the most fundamental rules of rational discourse and at least read the text which he is so willfully trashing! <>

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 24, 2005):
[To Stephen Benson] >>willfully trashing<< seems to be your vocabulary for what I see as attempting to ascertain the truth by asking some direct questions of those who make the pretense of understanding the material that they have read and studied.

In this instance the inability to list and explain some new key points is quite similar to any list member who has listened to Gardiner's recent Bach pilgrimage release of BWV 146 "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen" and attempts to describe on the BCML what the 2nd mvt. sounds like. Why should I automatically buy this recording if two opposing viewpoints regarding the quality of the performance give an informed reader the possibility of deciding whether this purchase is necessary for true enjoyment of this mvt. which has not had any truly great performance on records until now. The detailed descriptions of what listeners hear as described by those who have listened to it carefully is what will move me to decide one way or the other. It is no different with 'buying into' theories such as the OVPP theory. I do not have to read a book if I can gather what I need to know from a good summary (like a good book critique.) Either I will be stimulated into purchasing the book in order to read and cherish its contents or I will pass on it and let my interest take me elsewhere. So far there is little about Rifkin's book that has intrigued me so that I want to find out more about what others find very persuasive. If I were writing a scholarly paper, I would not refer to it at all because I do not have access to it. But I am not producing academic research that depends on the most recent quotations of what Rifkin might have conceivably stated. It appears that you and a few others on these lists are involved in such activities and must abide by certain rules. These Bach lists, however, are here for a great variety of individuals from those just becoming acquainted with Bach's music to those who are contribute by being part of performing Bach's music or writing about it (Bach musicology). If intelligent questions are asked about these matters, there may be someone who might know or direct an individual to a source which might give further information. The OVPP theory is of a different nature since it impinges upon performance choices that are being made and do affect how Bach will be heard by many. Cloaking this theory with a veil of secrecy (which is not the case with Parrott's book which is open to scrutiny and easily available) as in the case with Rifkin's recent booklet, is primarily counter-effective in revealing why performers have decided to put this theory into practice. If Rifkin's book does not reveal significant new material beyond Parrott's book, then the former remains a book for a very few specialists who enjoy seeing a few odds and ends added to an already existing theory. If, however, the information, argumentation, and new interpretations of the original sourcebring this theory to a newer, higher level of credibility, then certainly the proponents of this theory (those of the elite few who have read this book quickly since it is quite short) should be able to offer information from this book, information which would reveal just where new advances in Rifkin's research have cinched some of the previously unclear logical argumentation.
<>

Charles Francis wrote (May 24, 2005):
Stephen Benson wrote: < It would also be a reasonable expectation that someone with pretensions to intellectual integrity would adhere to the most fundamental rules of rational discourse and at least read the text which he is so willfully trashing! <>
Mr. Rifkin has certainly won the hearts of many converts who know what they believe, even if they cannot say why. But until someone is able to articulate the compelling argument in this modern work, we will have to make do with the historical evidence.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 24, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: ">>willfully trashing<< seems to be your vocabulary for what I see as attempting to ascertain the truth by asking some direct questions of those who make the pretense of understanding the material that they have read and studied."
So Brad, Uri and John are merely pretending to understand Joshua Rifkin's book? You, having not read it, are able to ascertain this how, rxactly?

"Cloaking this theory with a veil of secrecy (which is not the case with Parrott's book which is open to scrutiny and easily available) as in the casewith Rifkin's recent booklet, is primarily counter-effective in revealing why performers have decided to put this theory into practice."
What is secret about it?!! Information as to how the Rifkin book may be obtained has been clearly offered here. What are you afraid of, exactly?

Gabriel Jackson wrote (May 24, 2005):
Charles Francis wrote: "Mr. Rifkin has certainly won the hearts of many converts who know what they believe, even if they cannot say why."
Including you, Charles, unless you no longer stand by your earlier assertion that you were convinced by the OVPP theairy...

John Pike wrote (May 24, 2005):
[To Stephen Benson] Very well said.

John Pike wrote (May 24, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] <>
<> As Steve Benson suggested, how can we take your pretences at scholarship seriously when you decide that a publication offers nothing significantly new without reading it. Any scholar worth his salt, with an interest in this topic, would get the book and read it. I am not even a scholar or musicologist of the most basic kind but I took the trouble to get the book, since it is a topic which interests me, and I can assure you that I was able to read, understand and properly reflect on it in the course of a few hours. Someone with your knowledge should be able to do as much without resorting to all these insults and refusal to take the book seriously.

Rifkin's book ofers much new thought and presentation of many historical sources and evidence. Anyone who has read it or even taken a cursory glance at the bibliography/notes at the end will realise that it is a truly scholarly piece of work. You would like pieces of work/art to be amenable to an executive summary so that you can assimilate their substance without reading the whole thing. I have to do just that very often because I just don't have the time to read whole documents all the time, but some works are just not amenable to this treatment. If you had read Rifkin's book, you would understand why his book is one such case. it is not a book of bullet points or sound bites, but a book of original thought and of close attention to the text of the Entwurff, taking each individual sentence carefully and getting to the heart of what it is actually saying. You assumed that my comment about doing this was patronising. it was not meant to be; it was merely reiterating what Rifkin had done and what we are all trying to do.

What could have been a constructive discussion about an excellent piece of scholarship has turned into another wretched flame war because of your attitude to true scholarship and to other people who want to take this book seriously. <>

Uri Golomb wrote (May 24, 2005):
John Pike wrote, in response to Thomas Braatz's recent e-mails (short quote to identify the letter in question):
< What could have been a constructive discussion about an excellent piece of scholarship has turned into another wretched flame war because of your attitude to true scholarship and to other people who want to take this book seriously. >
I was on the verge of writing something along similar lines to John's, but he said it better... I very much admire John's open-minded willingness to investigate Rifkin's text. I was professionally obliged to read it: writing a PhD on recordings of Bach's vocal music, it would have been a grave omission on my part to ignore it. John was under no such obligation -- other than his self-imposed obligation to understand the topic as thoroughly as he could before expressing an opinion in this informal forum. I think he captured, in his descriptions, much of what makes this book enjoyable, useful and valuable.

Rifkin's booklet-article is not meant to be the ultimate presentation of unalterable and unchallengeable truth. Rather, it sets out to try and decipher what Bach's ideal choir might have looked like, based on the documents he has written and on other evidence of his actual practice, stressing not only what we can learn from these sources, but also what we can't learn -- showing that they do not always allow us to distinguish between what Bach actually did and what he ultimately wanted. The reason why Rifkin's arguments cannot be reduced to a neat summary can be easily gleaned from this introductory comment by Rifkin himself:

"institutional documents no less than private ones tend to presuppose a body of shared understandings that enable them to leave a lot unsaid or said obliquely. This remains true not only for documents intended for internal consumption but also for those -- like the Muehlhausen [resignation] letter or, for that matter, the Entwurff -- written for 'outsiders' with little or no specialist understanding. Musical terminology, moreover, has changed since Bach's day, and so has the German language itself. Under these circumstances, we can scarcely assume that even the most transparent-seeming passage of the Entwurff will necessarily have had the same connotations for Bach as it does for us. In particular, we cannot read the Entwurff unreflectively in light of musical practices that we now take for granted but whose relevance to Bach's era remains unproved. A proper interpretation of the document, therefore -- one that aspires to something more than what we might call tendentious carelessness -- will demand a close analysis of its langauge and logic, bolstered wherever possible by external evidence" (Bach's Choral Ideal, pp. 15-16). Rifkin then follows his own prescription, providing both a close reading of the text itself and much external evidence about the meaning of specific terms and phrases within the text. These are presented very clearly and succinctly -- and are thus not really amenable to further reduction. Rifkin's CONCLUSIONS can be summarised -- and already have been (by John, Brad and myself); but for understanding his EVIDENCE, there is really no substitute to reading what he himself has written.

And the description of the resulting booklet as a "Bible" contradicts Rifkin's own stated purposes. It is tempting, he writes, to view the Entwurff as "a global declaration, one whose principles apply to virtually every corner of Bach's productivity and every phase of his career. Yet I would caution against making too much of one document [...] The Entwurff [...] tells us much about Bach's demands and expectations in connection with the Leipzig churches around 1730; and obviously, even Bach's most strictly focused response to the most strictly delimited problem would depend on, and reflect, a broader set of convictions. Yet one has only to think back to the Mühlhausen letter and the trit has caused generations of exegetists to recognize the dangers inherent in reading a long and complex professional life against the background of a single utterance" (p. 15).

Rifkin does set out to show what we can learn from the Entwurff, and other sources. The combined evidence shows that Bach usually employed OVPP forces; that he used ripienists in his first few months in Leipzig -- following the precedents set by his predecessors -- and then virtually stopped using them (at least in his own music), reverting to the OVPP forces he usually employed in Weimar; that there is no firm evidence that he wished to have ripienists; and that there is some persuasive -- but by no means conclusive -- evidence to suggest that he actually preferred to do without ripienists, and only used them (when he used them) as a concession to existing local practice. At no point during this discourse does Rifkin claim to have discovered The Gospel Truth, and where the evidence is inconclusive, he says so. This is not a text that has any "Biblical" pretensions; and only someone who hasn't read it can impute such pretensions upon it.

Rifkin thus readily acknowledges that there is always room for further research. And indeed, Martin Geck -- who valued Rifkin's text highly enough to publish it in his series -- has recently published an article of his own ("Bach's art of church music and his Leipzig performance forces: contradictions in the system"; Early Music 31/4 (November 2003): 559-571) which presents a rather broader picture of musical life in Leipzig (for example, the possible role of non-church musicians in church services), raising new questions that all those interested in Bach's performing forces have to tackle. One of the main contentions of Geck's article is that Bach might not have had a fixed performance practice for his vocal music in/ Leipzig: "One we realize that Bach did not have an actual solution, we can face the thought that he must have had a number of imperfect solutions" (p. 570). This is quite consistent with Rifkin's warning about assigning too much value to the Entwurff, or to any other piece of evidence about Bach's demands and practices at any particular point in his long tenure in Leipzig; but Geck seems to expand the inquiry further afield than his predecessors. It would be interesting to see where this leads; Geck is more interested in pointing out the kind of questions we might ask than in providing immediate, definitive answers (there are some tantalising speculations there -- which Geck readily concedes are yet to be proved or disproved).

Stephen Benson wrote (May 24, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < >>> willfully trashing<< seems to be your vocabulary for what I see as attempting to ascertain the truth >
No, you are not trying "to ascertain the truth". If you were simply "attempting to ascertain the truth", as you put it so disingenuously, you would get your hands on the text in question and read it! And if you were simply "attempting to ascertain the truth", you would withhold judgment until such time as you have all the facts. Categorically denying the value of a source without having read it is simple out-of-hand arrogance.
<>
< I do not have to read a book if I can gather what I need to know from a good summary (like a good book critique.) >
You DO have to read a book if you are going to take a contentious position with respect to its contents and hope to be taken seriously.
<>

Charles Francis wrote (May 24, 2005):
<>

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 25, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote: < Rifkin thus readily acknowledges that there is always room for further research. And indeed, Martin Geck -- who valued Rifkin's text highly enough to publish it in his series -- has recently published an article of his own ("Bach's art of church music and his Leipzig performance forces: contradictions in the system"; Early Music 31/4 (November 2003): 559-571) which presents a rather broader picture of musical life in Leipzig (for example, the possible role of non-church musicians in church services), raising new questions that all those interested in Bach's performing forces have to tackle. One of the main contentions of Geck's article is that Bach might not have had a fixed performance practice for his vocal music in Leipzig: "One we realize that Bach did not have an actual solution, we can face the thought that he must have had a number of imperfect solutions" (p. 570). This is quite consistent with Rifkin's warning about assigning too much value to the Entwurff, or to any other piece of evidence about Bach's demands and practices at any particular point in his long tenure in Leipzig; but Geck seems to expand the inquiry further afield than his predecessors. It would be interesting to see where this leads; Geck is more interested in pointing out the kind of questions we might ask than in providing immediate, definitive answers (there are some tantalising speculations there -- which Geck readily concedes are yet to be proved or disproved). >
Yes, I agree that that Geck article is a good one, taking a broad approach and asking relevant questions. My earlier remarks about it,
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/OVPP-10.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Books/Book-Parrott-Choir.htm
, search for "Geck".

From that same page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/OVPP-10.htm
I've chosen to expand my remarks from June 10th 2004: as to the required skill set that scholars and conductors have to have to present Bach's music and performance practices. It's a complicated job. Next message, arriving momentarily.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 25, 2005):
What languages/skills must a conductor and scholar know? (was "Rifkin's translation")

Gabriel Jackson wrote (first quoting Thomas Braatz):
"And you don't even understand German properly in order to read the 'Entwurff' in the original!"
< And here we come to the crux of the matter - Thomas Braatz SPEAKS GERMAN. That is what any and every argument/discussion comes down to in the end - "I speak German better than you so anything you have to say counts for nothing". And no-one else, it would seem, speaks German well enough - not Joshua Rifkin, not Andrew Parrott, not Dr Pike, not even Dr Pike's wife (for all that she is German!) - no, no-one else speaks or understands German as well as Thomas Braatz. And so he is right and they are wrong. Oh, if it were really only that simple........ >
Uri Golomb added: >>I very much admire John's open-minded willingness to investigate Rifkin's text. I was professionally obliged to read it: writing a PhD on recordings of Bach's vocal music, it would have been a grave omission on my part to ignore it. John was under no such obligation -- other than his self-imposed obligation to understand the topic as thoroughly as he could before expressing an opinion in this informal forum. I think he captured, in his descriptions, much of what makes this book enjoyable, useful and valuable.<<
The crux of the matter, IMO, is indeed such professional obligations...as some here tell us repeatedly through their criticisms, implying that everybody in the field falls short in ways that are both contemptible and silly. (More Scientific Than Thou, More Thorough Than Thou, More Reliable Sources Than Thou, Better German Speaker Than Thou, Musicology Isn't A Science At All, All Taste Is Arbitrary But Yours Is Wrong, Bach Would Have Hated This, etc etc etc etc.) The implication is also that all these alleged faults (so sharply presented by consumers with overgrown senses of personal entitlement and righteousness) could be corrected easily if the prwere simply smarter or harder-working or better-informed than they allegedly are. The job of scholarship and the job of church musicianship are made to look trivially easy, as if there's no reason why any who do it should be disappointing the "truly critical" customers.

Well, it's a demanding job and there's little room for pseudo-preparation or for bluffing. And the experts have to serve the needs of much more than single isolated consumers; the responsibility is much broader and deeper than that. A performance, a recording, or a published article or book are all considerable risk for the people who put them together, opening themselves to all sorts of evaluation. Likewise, a church musician responsible for the music program week after week is opened up to a similar range of evaluations from the parishioners and other staff. That's just the nature of public-service work, in music and scholarship. Let's see some of the details in the job requirement. Step into the shoes of Koopman, or Suzuki, or Bach, or Rifkin for the moment. What does it take in personal investment to produce something at this level? (As opposed to the personal risk of almost zero to criticize other people's work and pretend that it's found wanting, by some objective standard?)

The following languages (optionally call them "skills") all require training and experience in the field of church musicianship. The practitioner must be familiar not only with the basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluent enough to go with the flow of situations that come up, projecting confidence and decisiveness through it all. One must also have the flexibility to back out of ideas that didn't work out, and try it other ways next time or this time, always with the goal of getting the work done as well as possible in the circumstances.

- musical notation: both current and historical, as some parts of it have changed over the past 300 years regarding the meanings of the markings, and the expectations on unmarked notes--in different milieus and genres

- conducting (administration, balancing, use of space, tempo, dynamics, group management, inspiring the musicians, clear and expressive beat technique, etc)

- musical composition and practical instrumentation (deployment of voices and instruments); and the ability to rearrange the music or make compromises to get through practical problems, some at the very last minute

- preparation of parts, and library-organization

- business sense of hiring additional musicians and arranging rehearsal schedules efficiently

- singing technique (to be able to teach the music to the musicians, and conduct it adequately) both historical and current

- instrumental techniques of all the instruments used in the composition (to be able to teach the music to the musicians, and conduct it adequately) both historical and current

- basic practical musicianship of phrasing, breathing, counting, articulation, accent, etc

- thoroughbass improvisation on the organ (how to support and encourage singers and fill out a texture appropriately, dealing with problems that come up on the spot...differently at every occasion because life is that way)...either doing it oneself directly or teaching it to a deputy

- tuning the keyboards and other instruments for rehearsals and performances, and knowing when they are in tune; then getting the other instruments and voices matched to that. The general ability is to hear and correct "too sharp" and "too flat" with technical suggestions and gestures to the musicians, efficiently and accurately, and to explain what they should be able to listen for in correcting themselves.

- the normal range of interpretive skills...how emphatic should a performance be, to be clear? What is good taste? And if it's not universal, whose taste should most be served?

- liturgy: how the music fits into the flow of the service

- theology: how the music is selected or written to convey the required message appropriately

- philosophy (as to the nature and range of "authenticity" and faithfulness to another person's intentions/expectations...and how we know things are true or reliable in the first place)

- acoustics of performance spaces and worship spaces: how must performances be adjusted to give good results in changing circumstances?

- logic in sifting historical evidence: ability to construct and to recognize sound arguments, and the ability to construct a valid and consistent proof (or disproof) of a hypothesis

- scholarly methodology (research techniques, library and networking skills, thorough knowledge of the available literature, respect for colleagues and superiors, respect for evidence, respect for the nature of expertise, techniques for formulating and evaluating scientific hypotheses, open-minded curiosity, refusal to judge work before studying it...)

- ability to give a fair and well-informed peer review, a truly objective assessment of others' work as it interacts with one's own; for example, deciding which among several singers or players to hire for an upcoming performance, based on fair auditions and past working experience

- basic leadership ability, organizing and motivating the people under one's charge, and bringing in the willing help of colleagues: i.e. catalyzing good results without collapsing oneself into a neurotic overstressed heap along the way

- ability and willingness to learn from colleagues and from superiors, following instructions (such as providing appropriate selections to fit the minister's theme or the lectionary), taking other people's professional work seriously

- handling other people's difficult or impossible egos, and getting a good performance or publication to happen anyway...on time and preferably under budget!

- perseverance and punctuality to do this task week after week after week, planning as far ahead as is necessary to have all the appropriate music ready at the appointed times

- instrument maintenance, and similarly coaching the health of singers

- German (for the sung language and additional documents, for the basic sense of the material); likewise Latin, Italian, and French

- English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, or whatever other vernaculars are used by the performing musicians in rehearsal, and used in the musicological literature about the topic. (For example, in my most recent project the best two musicological sources in my topic exist only in German and French, and they're describing German and Italian practice.... And then they cite earlier Latin and Spanish sources in their own background.)

- Germanic, French, Italianate, and other musical styles (as distinct from the speaking and reading of those languages)...and an awareness of the way the elements of these styles are blended together, especially in the music of Bach

- distinctions between sacred and secular genres, and an awareness of the ways they are intermixed in style

- flair and personality so the results aren't merely dutiful or dull; something engaging that calls the audience's attention to delight/edification in the material. The balance of being generic and safe vs taking interpretive risks, for the clarity and durability of the presentation.

All of these languages/skills, and perhaps some additional ones, are relevant to the interpretation of Bach's scores and Entwurff and other related documentation. All of these are languages/skills that scholars and performers must know, AS A COMPLETE PACKAGE to do the job properly. It's a complex interdisciplinary requirement, for preparation as music director (i.e. stepping in to fill the role of Bach's own job at Leipzig, using his music for convincing performances today), or for preparation to write a publishable scholarly article.

It just doesn't work to come to the job with only a few of those skills in the toolbelt, and making up speculation for all the rest of it. That's why it's necessary to be trained and reasonably fluent in ALL OF THEM before stepping onto the podium, sitting down at the continuo keyboard or cello, picking up the concertmaster's violin, or going into print.

It all has to be immediate workingknowledge, at a moment's notice to make decisions in practice, without always having the luxury of looking things up in reference books. (I recall an occasion where I was playing somebody's wedding, and three of the instrumentalists got stuck in traffic and never showed up. I had to add their three parts into my organ continuo as far as possible, to hold the rest of the ensemble together and on-the-fly recompose something musically satisfying, sounding passably like Monteverdi. It had to sound confident as if we'd rehearsed any of it that way. On other occasions I've had to sing alto, tenor, or bass myself--reorganizing the ensemble at last minute--to cover for singers who were indisposed. Then there was the time during the "Hallelujah" chorus when the organ started cyphering, and a parishioner leapt out of the pew to fix a pallet inside the organ as I continued to play and direct the piece. Yipe. These are the times that try practitioners' souls.) If the musicians aren't performing as well as hoped, the tempos and articulations and registrations sometimes have to be altered in the moment to hold it all together better. Or if part of the service takes much longer or shorter than expected, music must be cut or added with no rehearsal of the changes. This is all normal practice, part of the job of supplying service music (like the similar job of supplying theater music...the show must always go on).

These are the skills that Rifkin, Koopman, Parrott, Suzuki, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Gardiner, Herreweghe, Fasolis, Leusink, Sorrell, Rilling, (et al), and several of our own present membership bring to the task. It takes years of development and serious commitment, acquiring the experience and the training, and encountering as much of the repertoire as possible. It's both a science and an art. The whole job can't be reduced to one or two isolated skills, as if that's all that should matter. This is not trivial.

From commonsense and serious respect for other people's work, I believe that we should all be slow to criticize any skills in others that we aren't prepared to demonstrate ourselves at a higher level, as an example. At the same time, perhaps the above list helps us to appreciate the work of the musicians and scholars who DO provide thoughtful and enterprising material? Perhaps it helps us understand Bach's own practices better, too?



Continue on Bach's Choral Ideal [by Joshua Rifkin] - Part 3


Choir Form: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
One-Voice-Per-Part (OVPP):
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19
Books about OVPP:
The Essential Bach Choir [by Andrew Parrott] | Bach's Choral Ideal [by Joshua Rifkin]: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Joshua Rifkin: Short Biography | The Bach Ensemble | Recordings | General Discussions | Three Weimar Cantatas – Rifkin | BWV 232 - Rifkin | BWV 243 - Rifkin | Book: Bach's Choral Ideal [by Joshua Rifkin]


Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner



 

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Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 08:25