Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Conducting Bach

Conducting Bach

Jason Marmaras wrote (April 24, 2004):
[Conducting Bach...]
... isn't too appropriate, in a way, is it?

I mean, in my choir conducting class, I was taught that they only conducted from (mainly) the keyboards (I wonder how they could from the positiv Orgel [grand organ(?)] !), later from the violin, and even later (romantic era?) from the pontium. So I thought, how could they conduct an a capella chorus (other than with their hands?) I suppose they didn't conduct in the renaissance (and Baroque), but is that true? And how should one conduct a strictly historical (not just historically informed) performance? [perhaps not at all?]

Charles Francis wrote (April 24, 2004):
[To Jason Marmaras] I recently attended a cantata performance given by some local music students. Their professor sat in the front row and watched, his rationale being the performers should listen to each other to synchronise.

One can also point to some early Harnoncourt-branded performances to see the advantages. Take the early St. John Passion (unfortunately, now out of print). Here, Gillesberger directs his choir while Harnoncourt confines his activities to playing the cello. Compare the results of this excellent recording to one where Harnoncourt takes a more active conducting role.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 24, 2004):
[To Jason Marmaras] There's an interesting suggestion of "tactus" conducting in George Houle's book Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Performance, Perception, and Notation.

"The convention of the mensural tactus was a very important guide to conductors in the seventeenth and even the eighteenth century. The rise of the virtuoso conductor in the nineteenth century brought with it a technique far removed from the apparently simple down-and-up gesture of the tactus beater. The modern conductor has a powerful and efficient technique, commanding meter, rhythm, dynamics, accentuation, tempo, and nuances of performance that were formerly controlled only by individual performers. A tactus conductor is necessarily more of a coordinator or a colleague of the other musicians, rather than the commanding leader that the modern virtuoso conductor has become.

"The tactus beat of a seventeenth-century conductor supported an awareness of a larger span of time than a conductor's gestures usually do today. Although many individual conductors today strive for this awareness, the basic technique of tactus beating in the seventeenth century was centered on it. Even if the tactus might be too slow-moving to be comfortably represented by a single down-and-up gesture, we know from theorists' detailed discussions that the conductor's beat was derived from the tactus. The modest alterations of the tactus suggested by Penna and Quirsfeld show that some slight adjustments were thought to be useful.

"It would be interesting to hear fine musicians playing seventeenth-century music conducted according to techniques of that period. It is possible to imagine that the performers would be less rigorously controlled, and therefore more responsible for the metrical coherence of their own performances. We simply do not know what effect such a re-creation of conducting technique might have."

(pages 33-34)

And, look up the method of death for Monsieur Lully: a self-inflicted fatal wounding in a conducting accident.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 24, 2004):
Charles Francis wrote:
< One can also point to some early Harnoncourt-branded performances to see the advantages. Take the early St. John Passion (unfortunately, now out of print). Here, Gillesberger directs his choir while Harnoncourt confines his activities to playing the cello. Compare the results of this excellent recording to one where Harnoncourt takes a more active conducting role. >
1. In such recordings -- which, in addition to that SMP (BWV 244), also include Harnoncourt's 1968 Mass (BWV 232), 1970 SMP (BWV 244), and the earlier volumes in the cantata series -- Harnoncourt did not "confine his activities to playing the cello". He was the primary musical director -- the orchestra's interpretation, at least, stemmed from him, not from the conductor (who stood with his back to the orchestra, and did not do anything at all in the arias). It's not just that Harnoncourt was the designated director: he founded the orchestra, and it consisted primarily of friends and family (his wife, Alice, was the orchestra's leader).

2. In your view, these recordings are superior to later recordings, in which Harnoncourt increasingly took up active conducting. But this is just an opinion, and as such proves nothing. For what it's worth, my view is the opposite: I prefer Harnoncourt's later recordings (his 1986 Mass (BWV 232), 1993 SJP (BWV 245) and 2000 SMP (BWV 244)) to his earlier readings of the same works. My preference does not prove anything about the general superirioty of conducting over direction (or vice versa), and neither does yours.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 24, 2004):
Let me state, in advance, that most of the ideas I'm about to mention appear in -- and are partly drawn from -- Bernard Sherman's article "Conducting Early Music", which appears in the recently-published Cambridge Companion to Conducting (ed. Jose Antonio Bowen; http://books.cambridge.org/0521527910.htm). I recommend this article as a fascinating overview of some of the issues involved in directing and conducting early music -- then and now.

Jason Marmaras wrote:
< [Conducting Bach...]
... isn't too appropriate, in a way, is it?

I mean, in my choir conducting class, I was taught that they only conducted from (mainly) the keyboards (I wonder how they could from the positiv Orgel [grand organ(?)] !), later from the violin, and even later (romantic era?) from the pontium. So I thought, how could they conduct an a capella chorus (other than with their hands?) I suppose they didn't conduct in the renaissance (and Baroque), but is that true? And how should one conduct a strictly historical (not just historically informed) performance? [perhaps not at all?] >
This view is shared by several historically-informed conductors; Herreweghe, for instance, once said that "In Bach, if something is not possible without a conductor, it's a sign that it's not a good interpretation" (the quote is from an interview he granted to Bernard Sherman's, printed in the latter's Inside Early Music). Presumably he meant a modern virtuoso conductor, not a tactus conductor -- see Brad's message.

Herreweghe does condcut Bach, of course. However, he believes that conducting Renaissance and Baroque music is fundamentally different from conducting Romantic and modern music. In the latter, the conductor is meant to "sculpt the sound" and shape every aspect of the interpretation. In a work like the B minor Mass (BWV 232), on the other hand, "[e]ach musician is of equal importance", the resulting interpretation should emerge from their collective efforts (in an interview with Andrew Stewart; Early Music Today 9 (2001)/5: 22-23).

Lully was not the only Baroque conductor (meaning a person who beat time and co-ordinated the performance, and did not play or sing while doing so); and there is some suggestion that Bach himself sometimes conducted; his predecessor, Kuhnau, conducted with a rolled-up sheet of music paper (which at least did not pose as many dangers as Lully's method...) However, all this was probably not equivalent to the virtuoso, authoratiative/authoritarian conducting which evolved in the 19th-century. On the other hand, a music director with a strong personality could project his ideas -- and his authority -- even while directing from an instrument, and perhaps that's what hapenned when strong-willed musicians like Bach and Handel directed their music -- even from the keyboard (or violin, etc.).

Uri Golomb wrote (April 24, 2004):
PS to my previous message. I wrote:
< Herreweghe, for instance, once said that "In Bach, if something is not possible without a conductor, it's a sign that it's not a good interpretation" (the quote is from an interview he granted to Bernard Sherman's, printed in the latter's Inside Early Music). Presumably he meant a modern virtuoso conductor, not a tactus conductor -- see Brad's message. >
More accurately, Herreweghe's statement coudl be read as stating that a good interpretation shoudl be feasible with no conductor at all (even a "tactus" conductor) -- though perhaps it woudl be easier to achieve with some sort of conducting. His own conducting gestures, BTW, are hard to classify... though of course what matters is what he communicates to the players and singers, not what he communicates to the audience.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 25, 2004):
Charles quipped:
< I recently attended a cantata performance given by some local music students. Their professor sat in the front row and watched, his rationale being the performers should listen to each other to synchronise. >
Is that a problem? Some years ago, a friend of mine reported to me from his conducting class (at doctoral level) that one day the professor instructed him to stand before the ensemble and bring them in together without the use of his hands. Indeed, my friend was able to do so once he got over his initial surprise at the assignment. A conductor's job is to focus the players' attention and abilities, to catalyze the efforts, not merely to gesticulate.

< One can also point to some early Harnoncourt-branded performances to see the advantages. Take the early St. John Passion (unfortunately, now out of print). Here, Gillesberger directs his choir while Harnoncourt confines his activities to playing the cello. Compare the results of this excellent recording to one where Harnoncourt takes a more active conducting role. >
I have done so. So what?

Here's one for Charles: "This sentence was true until you looked at it."

Jason Marmaras wrote (April 25, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Of Lully, I heard he conducted by beating a great wooden stick full of bells etc. on the ground... Imagine the accident... (ouch)

Dale Gedcke wrote (April 26, 2004):
On Brad Lehman quoted: "There's an interesting suggestion of "tactus" conducting in George Houle's book Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Performance, Perception, and Notation:" .....
.......... "It would be interesting to hear fine musicians playing seventeenth-century music conducted according to techniques of that period. It is possible to imagine that the performers would be less rigorously controlled, and therefore more responsible for the metrical coherence of their own performances. We simply do not know what effect such a re-creation of conducting technique might have."

MY COMMENTS:

Indeed, it is conventional for modern brass quintets to play without a conductor, and they can do so very well. See the examples of the Canadian Brass Quintet and the St. Louis Brass Quintet. I would guess that their rehearsals include a lot of discussion among all the individual players to arrive at the desired performance. This becomes more difficult to control as the number of musicians increases.

In modern amateur presentations of Bach's Cantatas, the choir is sometimes prepared by a choir director using a keyboard accompanist, and the orchestra is rehearsed separately by the orchestra conductor. That always raises the issue of who conducts the final combined performance. That seems to work out O.K., in spite of the potential for different interpretations between conductors.

Jason Marmaras wrote (April 26, 2004):
I had another thought (a very original one - sometimes I really underestimate my genius):
I invite and welcome any book suggestions about conducting, baroque, and non-baroque.

Yet again, thanking you all in advance,

Jason
(the humble, thirsty, and a bit stuffed-shirty student from Greece)

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (April 29, 2004):
[To Jason Marmaras] As to Baroque conducting, I would recommend Mattheson's treatises (which are not only biographical, but also go into detail about performance practice as well). Otherwise, I would recommend Mahler's work.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (April 29, 2004):
[To Jason Marmaras] In answer to this, one thing must be kept in mind:

Up to about the late 19th century, the Conductor (which oftentimes was the same person as the composer) had one role and one role only: to beat the time. In the early Middle Ages, this wasn't necessary. That was largely because music was monolineal. In other words, one person (usually the Trebble) would lead off, and the others would follow suit. When music became more complex (particularly with the advent of polyphony), it became more and more necessary for one person to beat out the time and the measures so that all could follow along smoothly. That person became the Conductor. This became more evident with the advent of instrumental music (both at court and in the church). During the late 16th century and onwards to the latter 17th century, it became common practice (for instance) to alternate between choral (and congregational) singing and the organ in oerformance of Choraele and Motetten (especially in Evangelical lands). This explains (for example) why there are alternating Choral/Instrumental and Organ tabulature passages in BuxWV 76. As an anecdote, it was in his role as Conductor that the great Italo-French musician Giovanni Battista Lulli (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Lully) died after he struck his foot with his conducting pole and it became gangrenous.

Your question has an inherent flaw in it, too. It assumes a progression. The only progression was from either the Keyboard, the Organ, the Violin, or standing to the podium, not one to the other to the other to the other to the podium.

Dale Gedcke wrote (April 29, 2004):
David Glenn Lebut, Jr. wrote:
".....Up to about the late 19th century, the Conductor (which oftentimes was the same person as the composer) had one role and one role only: to beat the time. ......"

MY COMMENTS:

That's an interesting revelation about the developing role of the conductor. I note that in recent years the title has changed from "Conductor" to "Music Director" in the large symphony orchestras. Presumably, that acknowledges the changes in the role. Nowadays, the Music Director provides key leadership by choosing the music to perform, guiding the orchestra's performance style, and working with the board of directors to plan concerts,

During the Baroque period, that lack of leadership and style guidance from a conductor (who was simply a human metronome) must have made a substantial difference in how music was performed. It put more responsibility on the individual players to interpret the music in a cohesive style. I could be wrong in my perception, but I get the impression that the number of Baroque players in a concert was generally much smaller than is common today. There are documented exceptions of course (e.g., Handel's Royal Fireworks debut). But, with a smaller number of musicians, it is easier to have a democratic approach to choosing the style of performance. A modern example is the brass quintet (a fad born in the 1950s) which doesn't employ a conductor, .... not even for the purpose of a human metronome. String quartets are much older, but follow a similar convention, i.e., no conductor. Although, one could argue that one member of the quartet conducts, because the rest of the players can watch the bow strokes via their peripheral vision.

From Hickman's book on playing Baroque music on the piccolo trumpet, I understand that Baroque composers didn't write all the details into their scores. They expected the player to add the appropriate ornamentation. That also underscores the perception that the Baroque musician had much more responsibility for interpreting the style of the composition.

Is there any historically accurate biographic information on Bach to tell us how involved he was in demanding certain styles from the musicians that performed his compositions? Since he was responsible for composing and performing a new Cantata each Sunday, did he dor conduct the musicians?

Now fast-forward to this century. Anyone who has performed in a large group can appreciate this statement: "When I play for an experienced conductor, I get a free music lesson." That statement is true even for professional musicians. There is little doubt that the modern conductor - excuse me, I should say MUSIC DIRECTOR - significantly shapes the style and color of the orchestra's performance of the composer's music. The recent discussion of how well Rattle has led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra reveals that effect. In my experience, a conductor becomes more essential for getting a good performance out of a larger group of musicians. It requires someone who can hear the whole group (without needing to concentrate on playing the difficult parts on his/her instrument) to adjust the balance and style.

Even in a current performance of Bach's compositions, the audience benefits when an expert conductor rehearses and adjusts the performance before the concert. Yes, I know that borders on heresy with respect to an Historically Informed Performance.

Dale Gedcke wrote (May 4, 2004):
David Glenn Lebut, Jr., wrote:
"Up to about the late 19th century, the Conductor (which oftentimes was the same person as the composer) had one role and one role only: to beat the time. In the early Middle Ages, this wasn't necessary. That was largely because music was monolineal. In other words, one person (usually the Trebble) would lead off, and the others would follow suit. When music became more complex (particularly with the advent of polyphony), it became more and more necessary for one person to beat out the time and the measures so that all could follow along smoothly. That person became the Conductor. This became more evident with the advent of instrumental music (both at court and in the church). During the late 16th century and onwards to the latter 17th century, it became common practice (for instance) to alternate between choral (and congregational) singing and the organ in oerformance of Choraele and Motetten (especially in Evangelical lands). This explains (for example) why there are alternating Choral/Instrumental and Organ tabulature passages in BuxWV 76. As an anecdote, it was in his role as Conductor that the great Italo-French musician Giovanni Battista Lulli (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Lully) died after he struck his foot with his conducting pole and it became gangrenous."

MY COMMENTS:

To a co-worker, Ben, I was passing on the above information concerning the concept of a conductor being a rather recent invention. Ben shed some additional light on the subject.

He said, "That explains something I was puzzled by when I was a young boy and visited my Grandmother. She was a history buff and collected old paintings that documented historical situations. She had a number of paintings of orchestras. These paintings predated photography, and portrayed clothing styles from hundreds of years earlier. What was curious is that I noticed the paintings of orchestras did not include a conductor. I asked my Grandmother why there was no conductor in the paintings. She advised that maybe they didn't use conductors in that period of time. Based on the information from David Lebut, she was probably correct in her presumption. Curiously, the orchestras in the paintings were all small compared to today's standards. They included only 15 to 20 people. With that small a group it was probably feasible to forgo a conductor and still play in synchronism."

I thought you might find Ben's confirmation of conductorless orchestras from old paintings interesting.

 

More than is written in the score

Dale Gedcke wrote (April 26, 2004):
* STRINGS: "The composer cannot tell you everything you need to know to play his composition on your instrument. You have to help the composer."
* VIOLINS: "That three-note phrase is repeated three times. To generate interest, you have to play it with slightly different style each time. Let me show you what I mean."
* VIOLINS: "Don't play this series of quavers as short as the dots over them would normally indicate."
* FLUTE: "In your introductory solo, pause a little longer between the two phrases to build audience anticipation."
* MUTED 1ST TRUMPET: "Hold the minims in the first 4 bars for their full length, but use a very hard attack on each note."
* 2ND TRUMPET: "Play the downward run of quavers shorter than the dots over the notes would indicate, and use a very strong attack on each note."

Those were just some of the interpretive instructions Luis Haza of the National Symphony Orchestra gave as he directed the Oak Ridge Community Orchestra in a Master's Conducting Workshop on April 24, 2004. Particularly, in light of his opening comment, the sampling of rehearsal instructions demonstrates how much interpretation is required to turn a bland performance into an excellent rendition of the composer's work.

That is why there is so much more to performing Bach's compositions than is written into the original score.

For thirty years, Luis Haza has been first Violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, USA. For the latter part of his long career, he has conducted a variety of orchestras around the world, and is very active in conducting youth orchestras for the development of future professional musicians. He and the other musicians of the NSO are currently visiting various cities in Tennessee to perform, and to conduct masters' workshops in schools and with local orchestras.

In the conducting workshop with the ORCO, the depth of his experience and expertise was very evident. Our normal director conducted a brief introduction to movements of several compositions. That was enough for Luis to understand the way the selection should sound, and to launch into an intense focus on the nuances of the performance. He was able to add the expression and color that took the performance to a superior level.

I am sure that if we sat through rehearsals of Bach's cantatas by Rifkin or Rilling, we would witness a similar experience in interpretation.

Two things are obvious from this experience. First, each musician and conductor naturally will have slightly different interpretations of how the composition should sound. The conductor has the final responsibility to shape the performance as much as possible to achieve the result he seeks.

Secondly, it is apparent how important the experience, knowledge and expertise of the conductor is in achieving an excellent performance. A great deal of time must be spent studying all the information available on the particular composition being performed, and listening to how others have performed it.

I presume the high value of experience and expertise in a conductor is why the conductors of the world-famous orchestras and operas typically have gray hair.

We can't awake Bach today to conduct his music the way he intended. So we have to rely on well-studied, gray-haired conductors to do the next best thing. And, their interpretations will vary, ... some according to our liking, and some not. But, who can justifiably say Bach conducted his cantatas the same way every time? And, was it universally to the liking of his audience and critics?

P.S., The NSO performance of Higdon's "Machine', Fauré's "Pavane, Op. 50", Ives' "Three Places in New England", and Brahms' "Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98" the night before was exquisite! Circa 96 musicians under the direction of Leonard Slatkin [with gray hair] performed with a level of precision and expression that was uncanny, ... especially considering the extreme differences in style of the four composers. The color of the sound was extremely impressive!

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (April 29, 2004):
[To Dale Gedcke] Careful of what you wish for. It oftentimes comes back to haunt you.

I have read many treatises on performance practice in Bach's day, and they all say the same thing: the sole purpose of the Conductor was to beat the time. Therefore, what most conductors do today is totally alien to the music. I still say that the music itself is the best guide to performof a work. The Conductor should do no more than beat the time and let the music do the rest-let it "speak for itself". All this emphasis on personal interpretation is a late-19th century/20th century construct that principally (from what I have read) started with Gustav Mahler.

Also, have you ever seen a picture of Karl Richter with gray hair? And he (probably more than others) would have had good reason for it. After all, not only was he the founder of the Münchener Bachorchester and Münchener Bachchor, but he was also a Kantor at one of the Evangelical churches in München, with all the duties that that position entailed. On top of all that, he also had a flourishing solo career as a Keyboardist and Organist.

 

Bach and Conductors

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 28, 2009):
I have just received my copy of <Performance: Revealing the Orpheus Within>, Anthony Rooley, it took a few days but the price was right. Book and source as recommended by Brad Lehman.

I have not yet read the book. I fully expect it will reinforce the point often made by Brad that the ultimate expression of music is in the performance, especially live performance, as distinct from the recorded image, enjoyable as that shadowy specter might be, and especially distinct from the written score, which can be no more than hints and suggestions to performers.

This was not new to me with BCML, but the discussions, and especially Brads persistent (and occasionally even patient) insistence on the point has made it clearer for me.

I wonder if there is a relation between performance and the current thread music and technology?

Marcel Gautreau wrote (January 28, 2009):
[To Ed Myskowski]

...the point often made by Brad that the ultimate expression of music is in the performance, especially live performance, as distinct from the recorded image...I wonder if there is a relation between performance and the current thread music and technology?

Couldn't agree more. We're an hour from any city where people speak in complete sentences, two where people eat things they can't necessarily pronounce, so concert-going is a semi-annual event at best. Without the internet, CDs, TV, I couldn't possibly hope to enjoy as much Bach as I do, but it's a poor substitute for the real thing. [On the other hand, it's rude to walk out of a concert, but I just killed the mass I was listening to - the soprano was too "big" for Bach, should stick to Wagner and brass bras.]

In earlier days I was privileged to play in several ensembles (brass bands & ensembles, recorder consorts, etc), and I've heard some remarkable concerts where, even (especially?) in the audience, I felt I was participating in something unique. In university, I was a bit of a groupie for an amateur Renaissance band that performed around the city.

I think the word "amateur" applies equally to performer and listener - in live performance both parties were for more active in the "act" of music before recording technology came along. Listeners had a clearer understanding of what was going on; it was as much a "physical" phenomenon as a cerebral or aural one. I think recordings, no matter how good, tend to make most of us passive consumers, making the music something that happens to us. No messy wrong notes, all the crescendos mathematically precise, reverb calculated to the millisecond. How dull.

Imagine the first-ever performance of the SMP (BWV 244) - the impact it must have had. You'd want to hear it again. But would you want to hear that particular performance again?

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 28, 2009):
Marcel Gautreau wrote:
>We're an hour from any city where people speak in complete sentences<
EM:
Complete sentences? Whats that?

MG:
< I think recordings, no matter how good, tend to make most of us passive consumers, making the music something that happens to us. >
EM:
Thats what I would call a complete sentence, complete in both thought and grammatic structure, and adding a new bit of subtlety to the preceding discussion. Thanks for joining in.

As for eating food you cannot pronounce, I am still thinking about it. No more tonight, thank you. They said <it is fish>, but tasted more like fiche to me.

 

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: February 5, 2009 14:57:58