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Part 1

Bach and the ideal number of singers

Sebastian wrote (November 29, 2001):
In 1730 Bach wrote something about the ideal number of singers. Does anybody know anything about that?

John Howell [Virginia Tech Department of Music, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.] (November 30, 2001):
[To Sebastian] Yes, but keep in mind that Bach was writing to the town council for more funding and also asking them to keep their noses out of who was admitted to the Thomasschule. Thus, he made things look as bleak as possible.

This is from the New Bach Reader, pp. 146 ff.

"In order that the choruses of church pieces may be performed as is fitting, the vocalists must in turn be divided into 2 sorts, namely, concertists and ripienists.

The concertists are ordinarily 4 in number; sometimes also 5, 6, 7, even 8; that is, if one wishes to perform music for two choirs.

The ripienists, too, must be at least 8, namely, two for each part.
...
The number of the resident students of the St. Thomas School is 55. These 55 are divided into 4 choirs, for the 4 churches in which they must partly perform concerted music with instruments, partly sing motets, and partly sing chorales. In the 3 churches, namely, St. Thomas's, St. Nicholas's, and the New Church, the pupils must all be musical. St. Peter's receives the residue, namely, those who do not understand music and can only just barely sing a chorale.

Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses, so that even if one happens to fall ill (as very often happens, particularly at this time of year, as the prescriptions written by the school physician for the apothecary must show) at least a double-chorus motet may be sung. (N.B. Though it would be still better if the group were such that one could have 4 subjects on each voice, and thus could provide every choir with 16 persons.)

Hence the number of those who must understand music comes to 36 persons in all."

Dated Leipzig, August 23, 1730.

Sherry Humes [Director of Liturgical Music, Providence College] wrote (November 30, 2001):
In 1730 Bach wrote something about the ideal number of singers.

I believe you are referring to a memorandum submitted by Bach to the Council of the Town of Leipzig. It is dated August 23, 1730 and titled "Short But Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music; with Certain Modest Reflections on the Decline of the Same" It is too long to quote in its entirety here, but I found it in my copy of "The Bach Reader" (revised edition, 1972; published by W.W. Norton). Perhaps the most relevant paragraph is as follows:

Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses, so that even if one happens to fall ill (as very often happens, particularly at this time of year, as the prescriptions written by the school physician for the apothecary must show) at least a double-chorus motet may be sung. (N.B. Though it would be still better if the classes were such that one could have 4 singers on each part and thus could perform every chorus with 16 persons.)

Jeffrey Jones-Ragona [Austin, TX] wrote (November 30, 2001):
[To Sebastian] I believe the document you are referring to can be found in The Bach Reader. As I recall, it does not refer to the 'ideal' number of musicians (instruments and singers) but rather the minimal number for a "well appointed" church music. He writes that one should have "at least" x number of (whatever). I do seem to recall something from grad school about having 24 singers to do double-choir music, but again I believe that referred to a minimal number.

Kevin Faulkner [Mary Our Queen Church, Atlanta,GA] wrote (November 30, 2001):
< Regarding Bach and the ideal number of singers, the note he wrote to the Town Council in 1730 (the "Entwurff") has been the subject of rather fierce debate ever since the suggestion that Joshua Rifkin made in the early 1980's with regards to the notion that there be one voice to a part. >
Since that time, there have been a number of books and articles taking up this question. Rifkin's own articles in Early Music and Andrew Parrott's book The Complete Bach Choir make a very convincing case for one to a part. Plus, there have been performances of the cantatas by various groups that make a convincing case from an aural perspective. In addition, the musicologist John Butt supports the notion with additional scholarship. Thought this argument is by no means completely accepted, David Schulenberg's Music of the Baroque, a recent college level text, acknowledges it as not just some hairbrained idea gone amuck, but as an idea whose time has come.

I have no doubt that this will stir up a hornet's nest, but it already has in many Bach circles and in a question posed to this group, I think it important to acknowledge the discussion going on in other parts of the music community.

Links to this question: http://www.kdsi.net/~sherman/oneperpart.html

John Howell wrote (December 2, 2001):
[To Kevin Faulkner] I'll come down on Bach's side of this argument, rather than Rifkin's. Bach was (a) hitting the Town Council up for better support and (b) listing his MINIMUM requirements. Yes, the boys got sick. The memo deals with that, and strongly makes the point that AT LEAST one healthy voice on a part was absolutely necessary. Yes, some of them couldn't sing very well, and the memo also deals with that. The summer I directed the All American College Singers show at Walt Disney World, I had a cast of 14. We went on one day with only 8 because of illness and injuries. Thanks to a very capable cast and inspired swing people we survived. I'm sure Bach had similar days. But the very clear statements that (c) one must divide the singers into concertists and ripienists and (d) it would be even better to have 4 singers on each part make Rifkin's speculations moot.

Rifkin's most specious argument is his premise that only one chorister could read from a part. That is patent nonsense! And I can't envision any way that the surviving parts could suggest it. Equally silly is the assumption that the choristers wouldn't have known perfectly well when the ripienists were supposed to sing. In fact, I'd take the lack of such instructions in the parts as proof that they knew perfectly well, and Bach knew that they knew! In a job where every piece of music had to be hand copied, the minimum necessary number of parts would be copied. I know from personal experience. Been there, done that. For at least some music (I'm thinking of the St. John Passion) I believe there were two parts copied for each voice part, one with the Concertist's solos and one without. Does anyone else see a pattern here?

Finally, I find Rifkin's own recording completely unconvincing. In Cantata BWV 80, "Ein feste Burg," Rifkin uses highly trained operatic voices and does achieve balance with the orchestra (although he omits the trumpets, interestingly enough), but that's a type of vocal production that did not exist prior to the 19th century. And of course any possibility of texture change, which Bach implies by separating Concertists from Ripienists in his memo, disappears.

The Roman Catholic Church has long emphasized the study of logic, knowing that as long as one controls the premises, one controls the outcome. I find Rifkin's premises arbitrary and artificial.

Thanks for providing the very interesting link.

Alan Jones wrote (December 2, 2001):
< John Howell wrote: This is from the New Bach Reader, pp. 146 ff.
"In order that the choruses of church pieces may be performed as is fitting, the vocalists must in turn be divided into 2 sorts, namely, concertists and ripienists. The concertists are ordinarily 4 in number; sometimes also 5, 6, 7, even 8; that is, if one wishes to perform music for two choirs.The ripienists, too, must be at least 8, namely, two for each part." >
"As is fitting" maysuggest an ideal, rather than a minimum. JSB doesn't say why there ought to be ripienists as well as concertists. Perhaps he wanted the soloists to be able to rest during parts of the choral numbers, or perhaps he simply wanted the different tone-quality of a slightly larger group.

< "Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses, so that even if one happens to fall ill ... at least a double-chorus motet may be sung. (N.B. Though it would be still better if the group were such that one could have 4 subjects on each voice, and thus could provide every choir with 16 persons.) >
Evidently he envisaged singing a motet with one voice to a part, even if 3 or 4 would be better. Does the "at least" imply that such a small group would serve for a motet but not for a cantata?

Though I admire Rifkin's recordings, especially of the B minor Mass (BWV 232), I realise (this replies to your later posting) that he uses voices much stronger than Bach's schoolboys would have had. (The omission of trumpets in "Ein' feste Burg" is authentic, I believe, rather than an evasion.) Whether his use of the evidence from the surviving parts is plausible I can't judge, but you outline a good case for thinking not.

As someone familiar with the English cathedral tradition, I would add that our choirs have as a minimum six adults (two each of male alto, tenor, bass) divided into two antiphonal groups, with perhaps ten or a dozen boys on each side. Of those boys, who range in age from 7 to 13, only perhaps three on each side are "concertists" capable of producing any appreciable volume and of reading and holding a part securely; the other are still "trainees", and the youngest can't be expected yet to read well or to know the repertoire. Doubtless Bach faced similar problems with his youngest boys. Nevertheless, such a choir can and does routinely sing 8-part music, including the Bach motets. I should add that the numbers, especially of men, are greater in the major collegiate and cathedral choirs, where there may be six or seven each side instead of three. Experience shows that such a choir, numbering in all at best perhaps two dozen effective singers, can sing the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) without strain and without being overwhelmed by an appropriately-sized double orchestra.

At first sight Bach's wish for equal numbers in each voice seems odd, but some of the schoolboy tenors and basses would have been novices in using their changed voices and nervous about "singing out". Or perhaps we are too keen on a dominant soprano line and don't like the lower parts to assert themselves as much as Bach would have expected.

There are some places in Bach where solo voices, or at least very small numbers, seem better than a choral sound: cantata BWV 106 ("Gottes Zeit") is one. I've never liked the effect in the Magnificat where the solo suddenly gives way to a blaze of choral tone at "Omnes generationes", though the symbolism is well served by such an onslaught: a small-scale performance with a less extreme transition seems more musical. Interestingly, to judge by the Baerenreiter edition, Bach never indicates in the Magnificat (BWV 243) which sections are for soloists and which for chorus. I've found the "Et exultavit" goes well with full boy trebles, and the "Quia fecit" sounds excellent with a group of male voices - this in the context of a 40-strong boys' school choir.

In the end, we have to trust our instincts in our particular situations, though to my ear Bach is best served by a small all-male vocal ensemble from which the soloists are drawn (or in which the soloists consent to sing!), with throaty boy altos rather than counter-tenors. On the other hand, a great 400-voice chorus with full symphony orchestra in the Albert Hall - well, why not?

Douglas Neslund wrote (December 2, 2002):
[To Alan Jones] Alan Jones draws a few conclusions based, from my point of view, on faulty premises. Each such conclusion stems from an assumption that Bach's choirs were comprised of boys and men equal or similar to such choirs to be heard today in the UK, where the parts are in a state of imbalance numbers-wise due to a different vocal approach by English choristers than their contemporary German counterparts.

Alan states, "Though I admire Rifkin's recordings, especially of the B minor Mass (BWV 232), I realise ... that he uses voices much stronger than Bach's schoolboys would have had."

In May of this year, I was privileged to sit in the choir loft of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig during Bachfest 2001, and witness the Tölzer Knabenchor, under the informed and brilliant direction of Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, make a triumphant musical statement in support of Bach's own words and numbers. On those items in which we know Bach to have use four singers per part, the Tölzers used exactly that number. When ripieno quartets (and double quartets) were called for by historical precedence and Bach's own words, the Tölzers sang in exactly that formation. The results led the current Cantor of the resident Thomanerchor, Georg Christoph Biller, who was also in attendance, to tell Professor Schmidt-Gaden after the service: [After hearing this service sung in this manner,] "we are now going to have to rethink the way we perform Bach's music."

An historical footnote is that Professor Schmidt-Gaden studied for three years, as a young man, under the baton of then Thomaskirche Cantor Kurt Thomas, but came to the conclusion that massed choruses were not necessary nor intended to be employed by Bach. It was this conclusion that led him to found the Tölzer Knabenchor.

In the absence of proof to the contrary, one is on slightly more stable ground to assume that Bach's boy choristers were more likely to sound like the present Tölzers than present English Cathedral choristers (although even in some Cathedrals, the sound is changing to a stronger one, to the cheers of some but the dismay of others). The very speech patterns of Germans, especially in Bavaria and even Leipzig, is more muscular and articulated than the speech patterns (and energy) of English-speaking people. No choir on earth of any variety or composition sings with more speech energy and passion for the delivery of the text than do the Tölzer Knabenchor.

I hope this all helps, and there is no intent on my part to undermine the opinions expressed by others on this topic.

Alan Jones wrote (December 3, 2001):
< Douglas Neslund wrote: Alan Jones draws a few conclusions based, from my point of view, on faulty premises. Each such conclusion stems from an assumption that Bach's choirs were comprised of boys and men equal or similar to such choirs to be heard today in the UK, where the parts are in a state of imbalance numbers-wise due to a different vocal approach by English choristers than their contemporary German counterparts. >
I didn't try to draw conclusions, but simply to give evidence that might enable us to draw comparisons. The original questioner enquired about the ideal forces required for Bach, and I specifically said that the typical English cathedral choir was not my own ideal. I agree that the Toelzer choir is much more appropriate than, say, King's College choir - yet King's performances are in their own way deeply moving. Questions that occur to me: Are the Toelzers that we hear a select concert choir or a complete church choir? If the latter, do even their youngest singers take part in services and concerts, or do we hear only the experienced ones? Are the "men" actually schoolboys or university students, as I believe Bach's were?

< Alan states, "Though I admire Rifkin's recordings, especially of the B minor Mass, I realise ... that he uses voices much stronger than Bach's schoolboys would have had." >
Yes, of course: they are professional operatic voices, able comfortably to contend with a full orchestra. They tell us nothing about what Bach would have heard, but I find the performances fine in their particular way, and (though I didn't say this in my previous message) they revealthe lines with special clarity.

< .... On
those items in which we know Bach to have use four singers per part, the Tölzers used exactly that number
. >
Please tell us which items they were, and what the evidence is for the actual use of four voices per part, which is what Bach states as an ideal.

< When ripieno quartets (and double quartets) were called for by historical precedence and Bach's own words >
Give us those words, please. I genuinely should like to know of any evidence for the way in which ripienists were used in a specific piece. (Oddly enough, we do have that evidence much more clearly for the strings in some of Handel's works, though few if any performances make an audible distinction.)
.....
< An historical footnote is that Professor Schmidt-Gaden studied for three years, as a young man, under the baton of then Thomaskirche Cantor Kurt Thomas, but came to the conclusion that *massed choruses were not necessary nor intended to be employed by Bach*. >
Quite true, but that doesn't mean that they must never be used. My own preference is, like yours, for a choir such as the Toelzer, but I also thrill to the sound of larger forces and should be sad if that kind of performance became obsolete. Dare I confess that I also enjoy the big romantic orchestrations of Bach's organ works, even though I also love to hear a stylish player performing them on a Schnitger or Silbermann?

< In the absence of proof to the contrary, one is on slightly more stable ground to assume that Bach's boy choristers were more likely to sound like the present Tölzers than present English Cathedral choristers (although even in some Cathedrals, the sound is changing to a stronger one, to the cheers of some but the dismay of others).>
True, and I'm all for variety. But the central repertory of English cathedral choirs is not the German baroque. I wonder how the Tölzers would sound in Tippett or Howells or Elgar, or even Purcell?

< No choir on earth of any variety or composition sings with more speech energy and passion for the delivery of the text than do the Tölzer Knabenchor. >
I haven't heard all the choirs on earth, but I know that the Tölzers are indeed very good.

Douglas Neslund wrote (December 4, 2001):
[To Alan Jones] You state, "I agree that the Toelzer choir is much more appropriate than, say, King's College choir - yet King's performances are in their own way deeply moving."
We agree.

"Questions that occur to me: Are the Tölzers that we hear a select concert choir or a complete church choir?"
The choir I heard in Leipzig was the cream of the crop - the Chamber Choir. They are in such great demand in concerts, recordings and opera, there is no chance they could possibly fill a church choir role, as wonderful as that would be. However, not having a regular church assignment gives them the freedom to sing in everyone's place of worship, and they do.

"If the latter, do even their youngest singers take part in services and concerts, or do we hear only the experienced ones?"
Training begins with five year-olds, with a thorough ear-training and sight-singing scheme following the (so-called) Kodaly Method. The organization is a pyramid, with the very best ascending up through the four choral levels to Choir One - the Chamber Choir, membership in which is limited to boys who have performed professionally in a major opera house (mostly in Europe but also in North America), most usually in the role of the Spirits in "Zauberflöte." In addition, each boy must be able to sing a two-octave scale, legato, no note being accented or in any way more or less important than the others, twice through the ascending and descending scale, on one breath. Try it!

"Are the "men" actually schoolboys or university students, as I believe Bach's were?"
The men are staff members (Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden has seven assistants, since each boy in the organization receives a private voice lesson every week in addition to two weekly classes), plus former choirboys. None appear to be more than about 28 years of age, and some are in their early 20s.

(Regarding my statement of the Tölzer's use of four voices per part) you inquired, "Please tell us which items they were, and what the evidence is for the actual use of four voices per part, which is what Bach states as an ideal."

The Tölzers were singing two actual services: the traditional Saturday afternoon cantata service, and the Sunday morning service the next day. I apologize for having not succeeded in finding the programmes for the two services. I can only be as specific about the following items as memory will serve:

Saturday service:
JS Bach's grandfather: Fürchte dich nicht (motet)
JS Bach: Actus tragicus (this was fabulously performed - extremely moving)
JS Bach: Fürchte dich nicht (motet)

Sunday service:
JS Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12) (cantata for the day)
(and several items not by any of the Bachs)

Other than what you might be expecting me to say (citing the Entwurff, which is at the heart of much contention these days), I must stand aside as the experts opine (including Professor Schmidt-Gaden and visiting Baroque specialist and performer Holger Eichhorn), that what we heard was authentic down to the Tölzers bringing in various organs, enabling them to sing variously in Kammerton and Unwohltempierten scales (for which the boys were specifically and carefully prepared, "unlearning" well-tempered scale to suit).

In the face of this level of care in preparation, it would be inconsistent for this choir, with so much reputation at stake, to be careless about using the "wrong" number of singers per part; in fact, the number of singers employed changed from item to item. Although this same choir has recorded the Schütz Kleine Geistliche Konzerte (on Capriccio - a set of three CDs) employing "one voice per part," they did not use such configuration in Leipzig. Perhaps (and I don't know this) the fact that over 2,000 people packed Thomaskirche for the two services might have played a role.

Regarding authenticity of voices per part, a friend who engages actively in the OVPP wars, raised an interesting historical point: "Luther's preface to the Walther hymnal says that all boys should be taught through music. The Lutheran concept of Bible training and doctrine for the youth was handled in church via the choir! Boys were expected to participate, and the Cantatas were no exception, as they fullfilled traditional parts of the worship service in chorus parts always sung by the choir. Thus, some boys of the choir could not be instructed to "sit out" sung parts of the service! I suspect that boys from Thomasschule went to more than one Sunday service to sing (inasmuch as the services began at different hours)! And I really think limiting Bach's choir to his description in the "Entwurff" is a very limited and unhistoric view of the Lutheran choirs' roles."

Regarding your plea for "evidence for the way in which ripienists were used in a specific piece" as you probably already know, that too is one of the current battlegrounds where the Rifkin protagonists and antagonists meet. Another friend wrote privately that "Bach didn't specify ripienists that often, but BWV 71 is an example where "4 Ripines" is written on the Title page of the autograph score from 1708."

You continued, "(Oddly enough, we do have that evidence much more clearly for the strings in some of Handel's works, though few if any performances make an audible distinction.)"
Is it not possible that score marking was not necessary, given the training by Bach himself at Thomasschule? I know you are looking for written evidence, but it may not have been necessary to do so.

"My own preference is, like yours, for a choir such as the Tölzer, but I also thrill to the sound of larger forces and should be sad if that kind of performance became obsolete. Dare I confess that I also enjoy the big romantic orchestrations of Bach's organ works, even though I also love to hear a stylish player performing them on a Schnitger or Silbermann?"
Although I don't remember actually stating a preference for the Tölzers (presumably over other choirs or performances), I must note that from what I have read, Rifkin, in seeking authentic performance practice, has yet to employ a single boy (soprano or alto) in his quest for authenticity. If he is so willing to sacrifice one of the most unique instruments in the fabric of musical cloth, why should we give him so much credence in other areas, especially the dubious OVPP theory.

Having said that, I too enjoy Bach - whose music may be the least destructible of all - in a wide variety of presentations and means. Having heard the Leipzig services, though, I would be hard pressed to find fault with the music made there. It was simply a "perfect fit." The relatively small numbers of singers per part (and their superb training, of course) enabled clarity of line in, for example, the choral fugue in Actus tragicus that would have not been possible in a massed choral performance of that fugue.

"But the central repertory of English cathedral choirs is not the German baroque. I wonder how the Toelzers would sound in Tippett or Howells or Elgar, or even Purcell?"
I am happy to say the Tölzers performed Purcell's "Dido and Aeneus" with the boys taking male and female roles, the performance of which was telecast in Europe in the 1970s. I have a videotaped copy of this performance, which is stylishly done, and in English. I, too, would be curious as to their handling of Tippett, Howells or Elgar, but do not fear in the least their ability to produce music of any style. Incidentally, their recording schedule for the year 2002 will encompass all the choral music of Mozart.

Best wishes, with apologies to all for the length of post,

James Baldwin wrote (December 4, 2002):
< I, too, would be curious as to their handling of Tippett, Howells or Elgar, but do not fear in the least their ability to produce music of any style. Incidentally, their recording schedule for the year 2002 will encompass all the choral music of Mozart. >
I don't think that Alan Jones suggested that the Tölzers wouldn't be able to produce the music, I think he was referring to authenticity of sound. I recently attended a concert where, in a choir of about 22, four of the six altos were countertenors. this worked quite nicely for Bach, and Purcell (not as an absolutely period sound, but merely as a tonal colour effect), however when the program came to Brahms, Faure, and Raminsh, I was wishing the female altos had taken charge over the sound. I think the suggestion was that the majority of Tippett, Howells, and Elgar were probably written for female voices, and sound better thus.

John Howell wrote (December 4, 2001):
Douglas Neslund, in a most interesting post, said the following: < Training begins with five year-olds, with a thorough ear-training and sight-singing scheme following the (so-called) Kodaly Method. >
Why "so-called"? Do they not use Kodaly principals and materials? Do you not approve of Kodaly training? I am slightly mystified at your comment, but eager to learn what is behind it.

Douglas Neslund wrote (December 5, 2001):
[To Hohn Howell] Zoltán Kodály himself never used the term "Kodály Method" since much of the material he collected for the massive project came from other sources, most notably Jenö Ádám. As you know, the hand signals come from John Curwen. The term Kodály Method was ascribed by others, hence my reference to "so-called." Hope that clarifies the matter!

Alan Jones wrote (December 5, 2001):

[To James Baldwin] I was thinking of the music those composers wrote for the Anglican liturgy and therefore for a small choir with boy trebles and falsettist altos. It's true that it can sound odd when cathedral choirs sing music meant for mixed choir (e.g. Tippett's Spirituals from 'A Child of Our Time'). Yet the bright intensity of falsettist altos is good in itself for clarifying contrapuntal music, whether or not it is what the composer would have imagined or heard. The characteristic sound of a German or French boy singing alto without special training is throaty and "chesty" - to me very pleasing in Haydn and Mozart, and even in Bach. The old Westminster Cathedral sound under George Malcolm had something of that quality, too, and it works marvellously for the music written for them by Britten. It's not the Tölzer sound, though, which is much more cultivated.

Douglas Neslund's ecstatic description of the Tölzers makes me wonder whether their performances can be anything like those that Bach directed, even when the forces are as close to his as scholarship can make them (and I am grateful to Mr Neslund for referring me to the "ripieni" direction in cantata no.71). Reading the words of Bach's submission to the City Council, one senses something short of perfection . . . Perhaps, as he wrote, Bach heard in his head not the actual fifty singers he had to divide each week among his four churches, but an angelic choir such as his ears had never known: if so, I suppose that the Toelzers are as close to that ideal as we are likely to hear this side of St Peter's gates. But I miss in their recordings (not having had the pleasure of hearing them 'live') the sense of striving at or beyond the edge of possibility that must have marked the original performances.

Sometimes perfection is paradoxically a flaw: I remember my disappointment at a professional performance of Britten's "Saint Nicolas", which was simply too smooth for its own good. Britten was writing for a non-select choir drawn from several schools, undoubtedly not fully consistent in tone or tuning and almost certainly quite raw in quality, and he had built that expectation into his writing. What did Bach want? What did he expect? What did he get? How much of this do we know? How much can we reasonably deduce? These questions might be considered when we discuss what size or kind of choir is "ideal" for his music.

John Howell wrote (December 5, 2001):
< Alan Jones wrote: Reading the words of Bach's submission to the City Council, one senses something short of perfection . . .>
But we know that he wrote to ask for better support and to ask them to keep their noses out of the admission of students. Of course he painted as negative a picture as he could. I have always believed that Bach knew exactly what he could expect from his musicians, boys and men, and that we can judge their capabilities by the notes he wrote for them.

< Perhaps, as he wrote, Bach heard in his head not the actual fifty singers he had to divide each week among his four churches, but an angelic choir such as his ears had never known: >
I could accept that in terms of his completed B Minor Mass (BWV 232), which he never heard performed. But for the workaday cantatas he had to be intensely practical. He wouldn't have written what he knew couldn't be learned and performed. And he had to plan his weekly schedule of rehearsals very carefully--and compose in such a way that the music could be learned during those rehearsals. Certainly he had knowledge of other earthly choirs and a pretty good idea of what the best could sound like, but that doesn't mean that we can automatically assume that his choirs, when healthy and at full strength, were not as good as or even better than those choirs or today's.

< What did Bach want? >
To satisfy his patron, his God, and his own musicianship and craftsmanship.

< What did he expect? >
He knew his singers and instrumentalists inside and out. He expected their best craftsmanship just as he took pride in his own.

< What did he get? >
Pure speculation, of course, but it is telling that while the Town Council saw fit to criticize him for any number of things, poor music or poor performances were NOT included. And outside the politics of the 1730 memo, he did not criticize his own musicians that I'm aware of.

< How much of this do we know? How much can we reasonably deduce? >
Know? Very little, of course. Deduce? Quite a lot, keeping in mind that we could be just as easily led astray as the late 19th century scholars who came up witha chronology of works that "proved" Bach became more religious as he got older. The discoveries of the New Bach Chronology don't refute that proposition, but they do show the circular reasoning in the original chronology.

< These questions might be considered when we discuss what size or kind of choir is "ideal" for his music. >
But I don't think that's what we're discussing. The question comes back to what actually happened, what did he actually do, and what did it sound like. To some of us, that defines "ideal." To Rifkin or those who prefer the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it is merely a starting point as they search for a different "ideal." Bach can be interpreted in many ways without in any sense destroying the integrity of his music. The same can be said of many Beatle songs!

John Howell wrote (December 6, 2001):
[To Douglas Neslund] I can see your point, although those who have followed him certainly use the term freely. Like many innovators, Kodaly did not reinvent the wheel. He deliberately searched for the most successful and effective music teaching methods in Europe. He adopted them. But it is the way he put them together in a new and very effective way, combined with his belief that the folk music of a people is their musical "mother tongue," that we can consider to be his "method."

The same can be seen in the work of music educator Guido d'Arezzo in the 11th century and string educator George Bornoff in the 20th. Both took ideas and techniques that were in general circulation and put them together in innovative ways. Guido's work was so seminal that we are still using the evolved decendant of his notational system, and the solfege he developed for his hexachordal teaching methods.

Douglas Neslund wrote (December 6, 2001):
John Howell responded, "I can see your point, although those who have followed him certainly use the term freely."
A point well made! Among those presenting the authentic Kodály Method are those like Katinka Daniel of Santa Barbara who actually worked with Zoltán Kodály in Hungary for years prior to the Revolution. Some of the early "Kodály" pioneers in the United States tended to co-op the Method and take it in other directions, usually to simplify the highly structured Method developed, as you have well stated, to a thorough program meant to develop music literacy over all the elementary grades. And it didn't help that Boosey & Hawkes did such a poor job of printing the materials used in the Hungarian school system. (Compare Kodály's original 333 Elementary Exercises with that published by B&H, and one will see that B&H diminished and watered down the educational lessons so skillfully created by Kodály, i.e., editing in key and time signatures which Kodály intended the student to figure out.)

Douglas Neslund wrote (December 6, 2001):
[To Alan Jones] Briefly, a point or two ...

You inquired, "Douglas Neslund's ecstatic description of the Toelzers makes me wonder whether their performances can be anything like those that Bach directed, even when the forces are as close to his as scholarship can make them (and I am grateful to Mr Neslund for referring me to the "ripieni" direction in cantata no.71)."
Of course, we will all wonder about that and other performances with a claim to "authenticity." (By the way, I will gladly pass along your thanks to a friend who provided the ripieni reference.)

"Perhaps, as he wrote, Bach heard in his head not the actual fifty singers he had to divide each week among his four churches, but an angelic choir such as his ears had never known: if so, I suppose that the Tölzers are as close to that ideal as we are likely to hear this side of St Peter's gates."
A point another friend made to me was that the division of his available singers didn't *have* to be fifty divided by 4, since the various services did not occur simultaneously, and could thus be employed at more than one service in a given Sunday.

"But I miss in their [Tölzer] recordings (not having had the pleasure of hearing them 'live') the sense of striving at or beyond the edge of possibility that must have marked the original performances."
Then you must make a pilgrimage to Munich and ask to sit in on a rehearsal! The attention to detail, especially with a focus toward the delivery of text, but equally so the correct intonation of the various items which we know to have existed in the places where those items were first sung, is astounding. I don't know of any choir of any composition which goes to greater lengths, and still produces beautiful and moving music.

"Sometimes perfection is paradoxically a flaw [edited]."
The performances I witnessed in Leipzig were also not "perfect!" Such daring, if well drilled, service music was still sung by humans, greater and lesser, who could and did make mistakes (albeit *very* insignificant ones); that's why they put erasers on the ends of pencils.

"What did Bach want? (etc.)"
These questions were well considered asked by you, as well as answered by John.

 

Continue on Part 2

Choir Form: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9
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 | Part 20 | Part 21
Articles:
Bach’s Choir and Orchestra [T. Koopman] | Evidence for the Size of Bach’s Primary Choir [T. Braatz]
Books on OVPP:
The Essential Bach Choir [A. Parrott] | Bach's Choral Ideal [J. Rifkin]: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Last update: ęDecember 6, 2009 ę23:11:52