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Bach Composing
Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2005):
http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/11925

Those are tremendously restrictive notions about the nature of genius. They're also the sort of hagiography that prevents us from seeing and appreciating historically validated genius from a reasonable human angle. i.e. The genius is allegedly some Uebermensch whose level of achievement simply is not attainable by other people; so why bother trying, except to worship it in humble awe? And yet, Bach's own opinion about that is on record, flatly contradicting those romanticized overtones about Uebermenschen: "anybody who works as hard as I do will get as far."

Who's to make that determination as to what genius entails, as to flashes of insight and the working-out of the consequences, and any particular time-frame for the creation of masterworks? And why overrule Bach's genius opinion in that, as to the primacy of hard work and study, i.e. actually creating and performing music as a way to understand how the process works?

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2005):
To clarify this a bit more:

When I hear a concert or a recording that strikes me as "Wow, I'm really hearing the work of genius here" my reaction is not to stand there in a puddle of awe on the floor. Rather, it is to appreciate the hard work of preparation and inspiration that is obviously evident, and seek to integrate whatever I can learn from it into my own work elsewhere. There's always more to learn. The inspiring work of other musicians is a good source of that.

An example from today at lunch: I put on the new CD of Art Tatum's piano improvisations transcribed and performed by Steven Mayer, on Naxos. What an album! My daughter got up and danced around the room to it, and insisted that I join her. Such lively and creative musicianship, and such astounding performance technique to get all those notes to happen with such control and flair! Tatum's music is equally impressive whether he came up with it totally on the fly, or if he spent months working out the various techniques used in it. The point of the genius is the sounding results, that the music is so engaging and balanced. That's something to try to learn from.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz writes:
"This longer process, when perceived by composers living today and attempting to use their personal experience as a measuring tool to apply to a genius such as Bach, may not have taken as long as one would judge from our present-day perspective."
Let's look at this: is it being suggested that as Bach was 'a genius' (whatever exactly that means) he must, inevitably, have taken less time to write out a full score than a composer of today might think it would have taken him, becuse composers of today aren't 'geniuses', and therefore cannot copy a score as quickly as those who are?!!

"We see almost all of the compositional processes (other than the fact that he may have had a few ideas swimming around in his head for longer than a week) in such a ‘composing’ score in Bach’s hand. "
However many (or few) drafts and sketches a composer makes, and however many (or few) survive, we can never see 'almost all of the compositional processes'.

"Why would Bach have on his desk ‘composing’ scores from several cantatas at the same time?"
Why not?

"There is no evidence that Bach actually composed at the keyboard."
Is there evidence that he did not?

"Genius tends to perceive things in what are called ‘flashes of genius.’"
What is a 'flash of genius', exactly? And how does one accurately determine who is a genius and who isn't, and, indeed, what is and isn't a 'flash of genius'? Are only geniuses prone to having 'flashes of genius'? If someone who is not a genius (as determined by what criteria exactly?) has what to all intents and purposes appears to be a 'flash of genius' then have they actually experienced something else?

"If we listen to the statements made by geniuses, which are few and far between, "
We should beware the statements made by artists (whether 'geniuses' or not) about their working methods for they are not always true! Stravinsky is a very good example of someone who made many misleading, self-mythologising and simply untrue statements about his work and his working methods. "I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed" he said of The Rite of Spring, suggested that he was, in effect, taking dictation - that, perhaps, "ideas [were] coming at him faster than he could write them down". The reality is quite different - the piece was painstakingly worked on, and worked on again, and reworked and refined and perfected over a considerable period of time.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote:
>>Let's look at this: is it being suggested that as Bach was 'a genius' (whatever exactly that means) he must, inevitably, have taken less time to write out a full score than a composer of today might think it would have taken him, becuse composers of today aren't 'geniuses', and therefore cannot copy a score as quickly as those who are?!!<<
We are talking about a 'composing' score here, not an exercise in simply copying music to see who can copy music the fastest.

>>However many (or few) drafts and sketches a composer makes, and however many (or few) survive, we can never see 'almost all of the compositional processes'.<<
In Bach's case, we may be seeing most of them.

I had asked: "Why would Bach have on his desk 'composing' scores from several cantatas at the same time?"
Gabriel asked: "Why not?"
Because Bach was able to create better connections between/within the various mvts. of the cantata by concentrating primarily on one cantata at a time rather than working on various cantatas in piece-meal fashion. There is still considerable musicological research waiting to be done regarding the subtle interconnections between the various mvts. of the cantata. These interconnections point toward a flow of compositional activity from one mvt. to another within a single cantata and not to any connection of ideas between one cantata and the next one that was composed.

I stated: "There is no evidence that Bach actually composed at the keyboard."
Gabriel asked: >>Is there evidence that he did not?<<
Yes, there is a report that, after he had finished composing his keyboard compositions away from the keyboard, he would, late at night, try out and possibly correct certain passages to make sure that they were playable (that he could actually play them himself.)

Gabriel asked: >>And how does one accurately determine who is a genius and who isn't?<<
You may be subscribing to the wrong mailing list, if you still have a question about this.

>>We should beware the statements made by artists(whether 'geniuses' or not) about their working methods for they are not always true!<<
Then read, for instance, the descriptions of other contemporaries about Schubert's composing methods and how quickly he was able to commit a Lied (most of them masterpieces that needed no further correction or modification) to paper!

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 18, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote:
">>Let's look at this: is it being suggested that as Bach was 'a genius' (whatever exactly that means) he must, inevitably, have taken less time to write out a full score than a composer of today might think it would have taken him, becuse composers of today aren't 'geniuses', and therefore cannot copy a score as quickly as those who are?!!<<
Thomas Braatz wrote:
"We are talking about a 'composing' score here, not an exercise in simply copying music to see who can copy music the fastest."
I'm sorry - I misunderstood the response. Now I realise that what was being suggested is that because Bach was a genius, he must therefore have been able to COMPOSE pieces more quickly than composers of today might think he could, because they are not genuises and therefore cannot compose quickly and so cannot appreciate as well as other people how quickly Bach was able to compose.

">>However many (or few) drafts and sketches a composer makes, and however many (or few) survive, we can never see 'almost all of the compositional processes'.<<
In Bach's case, we may be seeing most of them."
No we're not, because so much of this process goes on in the composer's head!

"I had asked: "Why would Bach have on his desk 'composing' scores from several cantatas at the same time?"
Gabriel asked: "Why not?"
Because Bach was able to create better connections between/within the various mvts. of the cantata by concentrating primarily on one cantata at a time rather than working on various cantatas in piece-meal fashion."
There is no reason why working on a movement from one cantata and then a movement from another (and so on) would subvert and undermine the overall coherence of any single cantata.

"These interconnections point toward a flow of compositional activity from one mvt. to another within a single cantata and not to any connection of ideas between one cantata and the next one that was composed."
Quite simply, no they don't!

"I stated: "There is no evidence that Bach actually composed at the keyboard."
Gabriel asked: >>Is there evidence that he did not?<<
Yes, there is a report that, after he had finished composing his keyboard compositions away from the keyboard, he would, late at night, try out and possibly correct certain passages to make sure that they were playable (that he could actually play them himself.)"
Fair enough.

">>We should beware the statements made by artists(whether 'geniuses' or not) about their working methods for they are not always true!<<
Then read, for instance, the descriptions of other contemporaries about Schubert's composing methods and how quickly he was able to commit a Lied (most of them masterpieces that needed no further correction or modification) to paper!"
And what might they prove? That he could write out notes quickly? What is more interesting, and important, is what happened beforehand.

John Pike wrote (January 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< There is no evidence that Bach actually composed at the keyboard. Improvised, yes, but not seated at the keyboard while composing. At most he would check his keyboard pieces after he had composed them to see if they were playable.
and
It is reported that he could hear a certain fugal subject and almost immediately know all of the possibilities for exploiting such a subject properly. >
These two statements are certainly broadly correct. CPE Bach has made both of these points (in the obituary, I think). However, he did not say ALL the compositions were made in this manner, but most were.

John Reese wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Richard Restak, in his recent book "The New Brain", spent a chapter or so talking about genius. After careful study, he says, the only difference brain scientists can tell between geniuses and ordinary folks is that geniuses work much harder on their craft. The genius is hereditary to some extent, but what is inherited is the single-minded desire to perfect whatever it is they choose to do.

I highly recommend this book. It's got some very interesting material on how music works in the brain.

John Pike wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To John Reese] Someone once defined genius as 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. I like that. It means none of us are let off the hook. We should all keep trying.........shame about that 10% inspiration though.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote:
>>Now I realise that what was being suggested is that because Bach was a genius, he must therefore have been able to COMPOSE pieces more quickly than composers of today might think he could<<
You hit the nail on the head!

>>And what might they [Schubert's composing methods involving reading a poem and immediately setting it to music] prove? That he could write out notes quickly? What is more interesting, and important, is what happened beforehand.<<
There was no 'beforehand.' And this is just the point to be made with Bach's quick composing of a cantata within the course of a few days.

See also a prior discussion: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Ascension.htm

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 18, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote:
>>Now I realise that what was being suggested is that because Bach was a genius, he must therefore have been able to COMPOSE pieces more quickly than composers of today might think he could<<
Thomas Braatz wrote:
"You hit the nail on the head!"
So, just to be clear, because Bach was a genius, by definition he could compose more quickly than living composers (not being geniuses) think he could? I am interested to know what the evidence is for this.

">>And what might they [Schubert’s composing methods involving reading a poem and immediately setting it to music] prove? That he could write out notes quickly? What is more interesting, and important, is what happened beforehand.<<
Just to be clear, again, the line in the square brackets "Schubert’s composing methods involving reading a poem and immediately setting it to music" was not written by me, but was added to my comments by Thomas Braatz. There must be more persuasive ways of repudiating what someone has written than changing it and then disagreeing with the changed version!

Bart O'Brien wrote (January 18, 2005):
I'VE CHANGED MY MIND!

That kind of thing doesn't happen very much on this group, so I thought you might like to hear all about it.

In message 11856 Brad Lehman wrote:
Romantic legend tells us that Bach picked up a pen on Monday or Tuesday and had his cantata all done and rehearsed for that same Sunday, as his normal and regular practice. And that's poppycock.

Well obviously it's poppycock, I thought. In fact Lehman is wasting our time setting up a strawman to attack that no sensible person would ever believe.

But no, it wasn't a strawman. Lehman cited a quote from Sir John Eliot Gardiner, no less, in the New York Times. It begins:"Bach would sit down on Monday morning at his desk and think: 'What's the gospel, the epistle of next Sunday? ..

My reaction to that was: Gardiner can't really believe that; he's telling meltons (polite British English for lying). He's doing it quite shamelessly to hype Bach cantatas to the credulous readers of the New York Times.

Gardiner's quote can reasonably be expressed as a proposition for debate like this:
"Bach composed most of the cantatas in the week before performance."

There is one, exactly one, contributor to the debate who supports this proposition: Thomas Braatz. He does bring forward evidence for his view in quite a reasonable way, free of irritating rhetoric.

I don't possess one-hundredth of Braatz's knowledge in this field, but I have to say that I don't find that the evidence he offers does actually support the proposition. It could just as well support an alternative proposition such as "Bach took an average of three elapsed weeks composing a cantata." Sorry, but that's what I found.

Although nobody else supports the Gardiner/Braatz proposition, nobody provides any substantial evidence against it (plenty of argument of course, but not what I'd call evidence).

The arguments expressed against it boil down to something like: Bach already had a huge volume of work. Why on earth should he make things even tougher for himself by accepting the unnecessary constraint of taking a maxiumum of one elapsed week per cantata? I bought that argument at first. That is why I agreed with Lehman about the poppycock, and had cheeky thoughts about Gardiner.

But then the following line of argument occurred to me:

There is a strange fact about Western classical music which we don't notice very much because we are used to it. A small group of composers are (by objective criteria eg number of performances) very dominant, and the thousands and thousands of other composers come nowhere or close to nowhere. This is not what you find in most other fields of human endeavour. If you were to rank, say, the best 10,000 golfers ever, the distribution would probably be pretty smooth. But with composers you have a that is roughly two groups: a small group of big names and all the rest.

Given that distribution, it seems plausible that there must have been something very unusual about the brain of each of a tiny number of individuals who became big-name-composers (not the same unusual thing in each case necessarily).

If that is so, this might well affect the way they did their composition work. Thus, some way of working which seems inappropriate to me or you and which maybe 10,000 other composers would find inappropriate too, could for a particular big-name-composer with his very unusual brain be exactly the most effective way of working.

Therefore I've now abandoned the `why make things even tougher' argument. I no longer think it self-evident that taking a maximum of one elapsed week per cantata would be a constraint for a highly unusual person like Bach. It might even be a stimulus.

And if I abandon that argument and I look for adequate evidence against the proposition I don't find any.

Therefore I now think it possible that Bach did compose most cantatas in the week before performance. But he may not have. We don't know.

See, a mindchange.
(Good thing Thomas Braatz kept the argument going, BTW.)

Doug Cowling wrote (January 18, 2005):
Bart O'Brien wrote:
< Therefore I've now abandoned the `why make things even tougher' argument. I no longer think it self-evident that taking a maximum of one elapsed week per cantata would be a constraint for a highly unusual person like Bach. It might even be a stimulus.
And if I abandon that argument and I look for adequate evidence > against the proposition I don't find any. Therefore I now think it possible that Bach did compose most cantatas in the week before performance. But he may not have. We don't know. >
Interesting. I'm moderating my position as well. I looked at Wolff's outline (pp.270-73 - JSB: The Learned Musician) of Bach's first annual cantata cycle (Jahrgang I) for the church year 1723-24 and realized that Bach indeed was under a very tight schedule which probably did not allow for too much preliminary sketching and imposed a rigorous daily composing schedule on the composer.

However, if we few the composition process as embracing more than the actual composition of the music, then we can see a possible pattern for the production of this incredible series of works.

1) Bach did not have to produce cantatas for the three Sundays before Christmas (Advent 2-4) or during the five Sundays before Easter (Lent 1-5/Passion Sunday). Wolff suggests that these were respites which allowed for preparation for the Christmas season and the Passion respectively. These are also times when Bach would be able to look ahead perhaps to the next Cantata cycle and decide where he would write new cantatas or revise old ones.

2) Antecedent to the composition was the genesis of the libretto. If it was a new text as yet unwritten, he had to confer with the poet (e.g. Picander) and commission him to write the poetry. How much direction Bach gave to the poet would be fascinating to know. However, the cantata process had to accommodate the time needed to write the libretto.

3) The first absolute deadline in the process would be the printing of the libretto texts which contained an average of six Sundays. A minimum selling period would be a week before the booklet was used which would be 7 or 8 weeks before the last cantata in the publication.

4) Bach's master plan certainly alerted him to times when it wasn't just a cantata a week. Thus in June 1723, he performed a pre-Leipzig cantata on Trinity IV (June 20) and then performed a new cantata four days later on St. John's Day (June 24) while revising a pre-Leipzig cantata for the following Sunday. That shows a disciplined and well-planned approach to the work.

And that doesn't even begin to consider that Bach was writing other music as well!

The man was a phenomenon!

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 19, 2005):
< I looked at Wolff's outline (pp.270-73 - JSB: The Learned Musician) of Bach's first annual cantata cycle (Jahrgang I) for the church year 1723-24 and realized that Bach indeed was under a very tight schedule which probably did not allow for too much preliminary sketching and imposed a rigorous daily composing schedule on the composer. >
I agree, tight schedule, and likely a rigorous daily regimen of creating music. And yet, it's still not an argument (one way or the other) that Bach's regular practice at Leipzig was ever [Start it on Monday], [Perform it this same Sunday].

Indeed, take a look at both Wolff's and Malcolm Boyd's biographies, where they are describing Bach's first two years of cantatas at Leipzig. The first year has quite a lot of reworking of old pieces that hadn't been heard yet in Leipzig, which Wolff has separated into three different types: reruns with only minor changes, or major revisions, or parodies. And then, as Wolff and Boyd both point out, in the second year cycle Bach was more systematic overall. Boyd: "Bach's second Jahrgang, in contrast to the first, was evidently planned from the start AS A UNIFIED CYCLE of chorale cantatas." (P.122, emphasis mine.) Wolff: "[T]he first Jahrgang in toto possessed neither literary conformity nor overall musical consistency. For his second annual cycle of 1724-25, however, Bach could, WITH HIS INCREASED PREPARATION TIME, turn to the proven concept of a cantata cycle based on a uniform libretto type." (P. 275, emphasis mine.)

All of that suggests to me that Bach was probably systematic in his cantata-composing work, more than slapdash, at least as a preference (i.e. not leaving it until last minute unless the situation were absolutely forced upon him). His systematic collections of instrumental works earlier and later in his career also suggest that, to me: that Bach was an excellent organizer who planned things well ahead, wherever it was possible. The Orgelbüchlein, for one example from before Leipzig, was laid out in advance with particular pages for particular parts of the church year. Even though not all the pieces were finished, the big layout is there. The collections of six of everything, for various instrumental solos or groups, similarly indicate large-scale planning. Take, for example, his opus 1 publication, the partitas. They were issued the first time, at the beginning, at the rate of only one suite per year, and then re-bound as a collection at the end of the cycle. And, as is well documented in the musicological literature, the key scheme of all six of them makes a "wedge"...something unifying here, even though it took some years to publish it all!

Back to the early Leipzig cantatas. The argument for last-minute work (not in Wolff, Boyd, Durr, or Marshall, but HERE IN THIS FORUM) has incorporated the logical error of false dichotomy: if the piece of paper has no definite date (documented anymore) before the first performance date, it's the fallacious assumption (really an arbitrary additional premise) that the paper did not exist much in advance of that date. No, it can't be proved that the paper did exist long before that date. Nor can it be proved that the paper DID NOT exist in advance. There's the false dichotomy: that incorrect assumption that the negation of "unprovable" is "false". This is elementary three-valued logic here. [Piece existed more than a week in advance] [Piece did not exist more than a week in advance] [It's unknowable]. We can't take the opposite of [It's unknowable] to indicate either of the other two; it's faulty logic.

< 2) Antecedent to the composition was the genesis of the libretto. If it was a new text as yet unwritten, he had to confer with the poet (e.g. Picander) and commission him to write the poetry. How much direction Bach gave to the poet would be fascinating to know. However, the cantata process had to accommodate the time needed to write the libretto.
3) The first absolute deadline in process would be the printing of the libretto texts which contained an average of six Sundays. A minimum selling period would be a week before the booklet was used which would be 7 or 8 weeks before the last cantata in the publication. >
And that's good supporting evidence arguing for (at least the speculation of) getting a headstart on cantatas some months in the future.

What evidence has been presented by anyone here that Bach did not gather together his eight (or whatever) libretti for the next booklet, start perhaps as many as all eight of them in separate folders of manuscript paper, and work on each of them from start to finish (maybe more than one at a time) as ideas came, all weeks or months in advance of rehearsal deadline? This still makes sense, at least to me, with the observable pattern that these cantatas were usually composed from start to finish (i.e. taking up all the available paper, first movement, then the second movement, then the third, etc.)...without requiring that any of it be last-minute work.

Indeed, if Bach happened to get a whole cantata or even several movements of it done at a period of, say, two months in advance, the singers and players could already be learning their parts as soon as those parts are copied out for them. Has anybody stopped to wonder why the "choral" movements of some of these cantatas are the first movement? Could it have anything to do with writing them far enough ahead of time, so that all the singers (whether that's four or twelve or whatever) could be learning these particularly contrapuntal movements far in advance, maybe even before the rest of the movements were completed yet?

No, this isn't proof that he did so. I'm merely asking questions which seem to me to be perfectly reasonable and commonsense.

And it's still an arduous work schedule, but not a panicked one, either for Bach or for his copyists and performers.

Maybe my blind spot here, if I have one, is my expectation that performing musicians (and especially young ones, whether singing or in the orchestra) actually need more than a day or two to learn music for public performance. There's also my expectation that a good director would give them enough lead time to do so. Especially so in a big and important city, and especially so in the first several years where the director is eager to make a good impression on his new employers and parishioners.

It took a long process for Bach to get that Leipzig job among other candidates. He prepared three systematic books of music to help him land that job. What would have prevented him from starting to compose also some of those first-year cantatas (or at least to sketch, and to seek libretti) before his move to Leipzig, both to be impressive and to get a jump on the workload?

Doug Cowling wrote (January 19, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< It took a long process for Bach to get that Leipzig job among other candidates. He prepared three systematic books of music to help him land that job. What would have prevented him from starting to compose also some of those first-year cantatas (or at least to sketch, and to seek libretti) before his move to Leipzig, both to be impressive and to get a jump on the workload? >
That was a thought that occurred to me as well. Just before his death when Mozart was applying to be the choir director of St, Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, he wrote back to Salzburg and asked them to send all his early church music so he would ready in case he got the appointment.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 19, 2005):
Here's a case in point:

BWV 198 "Trauer Music" "Trauer-Ode" "Tombeau de S. M. la Reine de Pologne «

Chronology:

September 5, 1727
Kurfürstin Christiane Eberhardine died.

September 12, 1727
A student at the University of Leipzig, Karl von Kirchbach asks the university officials for permission to have a special academic mourning service in the Paulinerkirche (St. Pauls Church) with a formal eulogy in German (not Latin) [to demonstrate how well one could express these thoughts in the German language] and for which he (of noble birth) would commission the services of J. C. Gottsched, a Leipzig poet, and J. S. Bach to provide the music for the poetic text.

[It is not clear whether von Kirchbach was operating alone here, or if Gottsched had approached him on this matter. It is likely that Gottsched is already working on the ode which he would have to deliver to Bach for composition.]

October 3, 1727
Von Kirchbach makes a formal request to the Elector for permission to hold the mourning ceremony.

[It is assumed that the Ode was essentially completed by this time and that Bach had now received the commission to go ahead and compose the music.]

October 5, 1727
The Elector grants permission for the ceremony to take place

October 9, 1727
J. G. Görner approaches the university authorities and raises a formal objection to the planned ceremony stating that it infringed upon his prerogative to provide music for the ceremony.

October 9, 1727
The minutes of the meeting of university officials indicate that "it is questionable to allow the Cantor of St. Thomas Church to perform anything in the Paulinerkirche (the church associated with the University of Leipzig.) Von Kirchbach had responded that "Bach had already begun composing the music a week ago and that he had paid Bach already." The decision of the authorities was that "von Kirchbach must give the commission to the Director of Music at the Paulinerkirche (Görner.)"

October 11, 1727
Görner lodges a formal complaint with the university officials declaring: "von Kirchbach had still not given him the expected commission and he [Görner] wondered whether he [Görner] was to perform the music or not."

On the same day the university porter was sent to notify von Kirchbach and insist that he finally give the commission to Görner and that "Cantor Bach would not be admitted into the church to perform his music."

Later, on the same day, the university officials sent Bach a document to sign. This document would require Bach to recognize that, if he were to perform in the Paulinerkirche, it would be a one-time situation and was not to be considered as establishing a precedent.

October 11-12, 1727
For two days the university officials tried to get Bach to sign this document that he was in agreement with the conditions that they had established. Bach never signed this document.

At some point after October 12, 1727, the university officials were forced to acquiesce to von Kirchbach's position. Strangely enough, this detail is not recorded in any minutes that were so carefully kept up to this point.

October 15, 1727
Bach gives the date on which the score was finished. This is in his own handwriting at the end of the score: "Lipsia. Ao. 1727. d. 15. Oct."

October 17, 1727
The formal academic 'mourning' ceremony takes place in the Paulinerkirche in Leipzig.

Bach personally dates the cover/folder of his score as follows:
>>Joh. Sebast: Bach | ao. 1727. | d. 18. Octob:<<

The NBA KB I/38 pp. 126-127 gives the above information and states:

"Wann Gottsched dem Komponisten die Ode lieferte, ist unbekannt. Bachs wahrscheinlich in kürzester Zeit geschaffene Partitur trägt das autographe Schlußdatum ,Lipsia. Ao. 1727. d. 15. Oct.' Noch weniger Zeit blieb für das Herausschreiben der Stimmen und für die Proben mit Chor und Orchester."

["Just when Gottsched delivered the ode to the composer is unknown. This score of Bach, which was probably completed in an extremely short time frame, bears his autograph {completion} date, Leipzig, Oct. 15, 1727. There must have been even less time available for copying out the parts and for the rehearsals with the choir and orchestra."]

Doug Cowling wrote (January 19, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] A fascinating glimpse into academic politics -- somestill alive and well. However, the situation of the commission is so unique that it really doesn't bear on Bach's typical work schedule.

I don't think anyone in this discussion string is trying to deny that Bach could and did work under severe time constraints. Some composers can't: Beethoven couldn't finish the Missa Solemnis in time to be performed at the mass for which it was commissioned.

I think what we've all been trying to do is contextualize Bach's creative process in the social and cultural matrix in which he found himself. I have no doubt that he could pull an all-nighter and come up with a masterpiece; the reason he could do so is that he worked in a highly-structured schedule where he knew long in advance what was required of him.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 19, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote: wrote:
>>A fascinating glimpse into academic politics --something still alive and well. However, the situation of the commission is so unique that it really doesn't bear on Bach's typical work schedule.<<
Wait a minute! This commission was in addition to the other cantatas that he was composing and performing at the same time on a regular basis.

Also, didn't you comment on the fact that composers anticipated ahead of time the demise of important personages for which they would have already composed music that would be ready to perform for such special funeral services? This situation is probably one of the best documented ones in Bach's career. It is certainly indicative of the type of composing feats that Bach was capable of on a regular basis.

>>I have no doubt that he could pull an all-nighter and come up with a masterpiece;<<
Not 'just an all-nighter' but week-after-week masterpieces that were composed under similar conditions!

>>the reason he could do so is that he worked in a highly-structured schedule where he knew long in advance what was required of him.<<
Yes, but such a Bach scholar as Dürr who has truly examined and studied the evidence very carefully over several decades, has stated in several publications that, during the early years in Leipzig, Bach was primarily working on a different cantata each week from start to finish, which means the performance(s) in the church(es) of Leipzig.

Here are some extracts from Dürr's book on the Bach cantatas [Bärenreiter, Kassel, 1971-2000] from which I have not yet quoted anything in this regard:

p. 44 "Bach was obviously intent, at the beginning of his activities in Leipzig to perform exclusively his own cantata compositions with the 1st choir of St. Thomas Church; and even later on he seems to have made exceptions to this rule only rarely. This meant that he had to compose a new work week after week during the first years, to have the parts copied out and studied for performance. Only occasionally did he have to fall back on his Weimar compositions."

p. 72 "The copying out of parts from Bach's score always took place in a great rush and under the pressure of time. We find the proof for this in some of the dates that Bach indicated on the scores or parts: The parts for Pentecost Monday Cantata BWV 174 were completed one day before the performance (Pentecost Sunday;) the score for BWV 198 was completed on October 15, 1727, only two days before the performance."

Dürr then outlines the process which I have already related from the book that I quoted from recently.

Then Dürr indicates the things that are NOT found, or only in rare cases, in Bach's cantatas (scores and parts):

1. cues in the form of small notes that might indicated what other musicians are playing or singing just before the player or singer begins.

2. the usual type of marks including corrections made by musicians in their parts during rehearsals. (many mistakes in the parts are left uncorrected - from this Dürr concludes that such corrections were never or extremely rarely made during rehearsals.)

3. the indications as to when the Concertisten were to sing alone or when the Ripienisten were to join in, as a rule, are not indicated at all. (Dürr surmises that this may have happened simply with the wave of Bach's hand.)

Douglas Cowling wrote (January 19, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Also, didn't you comment on the fact that composers anticipated ahead of time the demise of important personages for which they would have already composed music that would be ready to perform for such special funeral services? This situation is probably one of the best documented ones in Bach's career. It is certainly indicative of the type of composing feats that Bach was capable of on a regular basis. >
Yes, except it appears that Bach didn't anticipate this commission because the notion of a German ode was a novelty which the authorities had to be convinced should be given to Bach. It wasn't in his job description!

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 19, 2005):
Douglas Cowling writes:
"I think what we've all been trying to do is contextualize Bach's creative process in the social and cultural matrix in which he found himself. I have no doubt that he could pull an all-nighter and come up with a masterpiece; the reason he could do so is that he worked in a highly-structured schedule where he knew long in advance what was required of him."
Indeed. Having little time to actually sit down and and actively work on a composition doesn't preclude thinking about it and planning it, in some detail if need be, in advance. In fact, as Doug says, that forward planning enables work to completed very quickly if need be.

I know what I shall be writing in April/May of this year, but I have been thinking about it and making fairly detailed plans for some time, while working on other things, but I can't start writing the notes until the beginning of April. And the same goes for projects later in the year. That's the only way to get a lot of work done. And my schedule is considerably less demanding than Bach's was!

John Pike wrote (January 19, 2005):
[To Bart O'Brien] <snip>
Regarding OVPP, I remain unconvinced about the evidence, mainly because of the Entwurff, but to ignore the possibility the this is what Bach did, and to ignore the wealth of evidence in that direction seems a bit cavalier to me.

Nothing that I have read from the experts, <snip> convinces me that Bach sat down on Monday morning, started from scratch without any previous thoughts on his cantata for the week and said "OK, here we go!" <snip>

John Pike wrote (January 19, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] This seems very sensible and in accordance with the evidence that we have.

I seem to remember reading that Bach did have quite a lot of influence on the libretto, especially so that it would fit some of the musical ideas he had. This applied particularly to a situation where he was parodying an earlier work.

John Pike wrote (January 19, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] In short, Bach was composing from 2-15 October (some of this time may just have been spent on thinking about the music), ie 2 weeks, but he had nearly a month before that, after the death of Christiane to think about the possibility that he might be asked to compose a funeral ode for her, and what the nature of the music might be.

There is nothing in this schedule which excludes the possibility of suggestions that Brad and others have made.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 19, 2005):
Look-ahead

< Indeed. Having little time to actually sit down and and actively work on a composition doesn't preclude thinking about it and planning it, in some detail if need be, in advance. In fact, as Doug says, that forward planning enables work to completed very quickly if need be. >
Agreed. For my job I spent a couple of days last week researching a project that won't come up for another three or four months at least. I wrote detailed notes so that whoever is assigned the project (probably me, but not necessarily) won't have to redo all the same analysis, which would take half of the allotted time later. Likewise I researched and sketchone last summer that still has not been assigned, but the specifications have enough detail that it will be easy when the time comes. I've been working on two others where I have to draw up much more detail than those, so the other people involved can make decisions on it...those have been going for a month already, still in my planning stage. And meanwhile, I'm developing and troubleshooting three or four existing projects day by day. Some of that is "we need this fixed in 10 minutes!" and some is "we need you to look at this sometime next week as soon as you can".

< I know what I shall be writing in April/May of this year, but I have been thinking about it and making fairly detailed plans for some time, while working on other things, but I can't start writing the notes until the beginning of April. And the same goes for projects later in the year. That's the only way to get a lot of work done. And my schedule is considerably less demanding than Bach's was! >
Same here. I'm starting to think ahead now what I'm going to play on organ in the annual Easter midnight service, for which I often compose new music depending how much time I have to do so. And, sketching out repertoire for several recordings this spring (but of indefinite date), and practicing it. And, practicing ahead for several Bach concertos in April and June, so there's time to live into the music. I have a set of CD reviews to finish writing sometime before March, where I've already been working on them in my head since November but haven't sat down to the word processor yet...that regular project also entails getting copies of the discs I'm reviewing, and selecting a set that works well together even though the individual reviews are rather short. I did something this morning already, briefly, on another writing project that has an April deadline; and quite a bit more last weekend on one that has a February deadline. These various things get fit in at any odd hour of day or night, and especially during nap time of the rest of the family. Sunday afternoon I practiced for 90 minutes on clavichord, since that's the only instrument quiet enough not to wake everybody else up!

Meanwhile, several weeks ago for church, I did sit down on an Monday evening and compose a piece that I played on the same Sunday. I'd already promised the clergy that "I'll come up with something for this spot" and then I had to do it. That's normal in providing church music: there's always some amount of time to fill and it's usually in a given Affekt or even a more specific theme, but the amount of lead time to prepare it varies. I've done some with less than half an hour of notice, and there's always the flexibility to change some things at the very last moment, but the work goes easier and better if there's some lead time to be reflective about it. Even if parts of it are going to be improvised in the event, the clearer the plan is in the mind ahead of time the better it goes.

And my wife also has some major writing projects she's already been working on for more than a year, squeezed in among other duties of her job. Careful planning and systematic self-discipline are the only way to make any progress there.

All this seems perfectly normal to me, and as Gabriel mentioned, it's probably less demanding overall than Bach's schedule was (with the professional duties and the children). That is, Bach perhaps had to plan even more carefully than we do. I don't see how he could have accomplished what he did, otherwise. [And this is NOT an appropriate point to slap in a glib "But he was a genius and therefore better at everything..." insult. Genius is, in large part, an organized bunch of hard work refining ideas and taking care of details, into a structure that makes sense. It's also, as Bach said, the willingness to let different styles and ideas affect one another, emerging as a blended result that is better than the individual parts. Douglas Hofstadter has written well about this "slipping" of a mind from one idea to another, across fields.]

One of my colleagues has a useful illustration. You take a glass jar and put as many big rocks in it as possible. Then, put in as many pebbles as fit, dropping them into the holes between the big rocks. Then, stuff in as much cotton as possible. Then, pour water until the jar is full. Does this illustrate "You can always pack in more with enough diligence?" No, that's not the main point. The main point is that "Big rocks go in first."

Doug Cowling wrote (January 19, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
< In short, Bach was composing from 2-15 October (some of this time may just have been spent on thinking about the music), ie 2 weeks, but he had nearly a month before that, after the death of Christiane to think about the possibility that he might be asked to compose a funeral ode for her, and what the nature of the music might be. >
The intriguing part of this story is the question of Bach's complicity in the plot to have a German language ode instead of the traditional Latin exercise. Did the academic plotters invite Bach out for a drink and share their conspiracy to change the tradition and see if he would join them?

"So, Herr Bach, I see that the old girl isn't doing so well. I suppose we'll be having some boring commemorative music soon. Too bad we can't have something new and contemporary in German for the service. Suppose we had, say, a GERMAN work ... what would YOU write if you received the commission?"

I see a PBS mystery series!

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 19, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
>>In short, Bach was composing from 2-15 October (some of this time may just have been spent on thinking about the music), ie 2 weeks, but he had nearly a month before that, after the death of Christiane to think about the possibility that he might be asked to compose a funeral ode for her, and what the nature of the music might be.<<
A month to think about the possibility that he might be asked to compose a funeral ode without having the text in hand sounds more like worrying rather than actually coming up with ideas. Bach had to be inspired by specific ideas and images. Chances are that these were not available to him in the timeframe that you refer to (from September 5th to October 2nd, 1727.) We have a specific reference from von Kirchbach as to when Bach actually began composing the music. We can assume that Bach began composing as soon as he had the text in hand. Also consider the fact that he was composing and performing other cantatas at the same time (this was during the time of the 4th yearly cantata cycle that is presumed, with the exception of a few remnants, to have been lost.)

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 19, 2005):
< A month to think about the possibility that he might be asked to compose a funeral ode without having the text in hand sounds more like worrying rather than actually coming up with ideas. Bach had to be inspired by specific ideas and images. >
WHY?!? Why SPECIFIC ideas and images? And, what's the problem (for Bach or anyone else) with "actually coming up with ideas"?

For those who think this is some sort of magical process, being especially inspired by last-minute deadlines or whatever, I suggest the following composing discipline as an exercise. Set yourself the task of composing a complete four-part piece of 12 to 24 bars of music EVERY DAY, whether you feel inspired or not.

The ideas come. So do the basics of contrapuntal craftsmanship (i.e. correct part-writing and voice-leading through study and practice), and the melodic inventiveness, and the placing of climactic moments of a melody at proper places, whether there is a specific text/theme in mind or not. This merely requires study and practice and discipline, like anything else! Work hard (as Bach said) and get it done.

I set myself this very task back in college, for a while, and I've done it numerous times since then: for a week or a month I'll be determined to write a piece every day to stay in shape. It really works. It's a good daily ritual to focus the mind, and to be able to "hear" music away from all instruments merely by looking at the page, in four or more parts. Some of that is even publishable (and published), coming out of that exercise of BEING a composer, the discipline of it. If a longer composition is necessary sometime, it's still based on this basic exercise of coming up with contrapuntally-rigorous melodies and part-writing. Sketch out a longer form and then fill it up with content BY WORKING AT IT.

Mastery of this comes through hard work, not merely some woozy mystical method of coming up with ideas and mystically being a genius of it, <snip>

This is basic craft, and basic craftsmanship. No, I wouldn't claim to be necessarily a Bach or a Schubert in the alleged facility of it, but I believe it is an easily trainable skill for anybody willing to put the real work into it. It's just like setting up puzzles or algebraic equations and then solving them: knowing a system of symbol-manipulation and then practicing at it to stay in shape. And the facility of it, after a sufficient amount of practice, might indeed seem like magic to someone who has never tried it. But, I urge anyone interested in the composing or arranging process, DO THE WORK in order to learn this stuff!

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 19, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2005):
http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/11925
Those are tremendously restrictive notions about the nature of genius. They're also the sort of hagiography that prevents us from seeing and appreciating historically validated genius from a reasonable human angle. i.e. The genius is allegedly some Uebermensch whose level of achievement simply is not attainable by other people; so why bother trying, except to worship it in humble awe? And yet, Bach's own opinion about that is on record, flatly contradicting those romanticized overtones about Uebermenschen: "anybody who works as hard as I do will get as far."
Who's to make that determination as to what genius entails, as to flashes of insight and the working-out of the consequences, and any particular time-frame for the creation of masterworks? And why overrule Bach's genius opinion in that, as to the primacy of hard work and study, i.e. actually creating and performing music as a way to understand how the process works? >
It's a credit to Bach's character that he would make that remark - none of the Wagnerian ego mania for him. But we all know that it's not true. There were hundreds of very hard working musicians and composers working while Bach toiled. Bach worked hard, no doubt, but he carried something very special when he approached his work. What is striking about Bach is the extraordinary quality across the board of his work. No composer struck gold with every work, but I can't think of anything by Bach that I would consider a "dud." (Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn all had some stinkers. They also were all very hard workers. Beethoven once made a comment very close to Bach's stressing elbow grease over innate genius.) The nature of genius remains, at least for the moment, mystery. I think Bach would have liked that.

BTW: I like the term "Rossini Syndrome." His childhood works put Mozart's to shame. And I love his work: a real pity he didn't do a symphony. He gets my vote for the Europe's most underrated composer.

Mike Mannix wrote (March 20, 2005):
Rossini underrated? At least he gets a Michelin star here and there. I'd put Austria's Franz Schmidt at the top of my list. (Not that I'd want to start a debate on the issue!)

Mike Mannix
P.S. Cherubini anyone?

Thomas Shepherd wrote (March 20, 2005):
[To Mike Mannix] I've just this evening listened to Cherubini's Requiem performed by a well-meaning group of amateur singers and organ in my church. It's a work that I've never heard before but would now like to hear in a full version with orchestra. At first hearing there's a lot of good stuff there. Naxos has done a recording, I'm told.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 20, 2005):
[To Thomas Shepherd] The choral works of Cherubini and Rossini should never be attempted by amateurs no matter how well-meaning. They need to be sung by first-rank opera stars who know the style. It's a bit like watching a highschool drama group play "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Thomas Shepherd wrote (March 20, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Ok. Agreed. But at least a fairly obscure work saw the light of day. There were over 100 present and they all enjoyed the work.

Ludwig wrote (March 20, 2005):
[To Thomas Shepherd] The Cherubini is rarely heard these days and it is a beautiful work. If it is on Naxos ----Tower is currently having a big discounted sale on Naxos recordings.

 

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