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Bach Composing
Part 5

Continue from Part 4

The Myth regarding Bach's early planning and execution of cantatas {was: Bach's faith]

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 3, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>I firmly believe that Bach conceived an entire Jahrgang of cantatas in one Big Bang of creation. The actual composition was a pre-ordained inevitability executed with a sureness and confidence that is still astonishing.<<
This statement of 'firm belief' is not corroborated by the evidence that is presented in the NBA KBs as we progress in our discussions from week to week from one cantata to the next in Bach's 2nd yearly cycle. Each of Bach's composing scores (which most often are the ones he used for performances as well) shows hundreds of corrections and alterations which he made before the parts were copied out (BWV 124 for next week's discussion has 237 such corrections of various types]. All of this gives evidence that the actual composing of a cantata took place close to the deadline even though the libretti had been published as much as one or two months earlier. It is an unrealistic, Romantic notion to believe that Bach 'executed with a sureness and confidence that is still astonishing' his great masterpieces in cantata form. The reality of Bach's composing procedure should dispel any myths about having composed his original works for a 1st performance weeks or even months in advance. The final confirmation of the pressure of time under which Bach composed and prepared his materials is also quite evident in the manner in which the parts were prepared.

Julian Mincham wrote (January 3, 2007):
[To Thomas Braatz] Are the views expressed above not entirely compatible?

I too see the body of 40 chorale/fantasia cantatas performed in almost exactly the same number of weeks from June 1724 to late March 1725 (i.e. BWV 20 to BWV 1) as a cognate set. There is much that unites them and little that separates them. There is no evidence of the re-use of earlier works (which we do find in the last 13 cantatas of the cycle). There is evidence that he was particularly concerned with experimentation and development of various musical aspects during this time e.g. the setting of long slabs of text, the hybrid recits and chorales, the use of the chorale as a unifying agent throughout the cantata as well as being the backbone of the first movements, the carefully chosen keys and balances of major/minor modes etc etc.

General ideas may well have been gestating in Bach's mind about these works during the presentation of the first cycle where he hit the ground running from the moment he arrived in Leipzig:--- although stretched as he must have been in that first year, one wonders where he found the time to plan ahead in any detail. In any case he would not have had most of the texts to hand.

It does appear logical to assume that he produced these works in a 'white heat' of creative composition at the rate of a work a week. And working at this speed it is perfectly reasonable that there would have been a number of slips and corrections as Thomas has outlined. And while making these corrections and preparing parts might not a number of 'second thoughts' have occurred to him which also resulted in late amendments to the score?

I do not think that the idea that Bach worked on a number of cantatas in advance fits the scenario. He worked quickly and methodically and sustainedly. There is evidence of other great composers working at exceptionally high and sustained rates of creative output during various periods of their lives. Why not Bach?

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 3, 2007):
< (...) Each of Bach's composing scores (which most often are the ones he used for performances as well) shows hundreds of corrections and alterations which he made before the parts were copied out (BWV 124 for next week's discussion has 237 such corrections of various types]. All of this gives evidence that the actual composing of a cantata took place close to the deadline even though the libretti had been published as much as one or two months earlier. (...)
The reality of Bach's composing procedure should dispel any myths about having composed his original works for a 1st performance weeks or even months in advance. The final confirmation of the pressure of time under which Bach composed and prepared his materials is also quite evident in the manner in which the parts were prepared. >
No; the presence of 237 handwritten corrections/alterations suggests reasonably (or should we say: "gives evidence"?!) that Bach had sufficient time to reflect on his work, and find and make 237 corrections/alterations. It shows care in getting it right: by revisiting the piece for second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever rounds of thinking were necessary/possible during the compositional and rehearsal processes, to improve its details. That's a process that Bach regularly demonstrated throughout his career: improving details in his music upon later reflection, and not only the vocal music.

Nor is the existence of a clean score (or a messy score full of alterations, take your pick) necessarily evidence either for or against the quality of inspiration in a composition, or its speed of initial composition, or any deadlines (real or imagined) thereof.

Nor is it any argument, one way or the other, about writing out the performers' parts as late as the week of the first performance. Or preparing such parts in any particular "manner" as asserted above. Or rehearsing the performers for the first time, as late as the week of first performance.

=====

To make assertions about "compositional procedures", one could at least ask the opinions of people who actually compose music: to get some insight into the work.

Want a concrete example? Consider the handwritten autograph composing score shown at: http://tinyurl.com/y2plkf which does have half a dozen hand-erasures and corrections/alterations during its compositional process. It also has a date when the composer considered the piece "finished"...although he went back and added some other markings to the score pages more than six years later. From this score alone we can't deduce how long it took to compose the piece in the first place, or how many drafts/sketches/improvisations led to it, or how many times the composer went through it at whatever instruments to try it out as a performer. Or, perhaps consulted with any other musicians for compositional ideas or details. Or, how many times he or anyone else has performed it from this autograph score; or, how many times additional notes might have been added (or some erased or moved) between performances. The date on the score suggests at least a decent guess at the month of first public performance, but that isn't certain either.

These elements of compositional process are simply not revealed clearly by scores! I happen to know what they were, in this particular instance, as it's a piece I composed myself; but the compositional process is not revealed by the extant materials. Nor is any sense of inspiration the composer either personally experienced or didn't experience, while doing the work, at whatever speed it took to finish the piece.

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Let's hear from some other composers and arrangers on-list: people who really write music for their own performance and who don't merely speculate about such things. An enlightening discussion might
conceivably come out of this, if we can hear from some real experiences! Do your composing scores offer any evidence, one way or the other, about how long it took you? Or, how late you waited to start composing a piece before its first public performance? Or, of any revision processes between performances and rehearsals? Or, any sense of quality (better or worse) at waiting till the last minute to compose or rehearse anything, vs taking plenty of lead time to plan the work?

As for speculations by people who don't compose at all, and who don't preparany music hands-on for church ensemble performances: you're of course free to make up whatever you want to, about Bach's or anyone else's compositional or arranging processes. But, I personally won't believe such speculations ahead of reports by people who (like me) actually do the work.

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This thread has the misleading and polemical subject line "The Myth regarding Bach's early planning and execution of cantatas", but I didn't make it up.

How about something like: "Inventing and pressing improper conclusions about compositional speeds, processes, and deadlines"?

Nessie Russell wrote (January 3, 2007):
Bradley Lehman asked:
> Let's hear from some other composers and arrangers on-list: people who really write music for their own performance and who don't merely speculate about such things. An enlightening discussion might conceivably come out of this, if we can hear from some real experiences! Do your composing scores offer any evidence, one way or the other, about how long it took you? Or, how late you waited to start composing a piece before its first public performance? Or, of any revision processes between performances and rehearsals? Or, any sense of quality (better or worse) at waiting till the last minute to compose or rehearse anything, vs taking plenty of lead time to plan the work? <
I make piano accompaniments for songs. The only times when I do a "burn the midnight oil" in the manner people are saying Bach did is when a client is a hurry. The last time this happened I sent the song writer two versions as I could not make up my mind which was better. I think she had her pianist play it that same week. I am certain that if I was her pianist I would find flaws and ways to improve it every time I played it.

This is not the way I like to work. I like to put away an arrangement for at least a week. When I come back to it I ALWAYS find a way to improve it.

Of course, I'm not as clever as J.S. Bach. He was smarter than any of us. I do not think his musicians were. Even if they were well trained, they were just regular people who needed time to rehearse.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 3, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>No; the presence of 237 handwritten corrections/alterations suggests reasonably (or should we say: "gives evidence"?!)that Bach had sufficient time to reflect on his work, and find and make 237 corrections/alterations. It shows care in getting it right: by revisiting the piece for second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever rounds of thinking were necessary/possible during the compositional and rehearsal processes, to improve its details. That's a process that Bach regularly demonstrated throughout his career: improving details in his music upon later reflection, and not only the vocal music.<<
No, the evidence speaks against a conjecture of this sort. The NBA editors indicate that they believe that this cantata (BWV 123) and the next (BWV 124) probably had a repeat performance, but they are unable to find any evidence for this. The problem here is that Bach had a composing score before him, then quickly made necessary corrections before handing the score over to his copyists. Ideally, if he had had sufficient time, perhaps a day or more longer than he did, he could have recopied the score (made a 'clean' or 'clear' copy) as a better basis from which to conduct and for the benefit of the copyists who would otherwise carry these mistakes over into the parts and thus multiply their existence. This would save Bach from having to correct mistakes he should have caught the first time in his composing score. After having made the corrections and additions to the parts before the first performance, Bach makes no other changes/corrections/additions to his only 'composing' score! This is clear to the NBA editors who find no evidence whatsoever that Bach went back a second, third, fourth time to make any additional corrections/additions to the score. This proof is offered by the parts themselves, for in comparing the parts (which have undergone no changes since the final check by Bach before the first performance) with the only 'composing' score, they see (also from the tell-tale signs of different ink/quill point/handwriting used by Bach at different times in his life) that no further changes to the original score or original set of parts have been made, subsequent to the creation of the parts. To be sure, in some instances where Bach has undertaken to change the score (different orchestration, etc.), it becomes quite evident to the NBA editors that these changes were not made at the time of the original first performance.

BL: >>Nor is the existence of a clean score (or a messy score full of alterations, take your pick) necessarily evidence either for or against the quality of inspiration in a composition, or its speed of initial composition, or any deadlines (real or imagined)thereof.<<
A 'messy' score could potentially make life very difficult for Bach's copyists who are working under great pressure to do their job quickly and correctly. If Bach had had the time, which he did not, he would have recopied his own 'working' score to make a 'clear', easily readable score for himself (in conducting the performance) and for his copyists. So the speed of initial composition in reaching a real
deadline is quite evident here.

Did I ever say that a 'messy' score was evidence for a lack of quality of inspiration? Please read my remarks carefully again for you seem to be attempting to put ideas and words in my mouth which were never there to begin with.

BL: >>Nor is it any argument, one way or the other, about writing out the performers' parts as late as the week of the first performance. Or preparing such parts in any particular "manner" as asserted above. Or rehearsing the performers for the first time, as late as the week of first performance.<<
While there is no written, well-documented evidence stating the time and place where Bach may have had a rehearsal, if he had any rehearsal at all, it truly makes little sense to attempt to explain the existing data concerning Bach's composing and copy-generating process in any other way than that all of this was done at the last moment before an impending rehearsal or first performance. These data begin to speak for themselves as they make the assertion that Bach had planned this process many days, weeks, and perhaps even months beforehand appear to be ridiculous in the least.

BL: >>To make assertions about "compositionalprocedures", one could at least ask the opinions of people who actually compose music: to get some insight into the work.<<
There is absolutely no need for this since the evidence from Bach's score and the original set of parts can explain much more accurately what Bach was doing rather than hearing hundreds of different opinions by present-day composers on the work methods they use. Then time, which could more profitably be used in examining other similar examples of Bach's procedure, will be wasted in trying to distill a common denominator between present-day opinions given at a very different time and place than the environment in which Bach worked.

BL: >>From this score alone we can't deduce how long it took to compose the piece in the first place, or how many drafts/sketches/improvisations led to it, or how many times the composer went through it at whatever instruments to try it out as a performer. Or, perhaps consulted with any other musicians for compositional ideas or details. Or, how many times he or anyone else has performed it from this autograph score; or, how many times additional notes might have been added (or some erased or moved) between performances.<<
Through conflation of the previous list of possibilities, you have succeeded in compounding many errors of judgment or at least causing confusion which comes as a result of comparing today's procedures with Bach's.

1. Yes, from the state of the composing score and from Bach's working environment (context), it is possible to arrive at a reasonable assessment that his autograph score of BWV 123, for insta, was completed in great haste (his usual working tempo during his 2nd cantata cycle in Leipzig) and that he would not have 'waited around' taking occasional 'pokes and stabs' at the score many days or weeks in advance of its actual 1st performance. Aside from the occasional sketch at the bottom of a composing score, whether for the present cantata or for the next one to be worked on, there is no evidence that Bach had sketch books devoted to this type of activity. That he may have 'improvised' or 'tested out' certain ideas at the keyboard before committing them to paper is certainly a possibility. The numerous mistakes in the 'composing' score may have been corrected almost instantaneously as they appear to be of the same ink and quill quality as the rest of the page. This would rule out the notion of composing a few bars here and there throughout the day or composing a new aria on one day, put the cantata aside for a couple of days, then pick up again with the next recitative and aria. There would be no extensive rough drafts before Bach wrote down a mvt. on his 'composing' copy, otherwise his 'composing' score would look more like a 'clean' or 'clear' copy score.

Bach did not need to consult with other composers and musicians before composing an aria or an introductory chorale mvt. He knew the capabilities of his musicians and unless they were new on the scene or had a new instrument to try out, there was no need for him to have them sing or play a new melody line. If a virtuoso flute player visited Leipzig for a few weeks, Bach would simply ask them to play something or he would have them play some of his own compositions. With this in mind, Bach would then set about composing the music that would have to be played at sight at its first performance.

The NBA editors have frequently commented regarding the original parts of most of Bach's cantatas (except the few that were repeatedly used until the parts wore out) that they give the appearance of not being used at all. One would expect many things to happen to these parts if they were used for rehearsals and numerous repeat performances:

1. edges frayed, corners folded over (dog-eared) or broken off as a result of frequent folding

2. fingerprints leaving a slightly oily residue or moisture spots where a wind player touches the part after having touched saliva that is being removed from a part of the instrument

3. moisture splattered from the mouth of a singer unto the page or issuing from an instrument in like manner

4. smoke or tallow residue caused by the flame of a candle (a sudden mvt. of air sideways towards the part)

5. any kind of addition or correction to the part (fingerings, breath marks, etc.) made in ink (not the same color/intensity or quill quality used by the copyist) or even entered lightly with a pencil

To repeat: generally this type of evidence is completely lacking. This certainly gives evidence that these parts were used only at one or two performances before being returned to the set of parts where they remained until there was a possible repeat performance. Unless Bach saw a reason to make changes (different orchestration, transposition, etc.), it is possible that the cantata was performed again the same way showing no wear or tear to the parts and no additional corrections or changes to the 'composing' score (he did not even bother to make a decent 'clean' copy for himself because it worked fine the first time around.)

BL: >>The date on the score suggests at least a decent guess at the month of first public performance, but that isn't certain either.<<
With Bach, when a date is given on a score, there is corroborating evidence from official documents or from the cantata booklets. We know from one instance where Bach was waiting to receive permission to perform his own music in the university church. Although he knew plans were being made for this ceremony and the libretto was essentially finished as early as 5 to 6 weeks before the actual event, permission for Bach's participation (and his music) was not clearly granted until about a week before the performance. Do you think that Bach would have begun composing, let alone rehearsing, this music until he knew for certain that he had received permission?

BL: >>These elements of compositional process are simply not revealed clearly by scores! I happen to know what they were, in this particular instance....<<
One cannot simply assume that your situation and Bach's are analogous. This is a ridiculous comparison because it does not account for all the detailed information that we do have about Bach's composing practices leading up to the 1st performances of his cantatas. To disregard or discount such information as supplied by the scholars who have examined Bach's original sources thoroughly demonstrates a decided lack of respect for scholarly methods and results that need to be accounted for before bringing in empirical observations and self-serving arguments that do little to enlighten our understanding of Bach's methods and procedures.

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 4, 2007):
[To Thomas Braatz] I am not a musicologist and have no informed opinion on this matter. However, I do know a little about historical method and would like to make a couple of points.

1. Call this the "Watchmaker" argument for existence of argument. If it was absolutely clear from contemporary sources how Bach worked (or at least clear enough that there is a general consensus among musicologists) informed students of Bach and those that play his music would have no disputes about he worked. Nobody argues that the sun revolves around the earth. However, the opposite does seem to be the case. This does not surprise me in the least. When analyzing the past, "process" or the general question of how things were done is one of the most difficult problems to approach. (I know this from experience. I would very much like to know what the crew of a World War II warship did for a living. The numbers are clear and in a few cases ratings. But how many men were in the respective divisions? What were battle stations? This kind of information would be tremendously helpful in reconstructing how warships functioned. I've worked with the National Archives and some of the best naval historians in the country. And nobody really seems to know. And this was sixty years ago - historically speaking a short time indeed. And the USN had 2,000 warships. I will find out, but it's not going to be easy.)

2. Historical method has been changed greatly in the past two or three generations with a growing appreciation of the importance of what might be called indirect evidence culled from data generated in entirely different fields such as archeology, anthropology, and increasingly the "hard" sciences. Wherever there exists specialists in skills or crafts that are similar to those employed in the past, they will be right on the top of the list of potential sources. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kitty Hawk, two different teams of people tried to reproduce a replica of the Wright Flyer and the Wright brothers gliders used around 1900. They included aviation historians, aviation engineers but also people that worked with woods and fabrics using "traditional" materials, and hang-glider types who might have be able to give tips on how to actually fly the beast. (The flyer never did work very well the last I heard.) The fields of military and naval history are being greatly added to (and in some cases greatly changed) by this type of approach. Certain areas of social history could not exist at all without the input of other fields of knowledge.

3. Music, it would strike me, would fit perfectly into the little model sketched above. I recently read an article explaining the woes of the modern symphony. The point made is that unlike a 21st century company, a symphony is very poorly placed to take advantage of increases in productivity coming from contemporary technology. One person can run a radio station these days: synthesizers can play music for advertisements eliminating a big hunk of prmusicians work. Not so with a symphony: you still need 80-100 musicians if you want to play Mahler. And unfortunately the musicians think they should live in the middle class and hence costs have gone up even in places where ticket sales have remained strong. Bad for finances. But it does tell you something - modern musicians have an unusual commonality with their predecessors of the past. And, when you get down to it, so do composers. Actually, if a modern musician and his 18th century counterpart could meet in some neutral spirit world, I should think they could talk shop pretty well. I'm not sure you could say that about many groups of people because most people today do not have 18th century counterparts. In any case, contemporary evidence when extremely clear (that's quite rare unfortunately) will take precedence, and if strong enough define the boundaries of legitimate debate. If unclear, however, I can't think of any reason not to employ the knowledge of contemporary musicians when attempting to understand the process of music making in the past. My guess is that it is done routinely.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 5, 2007):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< (...) In any case, contemporary evidence when extremely clear (that's quite rare unfortunately) will take precedence, and if strong enough define the boundaries of legitimate debate. If unclear, however, I can't think of any reason not to employ the knowledge of contemporary musicians when attempting to understand the process of music making in the past. My guess is that it is done routinely. >
Amen to all this (plus the deleted part above it, just saving space).

I'd add: to understand the practical aspect of music-making, and therefore also the reasonable reading/use of cantata scores/parts, there's absolutely no substitute for:
- (1) really taking music lessons with qualified teachers, and
- (2) really working as a church musician in as many of Bach's roles as possible, to understand what's plausible to do...and what's plausible to write down or not to write down.

I was thinking also: if/when eminent virtuosi (such as Buffardin or the like) ever did visit Bach and participate with his Sunday morning music, on special occasions, ....if Bach expected to hand them something to sight-read on a Sunday morning (having only finished it last night)...such virtuosi, if sensible and self-respecting of their own reputations, would scarcely come back to work with Bach twice. The conditions just aren't plausible! Bach's music is too technically difficult to sight-read in performance and simultaneously be pleased that they're doing a really good job with it. Let alone teenagers. Details have to be worked out in rehearsal, for performances to go at well-accomplished levels, no matter how fantastic the musicians are individually...either as performers or sight-readers or both.

And how do we know it's difficult, in this way? Ask the people who actually play and sing it. Attend rehearsals and listen carefully to the way any actual sight-reading goes, in practice. Take music lessons and try the stuff hands-on, sight-reading and not, to know how it goes and how much work has to go into it, to do it well.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (January 5, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< And how do we know it's difficult, in this way? Ask the people who actually play and sing it. Attend rehearsals and listen carefully to the way any actual sight-reading goes, in practice. Take music lessons and try the stuff hands-on, sight-reading and not, to know how it goes and how much work has to go into it, to do it well. >
A really good amateur choir comprised of people in their late teens (for example, yours truly at age 17) on upward can sight read the choir parts to Bach cantatas and material of similar difficulty at tempo essentially without error. (And if it's some Josquin mass that is, say, being transposed up a fifth to correspond to the ranges of a mixed choir, and you've got perfect pitch, you've still got to 'perform' anyway. This is not particularly pleasant - indeed, it is particularly unpleasant - but it is doable). So I can see Bach doing, for example, a 1-1.5 hour rehearsal the night before or the morning of, good enough for 3 run-throughs. And if he had two such rehearsals, all the better. So I consider that we, spending a dozen rehearsals on the material, had something of a luxury.

Arias, on the other hand, are a bit more work. I normally do, for example, an aria in two rehearsals of 1 hr's length, two arias in rehearsals of 2 hrs' length. And if the aria wasn't too technically difficult, I could even do it more or less at sight. Wouldn't want to walk into a rehearsal, sight-read something on a par with 'Jauchzet' BWV 51 at tempo though. I don't remember how long I worked on that thing before I rehearsed, but it was longer than one day. But then again, that may be attributable to it being at the upper end of my present ability range, or perhaps even slightly beyond it (depending how much I've been singing lately). Or to the fact that I am not presently in a choir that sight-reads stuff in fast 16th notes on a regular basis anymore. No doubt if I were, it would be a different matter...

'Nuff for now

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 5, 2007):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
>>In any case, contemporary evidence when extremely clear (that's quite rare unfortunately) will take precedence, and if strong enough define the boundaries of legitimate debate. If unclear, however, I can't think of any reason not to employ the knowledge of contemporary musicians when attempting to understand the process of music making in the past. My guess is that it is done routinely.<<
The evidence that I have presented from the NBA KB I/5 is detailed and very precise. [I always welcome anyone who reads my comments to check my sources to confirm them!] That evidence should be sufficiently strong enough to define the boundaries of this legitimate debate. As I have already indicated: to ask hundreds of today's composers and musicians what their methods and procedures are and receive hundreds of differing opinions that need to be reduced to a 'cloudy' common denominator of what happens to be the customary method and procedure used in today's world will only serve to confound our understanding of Bach's procedures rather than clarify them.

And furthermore, I contend that whatever can be 'read out of' an original context is certainly preferable to attaining a more reliable understanding than attempting to (super)impose upon the bare historical data current prejudices regarding the methods and procedures used by composers and musicians today. The latter are 'stuck' with the idea that numerous rehearsals and a lot of individual practice are necessary to 'pull off' a reasonably good rendition of a Bach cantata. It is better to immerse yourself into the historic milieu and ambiance as much as this is possible, and by maintaining a sense of reasonableness and 'logic' in your conjectures, speculations, etc., you might be able to arrive at a better scenario representing what might have been than by forcing modern ways and methods on the historical data that does still exist for inspection today.

<>

In presenting the actual data about the autograph score and the original parts regarding cantatas BWV 123 and BWV 124, I have labeled clearly for those who read carefully what I have written "A probable sequence of tasks that might explain how and why.." above the section where I attempt to interpret all the data that I culled directly from the NBA KBs. Other statements are honestly reported as "Bach may have begun composing BWV 124.." Overlooking these indicators and attempting to have my interpretive comments stand out with special bells and whistles or highlighting is a silly school-boy demand by someone who has personal difficulties in keeping speculations apart from actual reliable data. This is also the same individual who insists that certain musical notes in my score examples should not be highlighted in red. These demandsrepeated from time to time demonstrate Brad Lehman's inconsistency while, at the same time, he requires consistency from those whom he criticizes, but here I am wandering away from the subject at hand:

1. I have, for those who require clarity in presenting information in a scholarly manner, indicated what is based on factual material that issues from a very careful analysis of the original source materials by Bach experts and what amounts to a possible, reasonable interpretation by me of how these facts describe a sequence of events, a procedure, that may possibly represent what Bach and his copyists did shortly prior to the actual first date of performance for each of these cantatas. It is left to the reader to ponder the possibilities that I have presented and to ask legitimate questions about them or to posit a different scenario which is still based upon the same set of facts.

2. There is sufficient evidence available to permit a reasonable interpretation as long as you allow yourself to be guided by all the available information that we have, direct and indirect, regarding the context in which this composing and copying procedure takes place. Simply because no Bach expert has attempted such an interpretation does not mean that it is not possible to reasonably infer certain actions and situations that have a greater likelihood of having occurred than those which cannot be related to the historical facts as easily.

3. What we see at work here in the midst of the 2nd yearly cantata cycle (Leipzig) is a musical genius producing compositions of the highest quality over an extended period on a regular basis (at least one cantata each week) while under great pressure of time which barely allowed him to finish one work before beginning the next. Bach could have made life so much easier for himself (and his family and his musicians), if he had decided in advance, as Telemann must have: "I will compose, have printed, and sell a yearly cycle of "mediocre" [OED: of middling quality, neither bad nor good, indifferent. Said chiefly of literary or artistic works, ability, or knowledge, and hence of persons considered with reference to their mental power or skill] cantatas that will be easy to perform by just about any cantor at any German church." We should be eternally grateful that Bach chose the more difficult course (perhaps his "Kreuzweg" - 'Way of the Cross') and that we can hear the results of his supreme effort while at the same time indirectly empathizing with his daily struggles to achieve what
was impossible for almost any other composer of his day.

 

Bach collaborating with students in composition

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 10, 2007):
< For myself I have never had any problem in believing that Bach may have given partially completed pieces to a student with the instruction--complete this---or--- write up to the double bar line----as a teaching exercise. He might then have revised/corrected the student's work, the completed piece going out under the master's name. Many sculptors and painters worked precisely in this fashion as did Lully. Why not Bach? >
The C major flute sonata BWV 1033 being a famous case of this: flute part probably by JSB, basso continuo part by a student (usually given to be CPE Bach).

Or the sonatas BWV 1021 and 1038 both being based on the same bass line as one another. Or 1021 getting rearranged into 1022, with different key and different instrumentation.

Or BWV 964, which is somebody's D minor harpsichord arrangement (and an excellent one) of the A minor solo violin sonata 1003.

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In the booklet notes of this well-played and well-tuned CD performance: http://www.move.com.au/disc.cfm/3304
Martin Jarvis tentatively attributes two big-biggies to composition by Anna Magdalena Bach, as student of JSB: the aria of the Goldberg Variations, and the C major prelude #1 of WTC 1! (Listening sample of the latter is available there at that web page, too.)

N.B. This is not an invitation for Dr Jarvis's hypothesis to be debunked, throttled, or calumniated by people who haven't read and won't read his presentation.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 11, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>Martin Jarvis tentatively attributes two big-biggies to composition by Anna Magdalena Bach, as student of JSB: the aria of the Goldberg Variations, and the C major prelude #1 of WTC 1!<<
Factual information on the C major prelude #1 of WTC1:

Bach's married his first wife, Maria Barbara, on October 17, 1707. She was buried on July 17, 1720.

AMB first appeared in Köthen in the summer of 1721 (I have to assume that he did not know her before this point in time.)

Bach married Anna Magdalena Bach on December 3, 1721

The Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was begun on January 22, 1720 and the section (items 1-20) including the abovementioned prelude (#14, technically version alpha 2) was completed by the end of 1721 at the latest. Alfred Dürr ("Das wohltemperierte Klavier", Bärenreiter, 1998, pp. 98ff and the NBA V/6.1 inform us that there was a yet earlier version (alpha 1) which preceded alpha 2. This would definitely place this not-yet-accurately dating of this prelude to at least 1720 if not before.

Question: Is there hard evidence to prove that Bach tutored (or had any kind of relationship with) Anna Magdalena Bach in 1720 or earlier? Better yet, is there hard evidence (AMB's composition written in her own handwriting, possibly with her signature attached, that would lend credence to what might otherwise appear to be wild speculation that AMB composed this 'biggie' which Bach and WFB then copied into his notebook sometime in late 1720 or early 1721.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 11, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Question: Is there hard evidence to prove that Bach tutored (or had any kind of relationship with) Anna Magdalena Bach in 1720 or earlier? >
see Wolff, (B:LM), pp. 216-7, with the following possible chronology:

(1) Bach had connections to Weißenfels dating back to his first guest performance there in 1713.

(2) From about 1718, the Weißenfels ensemble included trumpeter [!] Johann Caspar Wilcke, among whose offspring was the unmarried daughter, Anna Magdalena.

Not hard evidence, but certainly the suggestion of a possible relationship before 1720.

Douglas Cowling wrote (January 11, 2007):
[To Ed Myskowski] Thank you for expressing this point as an historical possibiilty and worthy of discussion as an open question rather than demanding "hard evidence" and slapping down the person who made the suggestion. If only these questions were debated with greater generosity of spirit and courteous civility.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 11, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] Johann Caspar Wilcke/Wülken (born circa1660-1665, died November 30, 1731) Court- and Field-Trumpeter in Zeitz (from 1686 to 1718 and in Weißenfels (from 1718 until his death in 1731)

His daughter: Anna Magdalena Bach (September 22, 1701 - February 27, 1760)

Reginald L Sanders in the OCC, Oxford University Press, 1999 writes: "It is not known when she first made Bach's acquaintance, but it was certainly by September 25, 1721." AMB had just turned 20. In June, 1721 there is the first record that she received communion in Köthen. Also, Wolff, in his biography, p. 217, suggests a possible spring, 1721 audition, anything before that time begins to take on the aura of wishful thinking.

Bach's first visit to Weißenfels for a performance was in 1713 (Anna Magdalena was 12 years old at that time). However, her father was not in Weißenfels at that time since his court position was in Zeitz until 1718.

The first official appearance of Anna Magdalena for a singing performance is in Anhalt-Zerbst. This performance cannot be dated any more precisely than 1720-1721.

Wolff's claim in a footnote p. 490, footnote 78, that Bach may have had contact with the Wülken family as early as 1713 is extremely speculative. The documentation that Wolff provides (BD, items 67 and 68) can barely serve as a basis for such a speculation. The BD notes, which are usually very comprehensive in picking up any loose ends or further Bach connections, does not indicate any connection of this sort (connection between the Wülken and Bach families issuing from these documents). This is entirely Wolff's wishful thinking to try to make this early connection.

Still lacking entirely regarding the Prelude #1 from the WTC1 in its alpha 1 state which predates the alpha 2 state in the Notenbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is any evidence that:

1.) Anna Magdalena Bach presented Bach with the original version of this Prelude in her own handwriting as evidence of an original piece she had composed or one which was given to her to complete as an exercise in composition as part of the instruction in composition which she might have been receiving from Bach.

2.) Such a composition predates the time when she first had a closer relationship based upon her performing abilities (June, 1721) by which time the composition had already been copied into WFB's Notenbüchlein by J.S. Bach and WFB.

Without such important evidence, the notion that AMB composed this 1st Prelude in the WTC1 has about as much value as stating that Bach copied it out of some book of easy pieces for beginners which he had come upon.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 11, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Wolff's claim in a footnote p. 490, footnote 78, that Bach may have had contact with the Wülken family as early as 1713 is extremely speculative. The documentation that Wolff provides (BD, items 67 and 68) can barely serve as a basis for such a speculation. The BD notes, which are usually very comprehensive in picking up any loose ends or further Bach connections, does not indicate any connection of this sort (connection between the Wülken and Bach families issuing from these documents). This is entirely Wolff's wishful thinking to try to make this early connection. >
Wishful thinking? Giveth unto us a break! (ACE). Woolf, as you cite, simply states they may have made contact. Where is the wishful thinking in that statement? The possibility remains open. Nothing speculative about that (not to use a controversial word).

Julian Mincham wrote (January 11, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Martin Jarvis tentatively attributes two big-biggies to composition by Anna Magdalena Bach, as student of JSB: the aria of the Goldberg Variations, and the C major prelude #1 of WTC 1! (Listening sample of the latter is available there at that web page, too.) >
Actually Jarvis's real'biggie' is the unaccompanied cello suites which a lot of people will find really controversial. His argument is based upon two main premises, particular (and sometimse peculiar) stylistic characteristics of these pieces and the computer analysis of the MS. I imagine he is likely to publish more fully in the near future.

I have attended his lectures on his work and discussed some of the aspects of his work with him. My own view formed from this is that whilst the authorship of particular works may be argued, doubted and generally discussed without reaching iron-clad conclusions, nevertheless the idea of Bach acting as a master craftsman, surrounded by and instructing his retinue of students and family, farming out but ultimately supervising and correcting their efforts, is an interesting and appealing one.

It lies well in my mind with my view of Bach being a 'wholistic person. There were no artificial divisions in his mind between the composer and performer, the reader able to perform anything accurately at sight and the improviser, the practising musician and the teacher. For him (I believe) all functions came together and each of them impinged upon and enriched the others. His collaborative but highly supervised attitude to composition fits in well with this highly wholistic concept.

And I still think it may be significant that this approach, if it existed, seems manifest in the secular compositions (many of which were explicitly written for teaching purposes) but not in the religious works which, perhaps he might have been less willing to 'farm out'.

BL: < ___N.B. This is not an invitation for Dr Jarvis's hypothesis to be debunked, throttled, or calumniated by people who haven't read and won't read his presentation. >
AMEN!

Neil Mason wrote (January 27, 2007):
You wrote:
< These fine musicians and scholars apparently believe there is something worthwhile here. It's too bad that Thomas Braatz can't/won't pick them as authority figures, and perhaps won't even bother to hear any of these recordings or read any of the work (pro or con!). Perhaps Thomas Braatz can go find something better and more productive to do, something more appreciative/respectful of both Bach's music and of current expertise, than to try to beat up or discredit serious musicians >
Well, I remain frankly unconvinced by the evidence of the squiggles.

However I do believe that the temperament is thoroughly musical.

 

Compositional process...

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 24, 2007):
< And we know he could work on several works simultaneaously: he was composing organ, keyboard, chamber and orchestral works at the same time as the cantatas. Why not simulataneous cantata projects? Unless one is prepared to say that the SMP was composed, copied and rehearsed in one month, Bach may well have been involved in its composition for months or years. >
Sounds good to me. And recently I read the classic Rifkin article (started by him as early as 1969-70 and published 1975) that pushed the first performance date from the standard assumption of 1729, back to a better conjecture of 1727. Lots of interesting stuff in there about the creative process, and the modern deductive reasoning to assemble and interpret clues.

Another great look at the creative process is Robert Marshall's two-volume set, The Compositional Process of J S Bach (1972). It has things to say about approximately half of the cantatas, going back through their revision and correction processes on the evidence of the autograph scores. Something I find fascinating in BWV 2 and BWV 82 -- among others (BWV 133, BWV 134, BWV 135, BWV 138, BWV 144, ...) -- is that Bach sketched some of his vocal parts in keyboard tablature, with text written in below them. And, in a different movement of BWV 2 (movement 3): sketch of the violin part, continuo, and vocal alto in the middle -- in keyboard tablature!! Sketches for other things are variously on scraps of paper, or leftover areas of other scores. Marshall has charted a path through this stuff, showing how Bach worked and reworked his ideas until satisfied.

It looks (to me) as if the man always had something going, multiple pieces at once, in whatever paper and notational scheme was most handy at the moment. Sit at the keyboard, diddle out all kinds of ideas that might be used somewhere, jot them down, work them into something later. He worked on the Art of Fugue across pretty much the last ten years of his life; and the B Minor Maacross a long span as well. So, why not have a rack of cantatas in progress at once, too, in those first several years at Leipzig? Yes, on an average of one per week to finish them (how far ahead we don't know); but knowing way ahead what was going to be coming up, half a year away or more -- as Doug has pointed out -- from knowing the liturgical calendar for his job. Such a large amount of work does require plenty of organization and planning, far ahead of due dates.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 24, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< but knowing way ahead what was going to be coming up, half a year away or more -- as Doug has pointed out -- from knowing the liturgical calendar for his job >
Yeah, but it seems certain that he didn't have the texts that far ahead so I have reals doubts about this scenario.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 24, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Yeah, but it seems certain that he didn't have the texts that far ahead so I have reals doubts about this scenario. >
What is particularly frustrating is that we know so little about Bach's literary relationships with his librettists.

In some cases, Bach may merely have looked through a printed collection of cantata texts and earmarked various libretti for an upcoming Sundays. In that case, Bach may have had the text in his mind for months or years before he actually came to compose the cantata.

In the case of "Wachet Auf" the process is more complex. Seeing the cantata coming in the calendar, he obviously wanted to take the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins and make it a dialogue bewteen Christ the Bridegroom and the Soul as the Bride. The concept might have been formulated long before he actually chose verses from Nicholai's chorale for the opening, middle and closing movements. Did he just write the poetry for the other movements himself?

In the case of the Leipzig poets, Picander and Von Ziegler, there's an intriguing possibility that Bach worked with them with a musical idea in mind which influenced the writing of the poetry. We know that Mozart asked Da Ponte to create opera texts which employed a lot of ensemble. Did Bach have concepts or musical genres which he asked his librettists to employ?

As before, we sadly have no direct evidence for any of this speculation. However, all my instincts tell me that Bach was able to work at a prodigious rate of composition because he had a comprehensive, over-arching view of his art. For me, Bach's compositional method begins long before he sets pen to paper.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (February 24, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< What is particularly frustrating is that we know so little about Bach's literary relationships with his librettists. In some cases, Bach may merely have looked through a printed collection of cantata texts and earmarked various libretti for an upcoming Sundays. In that case, Bach may have had the text in his mind for months or years before he actually came to compose the cantata. >
What you say here sounds likely, but apparently doesn't apply to the first two hectic years in Leipzig.

< However, all my instincts tell me that Bach was able to work at a prodigious rate of composition because he had a comprehensive, over-arching view of his art. For me, Bach's compositional method begins long before he sets pen to paper. >
Probably, but does this mean that Bach worked on a particular piece in advance? Is it not conceivable that musical ideas occurred to him all the time, for no specific purpose, and that when writing a specific work, some of those ideas came back to him almost instantly?

In other words, the idea is that Bach stockpiled musical ideas (musemes?) rather than complete musical works, and when he actually set down to compose upon a certain text, the text evoked certain ideas sockpiled in his internal library and his combinatorial genius allowed him to assemble those ideas in a seamless way.

If I think about it in this way, I do not find it completely crazy to assume that he could compose a cantata in little more thanthe time it takes to write the notes down - especially during those two years when his mind apparently worked on high gear.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 24, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< What you say here sounds likely, but apparently doesn't apply to the first two hectic years in Leipzig. >
I'm curious to know why you think that. Bach had several months between his application and taking up the position in Leipzig.

By the way, Bach's audition is the subject of a stage comedy now playing in Chicago: http://www.chicagocritic.com/html/bach_at_leipzig.html
Shades of "Amadeus"!

Alain Bruguieres wrote (February 24, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] To begin with, thank you for the link to this comedy: http://www.chicagocritic.com/html/bach_at_leipzig.html

this makes me regret that I live in the wrong side of the atlantic.

Secondly,

<< What you say here sounds likely, but apparently doesn't apply to the first two hectic years in Leipzig. >>
< I'm curious to know why you think that. Bach had several months between his application and taking up the position in
Leipzig. >
what makes me think that is the lack of evidence to the contrary, plus the fact the idea that Bach may have written essentially one cantata per week for two years doesn't sound impossible to me. I have already observed, in others as well as in myself, that for limited periods of time one is sometimes able to produce a considerable amount of work of a quality equal if not superior to what one produces usually. What I would call switching into high gear. After the high-gear period, one is often surprized by the output of one's own production. I can well believe that Bach switched into high gear for two years, and considering what he can do in low gear, I have no problem with accepting the output as it stands.

However I won't haggle for a few months with you; if Bach wrote 100 new cantatas over 30 months rather than 24, we still have a rate of production of 0.77 new cantatas per week instead of 0.96 c/w. Doesn't make a hell of a difference to me.

I'd like to take the opportunity of this answer to add a comment to the other idea I expressed in my previous mail, namely that Bach may have stockpiled musical ideas or 'musemes' rather than finished work. We have often noticed how Bach likes to derive a whole movement (and this is especially true of the opening chorale fantasia) from one, two or three elementary musical ideas which are subsequently combined into a wonderfully rich structure. This is very characteristic of Bach's mind, and I think that whatever Bach's compositional methods were, they must have been perfectly adapted to the kind of music he produced. He had an almost unbelievable capacity for constructing large, complex and beautiful musical buildings from elementary blocks. He had also a special form of creativity which allowed him to think musically in terms of motives which were remarkably well adapted for serving as building blocks. Sometimes when I listen to his music I have a feeling that he chose to assemble the blocks in a certain way, but he could have assembled them in a myriad of different ways and obtained a result no less wonderful. Didn't he suggest it in composing the Art of the Fugue? I suspect that the 'assemby' part was almost like a child's play for him, very much like lego.

PS: Ed, do you think I should take a patent on this new unit, the cantata per week?

Julian Mincham wrote (February 26, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< He had also a special form of creativity which allowed him to think musically in terms of motives which were remarkably well adapted for serving as building blocks. >
And often the basic motives were extraordinarily simple. There are many examples of his taking three or fourepeated notes from a chorale and using a motive incorporating them as a basis of one or more movements. But then it's a process that many great composers were adept at--look only at the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. A motive of four notes, three of them the same and just one interval of pitch. You can't get much more basic material than than from which to construct a movement of 500 bars.

Sometimes when I listen to his music I have a feeling that he chose to assemble the blocks in a certain way, but he could have assembled them in a myriad of different ways and obtained a result no less wonderful. Yes but also Bach almost certainly felt that the nature of the material strongly suggested the directions of development it should take (I guess the word'suggested' is probably better than 'dictated' in this context) Wasn't it CPE who claimed that his father (in the context of hearing people improvise) was pleased if the sum composition was that suggested by the nature and structure of the subject(s)?

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 26, 2007):
< And often the basic motives were extraordinarily simple. There are many examples of his taking three or four repeated notes from a chorale and using a motive incorporating them as a basis of one or more movements. But then it's a process that many great composers were adept at--look only at the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. A motive of four notes, three of them the same and just one interval of pitch. You can't get much more basic material than than from which to construct a movement of 500 bars. >
I like the way Charles Ives handled that in the "Concord" Sonata. He was going along quoting the Beethoven 5, and then made a point that those four notes also spell out the beginning of the hymn tune for "Jesus, Lover of my Soul". So, he went off on that too, for another part of the piece.

 

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