Early Bach Cantatas
Continue from Part 1
BWV 71 / Pitch for the early cantatas
Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 71 - Discussions
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 10, 2005):
Doug Cowling asked: >>I'm always curious about the practical aspects of performance. There is no orchestral introduction to the opening chorus of "Gott ist mein König": how did the singers get their note?<<
I think you will find an answer in the form of a reasonable conjecture in what follows here:
The following is a translation "dem Sinne nach" of a section on Bach's Mühlhausen cantatas taken from Konrad Küster's "Bach Handbuch" [Bärenreiter, Kassel, 1999, pp. 131-143.] Küster has published his research on this early period in Bach's life in a book "Der junge Bach" [Stuttgart, 1996.] Much of this material has been updated and some of the results are found in the present selection. I hope that some readers will find this material useful. Christoph Wolff, who has listed Küster's book in his bibliography, gives a detailed description of Bach's Mühlhausen tenure on pp. 98-112 of Wolff's Bach biography "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician" [Norton, 2000.]
>>Bach as an organist in Mühlhausen in 1707 to 1708
The context of the Mühlhausen cantatas
Bach's musical activities related to the churches in Mühlhausen which, of course included playing the organ, had two additional aspects that need to be mentioned: he was responsible for composing and performing figural music of his own and he also performed works by other composers. The compositions that have come down to us served very special occasions. This is true at least of the Town Council Election Cantata BWV 71 and the score of Cantata BWV 131 which specifies in Bach's own handwriting that it had been commissioned by someone else. Among his regular duties as cantor during church services, Bach was required to select and perform motets from among the long-standing, traditional reserves of Protestant music that he had collected. This collection which is documented in the 'Alt-Bachischen Archiv' ['an archive of compositions by members of the extended Bach family but also by other important composers such as Buxtehude and Pachelbel'] gave him material that he could use in order to fulfill the requirements demanded by special occasions beyond the regular church services, such sacred music as for weddings and funerals. The type of early Bach cantatas can be described as belonging to these categories, but not alone. One of his earliest cantatas BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todes Banden" is very similar to a treatment of this chorale by Johann Pachelbel through whom Bach's strong connection to the sacred music tradition of Middle Germany becomes apparent. But there are several other aspects that distinguish themselves clearly from the latter style of composition. These come as a result of Bach's encounter with Dietrich Buxtehude's vocal works with which Bach became acquainted in Lübeck during the winter of 1705/06 and some of which he may have brought back with him to add to his collection of manuscripts. In regard to BWV 4, the influence of Pachelbel and Buxtehude can easily be noted and has been used in commentaries, but also the family tradition (the 'Bach Family Archive') provides a foundation not to be overlooked.
With all these traditional connections, Bach's Mühlhausen cantatas stand firmly in the tradition of 17th-century Protestant church music and are yet untouched by the developing new musical forms which are noticeable just after the turn of the century. For this reason, these cantatas show no connection with the more recent sacred cantata containing recitatives and arias closely related to operatic traditions. However, in "Gott ist mein König" BWV 71, the older type of text spectrum (simply Bible quotations and chorale text) is abandoned in favor of using a freer form of poetry, a form that relates directly to the occasion, the Town Council Election.
The older text type is not simply a series of texts that are patched together. The quotations from the Bible and from chorale texts are chosen specifically so that a relationship between them is established. Sometimes the biblical quotations are modified slightly, a sign that the librettist, usually not the composer but a theologian, has carefully worked over the texts. Just as it is the case in the later cantatas, you should not assume that the libretto is simply a sum made up of various, differing components, but rather ask yourself how several seemingly independent movements can become a unified cantata and what holds them together. This is quite similar to that of an opera which is held together by a plot, even if the libretto can be divided into numerous recitatives, arias and choruses. The cantata likewise must establish a connection between its various parts, even if this is accomplished with a different method that depends upon poetry, chorale texts and biblical quotations.
Strophic poetry is based upon an evolutionary concept: a listener is geared toward expecting a sequence of several similar ideas and, as a result, will accept this unquestioningly as long as the music based upon these texts demonstrates a wide variety of possibilities. When these ideas are already derived from the traditional chorale texts, then the path is flung wide open for all sorts of associations which listeners can make by themselves. For the very reason that these listeners in Bach's time knew these chorale texts and melodies forwards and backwards from their continual participation in church services, it would have been impossible to hide from them that a single verse was omitted during the treatment which the chorale received in the cantata. Hence a special continuity was created, a continuity which helped bring about the necessary cohesion that arises automatically when several verses of a chorale were set to music in the form of a cantata.
The use of lengthy citations from the Bible worked well for the same reason. Even if there was not a plot for the librettist and/or composer to depend upon, they could depend upon the fact that the contexts for these verses were well known among the members of the congregation. It was this type of conscious recall of how several Bible verses 'belonged together' that made possible the continuity desired by librettist/composer. The parishioners would notice gaps in a composition when a few verses had been skipped and would either supply the missing text or at least have given some thought to the missing material. Similarly they would have noticed when unexpected Bible quotations from various sources within the Bible were being combined in an unusual manner. This type of reflection brought about a similar connection as in the opera where the plot serves as the higher, overriding element; while here, in the cantata, it is something much more abstract.
Both components, which aid in creating continuity and an inner bond within a cantata, can be linked together with each other so that the statement made by the Bible citation becomes connected to that of a chorale text. In this way, Johann Michael Bach (the father of Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara) begins his motet "Halt, was du hast, daß niemand deine Krone nehme" ["Hold onto what you have so that no one will take away your crown"] with this citation from the Bible (Revelations 3:11), then repeats the few words at the beginning "Halt, was du hast" ["Hold on to whatever you have"] while simultaneously having the chorale melody for "Jesu, meine Freude" ["Jesus, my joy"], so that it becomes absolutely clear through the structure of the composition jwhat [who] it is that you should be holding on to. In the same composition, two
other verses of this chorale (the 4th and 5th) also appear while the Bible text continues with a quotation from a different section of Revelations (chapter 2:10): "Sei getreu bis in den Tod, so wirst du empfahen ein herrliches Reich und eine schöne Krone von der Hand des Herren" ["Be faithful unto death, for then you will receive a splendid kingdom and a beautiful crown from the hand of the Lord."] In this way the biblical quotation and the chorale (music and text) form a cross when seen from the perspective of the entire movement/motet. The chorale provides for the continuity of this composition and similarly the various references to Revelations create lend a more abstract connection to the composition as a whole.
This concern for the continuity of a work, a continuity that possibly is complemented by a second element, became unimportant almost to the point of irrelevancy, the stronger the effect of the musical elements and techniques of the opera began to take
hold and transform the musical sense of style that had previously existed. As much as the texts of the recitatives and arias deviated from each other and as much as the difference between the movements within a work became greater, the less problematical it became for some to sense the wholeness of the entire work because they were accustomed to making these connections elsewhere in secular musical styles such as the opera. This pertained, however, in particular to composers and poets and less to the normal listeners since the latter generally lacked a contact with the opera and its musical forms because the opera was not available to them and they were not privy to the exchange of ideas, concepts, and forms that took place between composers and poets. That such an inner connection still existed in Bach's later works can not be denied, but in the early works this connection was much stronger because texts with a long tradition attached to them were being used and set to music. These texts brought with them a connection that existed outside of the work itself. Bach's Mühlhausen cantatas reflect strongly this type of environment.
Bach in the Musical Life of Mühlhausen
In the Imperial Free City of Mühlhausen there were two main churches, St. Mary's and St. Blasius'. St. Mary's stood out more in contrast with St. Blasius' because the city hall was part of the congregation: church ceremonies connected with the city council, particularly that of the city council elections (the installation of the members of the new council,) took place only in St. Mary's. Both churches had a school associated with it and in each there was a cantor who, in addition to his other teaching obligations, had to provide the music for the church to which the school belonged. The leadership of all musical activities in the city belonged to neither cantor (the situation for the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, although there was an additional cantor at the St. Nicholas Church, is rather unique.) The responsibility for this leadership position, instead of being taken over by one of the cantor-organists eventually fell upon the organist of the "Divi Blasii" church in Mühlhausen. And so it came that this organist, in this case Bach, assumed the responsibility for providing the special music for the town council elections in the church in which he was not officially the organist or cantor. Thus Bach, as an improvement over his subordinate position in Arnstadt, serving there a single church to which he was tied, now held a position as the leading musician in the city.
The fact that his scope of work must have included composing and performing figural music is made clear by the requirement for this position as organist at St. Blasi Divii, a requirement which included performing for the audition a cantata composed by the applicant. Beyond this, however, Bach's duties here were not clearly defined. It is also unknown how frequently he had to perform cantatas. It is impossible to determine if he was required to perform a cantata of his own every Sunday, partly because of the divided responsibilities with the cantor of the church. Which compositions by other composers were available to him and just how much he participated in the Sunday and special- holiday church services for which he had to provide music is unknown.
It seems reasonable to assume that the instrumental parts were played by the Town Pipers ["Stadtpfeifer."] Most of the cantatas which come from Bach's residence in Mühlhausen were conceived with an instrumental ensemble in mind, one which in its basic form allows us already to see the beginning contours or general outline of a modern orchestra: a basic group of strings to which additional instruments are added. Indeed, however, the violas are frequently split into two parts, while there may be only one violin part. The orchestration for winds varies from one cantata to the next, vacillating between the addition of a single instrument (an oboe in BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen,") a typical trombone choir with a cornett as the highest part in BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todes Banden, or the use of several groups or instruments in which the strings appear in a more modern grouping in BWV 71 "Gott ist mein König."
Having the town pipers play in Bach's cantata performances in Mühlhausen was no easy matter since long before Bach's position here there had already been a long history of problems regarding their duties. Nothing in the city archives mentions that these musicians had to accept the directives of an organist for only a cantor as such is mentioned. It is possible that these conflicts were responsible for making Bach's musical ambitions more difficult as he refers to a general condition of "wiedrigkeit" ["adversity"] which prevailed here. Also unclear is which vocalists Bach used. There is no evidence that he had any contact with the pupils in the St. Blasius School and it is even more difficult to say who sang the solos in his cantatas.
The editors of modern editions of Bach's Mühlhausen cantatas are faced with very special problems of notation. Bach included in his ensemble various groups of instruments with different pitch requirements (conditions) when coupled together to play as a single ensemble. In order to obtain a uniform result, Bach had to transpose individual parts. How he did this with his local forces is exemplified best in the cantata BWV 71 "Gott ist mein König" because here he has the most colorfully mixed ensemble consisting of a choir having a solo ensemble as well as a 'tutti' ensemble, four instrumental 'choirs' ['groups'] divided into 1) trumpets and timpani; 2) strings; 3) oboes and bassoon; and 4) recorders and violoncello. Notated in C major are the trumpets and strings as well as the vocal parts and the continuo, but the groups with oboes and bassoon as well as the recorders and violoncello are notated in D major. How can these pitch-dependent conditions be resolved? Bach's notation is very clear: the vocalists and strings are both independent from having any pitch problems and are notated the same way that the organ is. Even the trumpets could be included in this system. Only the woodwinds were required to be notated in such a way that their different pitch would fit in with the rest of the ensemble. Because the cello, again an instrument capable of variable pitch like the other strings and vocal parts, was placed into the group with the recorders, Bach made the notation of this later group fit the notation of the instruments with which it had become partners.
With the exception of the woodwinds, the problem of having a uniform pitch for all musicians would have easily been settled; it would have unnecessary to make pitch adjustments, if it were not for the fact that the woodwinds were to play along in the same ensemble. In the performance practices used in the churches of Mühlhausen, there was a discrepancy in pitch between the woodwinds and the rest of the
musical ensemble, at least as far as Bach was concerned. This is understandable: because Bach's situation here was different than it would later be in Leipzig where he had musical leadership as Thomaskantor over several other churches (in Mühlhausen he understood all his music making in terms of the organ which was his primary responsibility), he therefore used the organ as his primary reference point for pitch. Bach undoubtedly 'thought' the music in the same key in which the organ part was notated. And yet from this arises an almost unsolvable conflict, since the techniques used in playing the woodwinds reveal a very clear picture: the range of these instruments have not really changed considerably since Bach's time and for this reason these parts are more easily playable when they are notated a second [a full tone or step] higher than the rest of the ensemble. But should, for only this reason, all the other parts play their music a step higher in pitch?
In the NBA, these works in question are printed twice: once in the original notation (i.e. with the differences between the parts left as is,) and once in the transposed notation which is based upon the pitch of the woodwinds. The other transposition would also have been conceivable, a transposition which would more likely have taken into account the way Bach would have viewed this situation and have paid less attention to the playing techniques of the woodwinds. Thus the NBA gives its preference to one of the variants, and yet the edition(s) which favored the other way would also make sense, i.e. having BWV 71 "Gott ist mein König" printed in C major rather than D major as in the NBA, BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen" in G minor and not A minor as in the NBA. Strictly speaking, you would, however, need for such performances [the non-NBA way] woodwinds which had a lower pitch than the usual 'Kammerton' ['chamber pitch.']
BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todes Banden"
Bach's audition in Mühlhausen took place on Easter 1707. Just as it has been documented by his relative Johann Gottfried Walther, the audition requirements included the composition and performance of a cantata. Since the Easter cantata BWV 4, although only documented from sources during Bach's Leipzig tenure, must be one of his earliest vocal works, it is assumed by many that this must have been his audition cantata. The text is based exclusively on Martin Luther's rearranging/translation of the Easter liturgy "Victimae paschali luades," and each of the seven verses is treated differently.
At the beginning of the cantata, as found usually in all of Bach's early cantatas, is an instrumental introduction. In these beginning bars, the melody of the chorale incipit emerges. Then, with a free development (the second line of the chorale can be heard hidden in the 2nd violin part) this Sinfonia ends after only 14 measures. It serves not only the purpose of providing an opportunity for checking the tuning of instruments and preparing the voices for their entry, but also has two additional effects: because the chorale is in a barform, the Sinfonia with its two quotations from the chorale (first and second lines) can function as an additional 'Stollen' which has been placed before the others; and the chorale citations in the Sinfonia were chosen intentionally. Being embedded into a freely formed environment, it is possible for a listener to suspect that that which follows is concerned not only with the chorale itself, but also with the means used to develop it artistically. Thanks to the instrumental prelude which sets up the mood and establishes the pitch/tuning for the entire cantata, the voices can begin Versus I directly without instrumental preparation (such as a ritornello.) The form and structure which Bach chooses for the seven mvts. with voices certainly does not exhaust the artistic possibilities as one might come to expect from such a composition for an audition that needs to display unusual capabilities. Bach's goal seemed rather to concentrate on a balanced diversity. Three of the mvts. use all four voices, another two appear as a duet and again another two as solo mvts. By setting things up this way the impression is given that everything in the cantata has been arranged as mirror symmetry: the choral mvts. assume the outer and middle position in this cantata and the middle position is framed at first by the solo and then the duet mvts. But this symmetry takes a back seat to other characteristics of the individual mvts.: Among the three choral mvts., the first appears as the most richly treated (with a free treatment of the choral and instrumental parts beside the cantus firmus in the soprano voice, and in addition with the more lively, freely treated "Hallelujah" conclusion; in the fourth mvt. the cantus firmus in the alto voice is surrounded by the remaining choral voices without any independent sections for the instruments. It is difficult to identify just how Bach originally set up the final mvt. The 4-pt. chorale that now concludes the cantata is clearly from a later period. This created a problem which did not exist before in this chorale cantata of the older type and which moved away from former the mirror symmetry to now create the usual tension found in Bach's later chorale cantatas. This tension arises between the musically very rich 1st mvt. at the beginning and the simple or plain 4-pt. chorale at the very end. Now, instead of symmetry, there is a process which investigates on a very broad scale all the possibilities of a chorale all the way to its very essence. No precise statements can be made regarding the real conclusion to BWV 4 in its original form because the 'shape' or structure of the final goal can no longer be reconstructed.
The two pairs of remaining mvts. also do not help to describe this process since they, as solo mvts. do not yield an equivalent to the plain chorale; actually, they even seem to give indications of the reverse principle. The simpler form of chorale treatment can be heard in the 3rd verse in which the tenor mostly sings the chorale in its original form; and in the 5th verse, the direct quotations from the chorale are expanded considerably into sections that are treated freely. There is a similar difference in the accompaniment: a lively musical line with the violins in unison is contrasted with the tenor, and a full complement of strings is set against the bass voice: each melodic variant which the bass presents is then accompanied by all the strings in the basic chorale form. Both of the duet mvts. (Versus 2 & 6) present the chorale in differing, imitative, cross-wise treatment of the line, in Versus 2 supported by the winds, but otherwise they are determined by their continuo accompaniment which has the character of a 'Basso quasi ostinato.'
Beyond these formal, basic structural elements which occur frequently in 17th-century chorale concerti in Middle Germany (as, for instance, in Johann Pachelbel's own treatment of the same chorale), Bach is not afraid to vary fundamentally the musical line of the chorale to emphasize through musical expression certain words or to enrich the general impression through the manner in which the instrumental accompaniment is shaped. Key words are lifted out of their contexts by lengthening their note values or inserted pauses right after them. In this fashion Bach inserts a long pause right in the middle of the line after "nichts" ["nothing"] in the 3rd verse where the line reads "da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt" ["nothing but the figure of Death will remain."] A lengin the 5th verse can also mean that Bach will repeat the word "Kreuzes" ["of the cross"] in the phrase "das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm" ["that is high on the 'staff' of the cross"] and thereby retard the flow of the music. Also very apparent is the rich chromaticism, not only in this 5th verse, but also in the 2nd verse in which both voices of this duet begin
singing "Den Tod" ["Death"] coming from opposite directions and finally on the continuation ".niemand zwingen kann" [".no one can force"] are led together to form in common a cadence. The intensive, chromatic elements can be considered as a further treatment of North German impressions such as those which Bach received from his contact with the works of Dietrich Buxtehude.
BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen rufe ich"
Bach personally noted on his own clean copy of the score that this cantata was composed in Mühlhausen to which he added "Auff Begehren Tit: Herrn D: Georg: Christ: Eilmars in die Music gebracht" ["set to music at the request of George Christian Eilmars."] Just what reason Eilmars, the pastor of St. Mary's Church in Mühlhausen, had for giving Bach this commission is unknown; however, it is conceivable that the composition may have served as a solemn remembrance of the city fire that Mühlhausen had suffered shortly before Bach took up his position there, but then again it might simply have related to one of the general days of atonement established by the church.
Once again there is a Sinfonia at the beginning of this composition; but here it moves directly into the following choral mvt. Thus a grouping occurs here which, if you consider Bach's later cantatas, can be seen as a choral mvt. with an instrumental introduction. However, since Bach wrote "Sinfonia" over the beginning measures of this mvt., it is certain that he also viewed the "Sinfonia" as an independent mvt. despite the way it flows directly into the choral mvt. that follows it.
The thread for the inner continuity of the cantata results primarily from the 8 verses of Psalm 130 which form the basis of all the mvts., or more precisely, sections of this work. This begins with the entrance of the choir which appears as mvt. 2. A slow
introductory section begins with the 1st Bible verse and combines it with the motifs already developed in the introduction. The 2nd verse "Herr, höre meine Stimme" ["Lord, hear my voice"] is the text for the fast continuation, the structure of which contains a tutti-solo exchange, sometimes marked by fugal imitation, but without ever allowing either one of these musical techniques be fully carried out. Without a break the 3rd section begins with a solo for bass voice "So du willt, Herr, Sünde zurechen" ["Lord, as you wish to add sin"]; but then along with the biblical text (3rd verse of the Psalm) as the base, a third technique becomes apparent: The soprano voice sings the 2nd verse of the chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, du Brunnquell aller Gnaden" ["Lord Jesus Christ, you my greatest good, you source of all blessings."] The chorale melody dictates the structure of the mvt.: it is divided into the two beginning lines which are repeated as part of the 'Stollen' and then the concluding 'Abgesang;' at the same time that the soprano voice moves into this 'Abgesang', the bass voice moves forward into the 4th verse of the Psalm "Denn bei dir ist die Vergebung" ["For with you there is forgiveness."] Up until this point, all the parts had only a single musical connection; but now the next three mvts. are set apart from each other as they exhibit variations of the structural pattern that had existed before this: at first there is the choral section "Ich harre des Herrn" ["I am waiting for the Lord"] with richly developed but not strictly carried out fugue "Meine Seele harret" ["My soul is waiting"] (both of these sections based on the 5th Bible verse.) Similar to the previous bass solo, Bach also combines the following tenor solo (verse 6: "Meine Seele wartet" ["My soul is waiting"]) with the chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" (verse 5 sung by the alto) and again he has the other voice begin singing (while the alto completes the 'Abgesang' of the chorale) the next citation from the Bible: "von einer Morgenwache bis zu der andern" ["from one morning watch to the next."] To be sure, these are only the second part of the Psalm verse that has been begun and Bach does return once again to the words at the beginning of the verse.
Bach's interpretation of the textual foundation does become quite clear when comparing the bass and tenor mvts. In both instances he changes the fundamental biblical text where the music of the chorale moves into the 'Abgesang.' However, only in the bass solo is the transition from one Psalm verse to another effected while in the tenor solo Bach remains within a single biblical verse. This is why Bach, in the 'Abgesang,' is able to set to music again the words which normally should have accompanied the 'Stollen.'
The final two Psalm verses are part of the concluding, multisectional choral mvt. where the major break occurs at the point between verse 7 and 8: between the sometimes chordlike, sometimes loosely polyphonic opening sections and the complex fugue on the words "und er wird Israel erlösen" ["and he will save Israel."]
In this manner the function which allows a cantata to contain an inner continuity will have a two-fold effect: while Bach sets a continuous Psalm text to music, he also combines two verses of a chorale with it. These latter verses are cleverly chosen from the inner [not the 1st verse] verses of the chorale and used in two of the inner mvts. of the cantata. Only superficially does it appear that the meaning of the chorale is reduced or less important than the verses of the Psalm and, at the least, the chorale has a profound effect upon the musical structure of both mvts. As soon as the chorale enters, it pushes the other voices into the background and clearly relegates them, including the voice part which presents the text of the Psalm, to a mode of accompaniment. The tenor mvt. opens with a continuo line, which, due to its sequences of similar elements, seems to be representative of the ostinato-type theme. Indeed, the theme is repeated unchanged three times in a row, twice in the beginning bars of the tenor part. In this way the ostinato theme and the setting of the Bible text can appear side by side. Then, however, the first line of the chorale begins. Bach accordingly varies the ostinato theme to make it fit while leading the tenor voice in such a way to make it fit into the framework which has already been created. Always when the chorale melody stops, Bach must take the presentation of the Bible text out of its background mode and place it into the foreground, but this demands so much concentration that Bach is unable to make the ostinato motif return in its original form. The hierarchy of the various components is clear: the chorale is stronger than the musical setting of the biblical quotations and the latter is stronger than the instrumental parts.
The same principle can be observed at work in the mvt. for bass voice where it is expanded to include another component. The hierarchy here moves down from the chorale melody to the leading of the bass voice solo which is treated as the most important accompanying part, then moves down to an independent oboe part and finally to the continuo part. The latter merely offers the foundation bass without having any ostinato-like elements. The soprano, leading with the melody and the bass set against it with its Bible quotations constitute in their functions a clearly defined pair of voices. Above the regular, steadily forward moving basso continuo line there is still room for the characteristic figurations of the oboe which never seems to be able to bring forth a tangible theme. This oboe part is merely a typical instrumental part without any vocal diction as it is based upon the use of intervals and the fact that frequently the 2nd 1th note anticipates the following note. As a result, the listener will notice a plain distinction between the idiomatic use of voices and instruments without, however, feeling that Bach composed for a specific instrument. This type of instrumental leading of musical lines without clearly distinguishing the instrumental types is characteristic for Bach in his earliest cantatas.
BWV 71 "Gott ist mein König"
In the second half of Bach's one-year stay in Mühlhausen, this cantata was composed and is the only one from this period which records the precise original performance date, February 4, 1708, for the annual ceremony on the occasion of the town council election. As usual the performance took place during the church service at St. Mary's which was known as the "Ratskirche" ["the church associated with the city hall."] Just how strong the connection of this music with the city's pageantry displaying political power was is exemplified by the fact that the city council paid for this cantata to be printed. Along with another cantata which Bach composed for the same occasion, the Mühlhausen city council election in 1709, this time already composed in Weimar, a composition for which there are not even any printed copies available, this cantata from 1708 remains the only cantata which was ever printed during Bach's lifetime. For BWV 51 we even have an autograph score in a clean/clear copy.
The text is based upon passages extracted from Psalm 74. Verse 12 supplies the basis for the introductory chorus with its sections that change back and forth from tutti to solo; the following verses which describe God as the ruler of the sea and of rivers are skipped, but then the text continues with the 16th verse (mvt. 4, Bass: "Tag und Nacht ist dein" ["Day and night is yours"]) through the beginning of verse 17. Only the beginning of verse 19 still reflects some of the text in the Psalm, but not literally as a direct quotation (Chorus Section 6: "Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben die Seele deiner Turteltaube" ["You did not want to give the enemy the soul of your turtledove.")
This then was the outline of text that had been cleansed of all elements which would not be suitable for the election of the Mühlhausen town council. This outline could now be expanded to include text which would show a relationship to the occasion for which this music was being composed. The 2nd and 3rd mvts. once again utilize texts from the Old Testament: "Ich bin nun achtzig Jahr" ["I am now 80 years old"] and "Dein Alter sei wie deine Jugend" ["Let your old age be like your youth."] These verses relate to people who have reached old age, a very fitting thought since several of the mayors of Mühlhausen were of a 'biblical' age at the time. The remaining sentences are directed at the actual government of the city, specifically the reference at the beginning of the final chorus to "Das neue Regiment" ["The new government"], which refers specifically to the new group of elected officials, the continuation of the final chorus as well as the preceding alto solo "Durch mächtige Kraft" ["through mighty power"] (Mvt. 5) which refers to Emperor Joseph I, the highest-ranking regent with power over the Imperial Free City of Mühlhausen. These texts were probably created specifically for this occasion.
This cantata reflects in its orchestration Bach's understanding as leading musician in Mühlhausen of the pomp and circumstance needed for this occasion. As already mentioned, the ensemble consists of six choirs/groups of voices/instruments: four of these were instrumental and the others were the tutti and solo ensembles. With this Bach could have made real the impressions and memories of the music he had experienced in the imperial city of Lübeck in late Fall of 1705 when Dietrich Buxtehude presented correspondingly large-scale musical productions on the occasion of the change of emperor (the death of Emperor Leopold I led to the enthroning of Joseph I.) Bach even improves on this by having the organ, for all practical purposes, serve as the 7th choir/instrumental sound, which is used independently with its own unique sound in certain places of the composition. This puts a special stamp on the 2nd mvt. of the cantata in which the organ enters into an otherwise especially delicately spun exchange between the Bible text and the chorale (it hardly seems possible not to make a direct connection between the soprano chorale and the Bible text sung by the tenor, for instance with the text beginning: "Soll ich auf dieser Welt mein Leben höher bringen" ["Should I improve my life here in this world"] is it not possible to connect this with the "Warum" ["Why"] sung directly before it?) The major function of the organ is particularly noticeable in the introductory section of the last mvt. in which it assumes the role of providing the final section of the bridge material which had just previously appeared in the strings, then the recorders and the choir of oboes. This obbligato organ part thus seems to function as a particular option chosen by a composer who understands musical performances from the vantage point of the organ. In the choice and arrangement of text, this cantata appears to be a representative of the older type of cantata which still has not been influenced by operatic forms or their derivatives. This even applies to the elements present in the 2nd half of the cantata, elements that are designated to be 'free poetry' and would, for this reason, appear to belong to elements typical of the more recent cantata types. The text of the final chorus is a poem with two verses. Such a structure in strophic form reflects the techniques used in the Protestant chorales, not in the more modern forms of the cantata. Despite all of this there are some modern elements that can be discerned. These are seen where Bach, in some mvts. will return to the beginnings of texts and/or music once the conclusion has been reached. A true da-capo form as it appears in operas does not yet occur here. It is more like a framing device. Since, however, it appears not only in mvts. where 'free poetry' is involved (so that in the alto solo (mvt. 5) the initial words "Durch mächtige Kraft" ["through mighty power"] are repeated again at the end), but also, above all, in the musical settings of the biblical verses, Bach must be considered responsible for applying this construction and he must have done this consciously out of musical considerations. In this manner, at the end of the introductory chorus "Gott ist mein König", Bach returns to the tutti beginning and does likewise in the bass aria "Tag und Nacht ist dein." In doing so, Bach creates a very different impression than in the other early cantatas where Bach seems to have preferred to set the text to music basically in a linear fashion without ever going back to the introductory material.
Very conspicuously different is the way the cantata begins: it is the only cantata from Bach's early period which does not open with a Sinfonia, but rather begins directly with the entrance of the entire ensemble including the chorus. If the purpose of an instrumental prelude was to help to coordinate the intonation of the singers, then this was certainly not accomplished here. The solving of this problem could be comparatively easy, but it also gives rise to new questions: for the instrumental ensemble not only are the instruments of 'normal' city musicians demanded, but also in likewise fashion the trumpets which assumed a very special position in society, all the more so when they were used as special function instruments to signal the entrance of important individuals or even as a sign of power for those who commanded them to play. These situations prevailed not only at the various courts of the region but also played an important role in the Free Imperial Citi. The signals produced by trumpeters were subject to a prescribed duty to keep them secret and for this reason they were never written down. The way in which Bach set up this cantata makes is possible to conjecture that before the entire ensemble began its performance, it was preceded by a trumpet fanfare, perhaps one that was repeated annually or perhaps one improvised by the trumpeter. In any case, Bach was not responsible for providing the music for such a fanfare, for this obligation fell to the trumpeters themselves. Consequently we can state that the cantata was transmitted in its complete form, but in order to recreate the impression of the performance in its entirety as it was given at its first performance, a trumpet fanfare with at least 3 trumpets would have to precede it.<<
Bradley Lehman wrote (February 10, 2005):
Pitch for the early cantatas
< The editors of modern editions of Bach's Mühlhausen cantatas are faced with very special problems of notation. (...) Notated in C major are the trumpets and strings as well as the vocal parts and the continuo, but the groups with oboes and bassoon as well as the recorders and violoncello are notated in D major. How can these pitch-dependent conditions be resolved? (...) >
There's a handy table "Proposed Solutions to Questions of Tonality in Bach's Early Cantatas" to accompany the excellent discussion, in Bruce Haynes's article "Questions of Tonality in Bach's Cantatas: The Woodwind Perspective". (J American Musical Instrument Society 12: 1986, pp 40-67.) He discusses cantatas 12, 18, 21, 23, 31, 71, 106, 131, 132, 150, 152, 155, 161, 172, 182, 185, 199.
< In the performance practices used in the churches of Mühlhausen, there was a discrepancy in pitch between the woodwinds and the rest of the musical ensemble, at least as far as Bach was concerned. This is understandable: because Bach's situation here was different than it would later be in Leipzig where he had musical leadership as Thomaskantor over several other churches (in Mühlhausen he understood all his music making in terms of the organ which was his primary responsibility), he therefore used the organ as his primary reference point for pitch. Bach undoubtedly 'thought' the music in the same key in which the organ part was notated. >
That, too, continued at Leipzig: the organ (and its layout of harmonic contrasts) being the primary reference point. The composition stems from the way the (transposing) basso-continuo part will sound, as to its dramatic tensions and resolutions in forward motion. The basic Affekt is laid down by the organ's temperament. Bach took that into account before writing the music, and he used those effects objectively to create music appropriate to the motion/meaning of the words.
That's evidenced both in the resulting sound in these Leipzig compositions (playing through them in the temperament that Bach wrote down for use on the Leipzig organs, allowing for the transposition!), and in Bach's well-known pedagogical remark that thoroughbass is the soul of music and composition. "The thorough-bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough-bass should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub."
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 10, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: >>...and in Bach's well-known pedagogical remark that thoroughbass is the soul of music and composition. "The thorough-bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough-bass should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub."<<
This "well-known pedagogical remark" by Bach, as quoted here and, unfortunately, still included in "The New Bach Reader" [Norton, 1966-1999, pp. 16-17,] may not be by Bach at all. This has been discussed in great detail on this list before. No need to rehash this here at this time. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Continuo-4.htm
Dale Gedcke wrote (February 10, 2005):
On Feb. 10, 2005, Thomas Braatz quoted and transposed:
" Notated in C major are the trumpets and strings as well as the vocal parts and the continuo, but the groups with oboes and bassoon as well as the recorders and violoncello are notated in D major. How can these pitch-dependent conditions be resolved? Bach's notation is very clear: the vocalists and strings are both independent from having any pitch problems and are notated the same way that the organ is. Even the trumpets could be included in this system. Only the woodwinds were required to be notated [in such a way that their different pitch would fit in with the rest of the ensemble]. Because the cello, again an instrument capable of variable pitch like the other strings and vocal parts, was placed into the group with the recorders, Bach made the notation of this later group fit the notation of the instruments with which it had become partners."
Both fascinating and somewhat unclear! What is fascinating is that Bach was able to compose different instruments in different keys to solve the problem that various instruments were built on different basic pitches.
What is unclear is just what those pitch differences were. What was the basic frequency for the woodwinds, and how far off that frequency could they be tuned. (A modern oboe has negligible tuning range.) What was the basic frequency of the pitch for the organ? I presume it was not practical to adjust the tuning of the organ. There is a question of whether or not the trumpets had tuning bows or bits. I expect that C trumpets were available, but how far off the pitch of the organ were they? The string instruments, of course, could adjust their pitch to match anyone. Is there any information available to answer these questions?
Incidentally, other composers wrote works with instruments of the wrong pitch. Beethoven, in his Pastoral Symphony (#6. I think), uses a Baroque trumpet that is not in the basic key of the music. Within the treble clef, the Baroque trumpet could not play the chromatic scale (nor the diatonic scale). Beethoven solves that problem by composing the symphony so that the notes the trumpet can play, and is asked to play (in the wrong key), turn out to be legitimate notes in the concert key. Only if you read the score as originally written, can you detect this stroke of genius. When it is transposed for a modern Bb valved trumpet, the ingenuity goes unnoticed.
Bradley Lehman wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] As I recall, that earlier tired-old discussion, in its broader context, was little more than a desperate and musicologically-irresponsible attempt to cut Mr Niedt out of the pie altogether (as to his relevance to Bach). If Niedt can be slashed from the historical record, why then, we need not believe ANYthing his work tells us!
Until and unless Dr Christoph Wolff recants personally his inclusion of that source in the NBR, a recantation that I believe would be unwarranted, I take that source seriously. So do other real musicologists.
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 10, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: >>As I recall, that earlier tired-old discussion,<<
...nothing 'tired-old' except for those who wish to circumvent a true discussion of the issues involved and prefer the easy method of believing in the complete authority of one scholar's imprimatur...
>>in its broader context, was little more than a desperate<<
...nothing as desparate as holding onto to doubtful evidence...
>>and musicologically-irresponsible attempt<<
...providing sources and interpreting them with a commonsense approach is not 'musicologically-irresponsible' while clinging to misrepresentations of what Bach actually did say would be...
>>to cut Mr Niedt out of the pie altogether (as to his relevance to Bach). If Niedt can be slashed from the historical record,<<
Niedt remains firmly entrenched in the historical record, but the interpretation in regard to his great influence on Bach is to be seriously doubted.
>>why then, we need not believe ANYthing his [Niedt's] work tells us!<<
Aha! What his work (his words, not his music of which there is none extant) tells us is that he was a pioneer of the galant style. This is quite evident in his writings. So, taking this 'logic' to a broader level: when it is pointed out by other composers and theorists that Bach used parallel fifths or broke certain rules governing the structure of fugues, we can simply dump all his music into the trash bin and not consider it worth listening to. Likewise, Niedt should be continually reexamined for what he really represents and not for what others believe that his influence should have been. Only this way can a true and valid judgement for our current time and place be formed.
You are sadly mistaken if you believe that I said that there is nothing in Niedt's work that is believable. On the contrary, it is quite believable from his own writings that he had a profound distaste for the type of sacred music for which Bach later became famous. This is an undisputed fact quoted directly from one of Niedt's books. It is left up to the Bach scholar, or any normal reader/listener for that matter, to decide to which degree Bach may have agreed with Niedt and whether the statement that is conjectured to have been written by one of Bach's pupils truly represents Bach's words (that it can be considered a true quotation from Bach's lips, not one fabricated, who knows for which of many possible reasons, by a student for what might turn out to be a less-than-honest, self-serving reason.)
>>Until and unless Dr Christoph Wolff recants personally his inclusion of that source in the NBR, a recantation that I believe would be unwarranted, I take that source seriously. So do other real musicologists.<<
What if a theory on Bach's temperament were proposed and printed in an article, and yet Wolff has not, or will not for many years, issue a printed statement confirming its possible validity? According to the above logic, everyone should 'sit tight' with abated
breath waiting 'for the other shoe to fall' when the 'official pronouncement' of the theory's acceptability has been issued. Everyone should be warned "not to take this theory seriously" until a true consensus among all major Bach specialists and musicologists has been achieved. No trials, except in private quarters, should be allowed, because such a theory runs counter to the notion that pure equal temperament was Bach's discovery which he put into practice in the WTC.
Bradley Lehman wrote (February 11, 2005):
Where in the SCHOLARLY literature (as opposed to stuff made up by a guy on the internet) is there anything about Bach dismissing Niedt (d. 1708) as too galant in taste? And too galant for what?!? Niedt himself had been a student of one of the most important other Bachs: JSB's cousin Nikolaus in Jena, the same composer who first used the B-A-C-H motive and who built instruments and who whupped young Neidhardt in an organ-tuning contest, and who in the 1740s was venerated as the oldest living Bach. Personally, I think it's nifty that JSB taught thoroughbass from a book by Niedt who had been his own cousin's student. Niedt got his musicianship from an excellent source.
As for confirmations among JS Bach's own students, and Christoph Wolff: Dr Wolff revealed in 2004 that he recently purchased an 18th century bound copy of Fux's counterpoint textbook, and discovered inside it that Bach's student Agricola had written out a set of composition rules in it. Wolff discovered further that this set of rules is identical to the set that another Bach student, Kirnberger, published some years later and attributed back to JSB's lessons. It's a table of voice-leading examples in five parts, showing which notes of the harmony should be properly doubled. Excellent corroboration here that Bach's teaching materials were taken seriously, and indeed revered as valuable practical knowledge.
So, what's this about disgruntled Bach students (Thieme, in the case of the Niedt/Bach dictation about thoroughbass) allegedly lying about the materials they got from the master, and putting false words into JSB's mouth? <snip>
Neil Halliday wrote (February 11, 2005):
Pitch for the early cantatas (and Niedt)
Bradley Lehman wrote: <"....and additionally arbitrary speculations that Bach himself would be angry at all with the deceased Niedt for any reason>".
I don't know about Bach, but this listener at least is dismayed by Harnoncourt's trend-setting reading of Niedt's words, with regard to the accompaniment of continuo recitatives, something along the lines of "I bid you (ie, Niedt was addressing the performers) not to hold out the note for its full length, because it sounds horrible...."
While the continuo that Niedt may have heard, such as an organ tuned in meantone playing long-held and unvarying chords combined with a long-held note on a violone, might have produced a 'horrible' effect, Niedt certainly had not heard Mengelberg's treatment of continuo (secco) recitative in the SMP (BWV 244): http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-form/102-2890186-7001734
(Scroll down to blue-coloured CD cover).
In these examples, the listener can hear the wonderful atmosphere of suspense that Mengelberg brings to the secco (and accompanied) recitatives, by fully holding-out the notes on rich but very soft and expressive bass strings, accentuated by arpeggio chords on a rich-sounding harpsichord or forte piano (anybody able to tell for sure?) with clearly articulated pitch for each note of the chord.
This suspense helps to involves the listener in the drama of the narrative, as told in the recitatives, as it progresses toward its terrible conclusion, and is in stark contrast with the exceptionally dry, austere, and often tedious HIP method.
Neil Halliday wrote (February 11, 2005):
I will try once again with the link to the Mengelberg SMP (BWV 244) example.
If it still does not work, you can easily find it at amazon.com by typing in: Mengelberg AND Passion
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 11, 2005):
Dale Gedcke wrote: >>Incidentally, other composers wrote works with instruments of the wrong pitch. Beethoven, in his Pastoral Symphony (#6. I think), uses a Baroque trumpet that is not in the basic key of the music. Within the treble clef, the Baroque trumpet could not play the chromatic scale (nor the diatonic scale). Beethoven solves that problem by composing the symphony so that the notes the trumpet can play, and is asked to play (in the wrong key), turn out to be legitimate notes in the concert key. Only if you read the score as originally written, can you detect this stroke of genius. When it is transposed for a modern Bb valved trumpet, the ingenuity goes unnoticed.<<
It would appear that Beethoven may not have worried too much about the tof the part for the natural trumpet any more than Bach might have. The choice that faces the composer is to write music only for the limited notes available to this instrument. There are two interesting insights into Beethoven's trumpet parts:
1) they were primarily used only for tutti sections (very little solo melodic material which might demand a full complement of musical notes be available)
2) Beethoven simply skipped the notes that were not playable causing hiatuses in the musical line which did not bother Beethoven very much. He simply had to live with this 'imperfection' in the instrument.
Here are some interesting quotes that I found in the Grove Music Online [Oxford University Press, 2004, acc. 2/10/05]:
>>In the Classical style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven the trumpet was used mainly as a tutti instrument, although an occasional fanfare at the end of an allegro movement called attention to the trumpeters' surviving court function. However, it is wrong to maintain, as has been done, that trumpeters of the Classical period became less skilful: instead, new skills were required. Beethoven, for example, made great demands on endurance.<< Edward H. Tarr
>>Matters of 19th century orchestration and its history continue to provide fuel for debate in contemporary performance of that era's repertory. One question is the degree to which performers should feel welcome to adjust orchestration to account for later mechanical improvements and the changing taste that favoured the `big orchestra' sound. The precedent was set early on, notably with Wagner's inclination to rescore passages in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to achieve better balance. Recordings of the great orchestras and conductors of the latter half of the 20th century suggest that the custom of `completing' natural horn and trumpet parts in the Beethoven symphonies with pitches available on the valved successors continues to be widespread. Where local or inherited performance custom begins to diverge from the best interests of the composition remains a matter for scholarly study and deliberation among historians, players and conductors.<< D. K. Holoman
Bradley Lehman wrote (February 11, 2005):
< I don't know about Bach, but this listener at least is dismayed by Harnoncourt's trend-setting reading of Niedt's words, with regard to the accompaniment of continuo recitatives, something along the lines of "I bid you (ie, Niedt was addressing the performers) not to hold out the note for its full length, because it sounds horrible...."
While the continuo that Niedt may have heard, such as an organ tuned in meantone playing long-held and unvarying chords combined with a long-held note on a violone, might have produced a 'horrible' effect, Niedt certainly had not heard Mengelberg's treatment of continuo (secco) recitative in the SMP (BWV 244): >
The argument about note-lengths in plain recitative, in Bach's music, DOES NOT HINGE SOLELY OR EVEN PRIMARILY ON NIEDT. <snip>
But Niedt is not the cornerstone here.
1a. The musical cornerstone here, mark well, is NORMAL FLEXIBILITY IN ITALIAN OPERA RECITATIVE NOTATION back to c1600. The corroboration through Niedt and others, in the research of Dreyfus and others, is just that: CORROBORATION that the 100-year-old practice had indeed made it to Bach's region of Germany by the time Bach was writing his music. Indeed, it made it to that student (Niedt) of Bach's own talented cousin Johann Nikolaus
It also made it to all the other corroborating sources that Dreyfus presents, right from the beginning of 18th century Germany and on through into the 19th.
There are several different methods, all done for MUSICAL reasons, of detaching the whole texture or detaching only the chords (while holding the bass), or indeed varying the texture as it goes along (which Dreyfus downplays). Again, this goes back to conventional/normal practice IN ITALIANATE OPERA for generations before Bach. It's normal practice in dramatic music for singers and instruments!
1b. There's also a sideline of basso continuo accompaniment in late 17th century France, whereby it's normal practice to vary the texture as it goes along by playing bigger or smaller chords (more or fewer notes), making accents. This, along with note-lengths and delays and articulations, is part of normal accompaniment practice...normal musicianship.
The reason is simple: variation is a lot more engaging to listen to than monotony (of any sort) is. The Baroque era, which is PRIMARILY the 17th century, is characterized by strong emotions and swift contrasts, directness of expression. That was what the whole seconda prattica was about, emerging from Monteverdi and the people around him at the beginning of this, with the rise of expressionistic music (most notably opera).
2. It also made it to the corroborating sources that Peter Williams presented in his ore general article about NORMAL METHODS OF PLAYING ORGAN ACCOMPANIMENT--including recitative--in the broader sphere of music around all this. I've presented the citation of that article some dozen times here already, not that anybody has gone to look it up and read the Williams article directly, but they should! (And take organ lessons from good teachers, too.)
Shortened chords on the organ, in accompaniment (whether it's arias or choruses or recitatives!), gives breathing-space to the whole ensemble and it makes things sound normally semi-connected in resonant acoustics. This is basic to organ-playing, whether it's solo or the accompaniment of church service music: short chords help everybody's rhythm more than long ones do, and they make the music more lively and dramatic. This is almost as much a cornerstone as the Italian-opera thing is. Again, NORMAL PRACTICE and basic church-musicianship, coming to it from 17th century norms.
And both of those two big points DO NOT really hinge on Niedt in any shape or form. They only show that Niedt, among many other people around him, knew what was normal in good musicianship, playing concerted music. Niedt and some others just happened to write it down, fortunately for us today.
Once again: for anybody here who's new to this topic since approximately six months ago, I've compiled a list of sources into my essay at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/recits.htm
Have I made it clear enough yet that NIEDT IS ONLY A RED HERRING in somebody's constructed case against Dr Laurence Dreyfus and other musicologists?
On the positive side of the argument (i.e. Dreyfus et al), Niedt is convenient here as corroboration, especially since JS Bach himself taught basso continuo using a book written by Niedt; but the argument would hold just as well on the Italian-opera and the normal-organ-playing pillars, even if Niedt had never lived.
NIEDT IS NOT THAT IMPORTANT IN THE BIG PICTURE! NORMAL MUSICIANSHIP IS. Musicianship of people who actually study and practice music, coming to Bach's music forward from the 17th century (understanding its own background), and not merely looking back on it from naive 20th/21st score-reading expectations (that all notes must be written out exactly as long as they're supposed to sound in practice).
Neil Halliday wrote (February 11, 2005):
Niedt and Dreyfus , or whoever!
Bradley Lehman wrote: <"2. It also made it to the corroborating sources that Peter Williams presented in his more general article about NORMAL METHODS OF PLAYING ORGAN ACCOMPANIMENT">.
I have alluded many times to the the special difficulties with the organ in continuo, because of the unvarying sustaining quality it brings to accompaniment; and I have noted the solutions that are often adopted with the organ are unsatisfacory eg, use of very small instruments, and/or unvarying short chords (or in the case of non-HIP practice, unvarying, quiet long chords - I would suggest that variety of registration is essential with organ). This particular problem does not occur with harpsichord or piano.
But the fact remains, when I asked for evidence some time ago, of variety in instrumental expresand technique, in secco recitative accompaniment, of the type that ought to be part of "normal practical musicianship" that Brad speaks of, in recordings of HIP Bach cantatas, IIRC one or two secular cantatas were offered as examples, in any case a dismally small number of examples. Is JEG any different, anyone?
John Pike wrote (February 11, 2005):
[To Neil Halliday] Having been brought up on Richter's 1958 recording of the SMP (BWV 244) as a child, I took a while to get used to JEG and my early forays into HIP, but taste changes and for a long time now JEG has been one of my favourite conductors of Bach (Herreweghe being another consistently excellent one). The latest cantata releases from JEG which I started to listen to today are, as many others on the list have commented, exhilirating. The music just dances along. It is just a joy to listen to it. The continuo is not in the least obtrusive. Just like other good practical continuo players, everything is tasteful, holding everyone together and unobtrusive. Nothing there jars for me. Everything done is in the service of the music, to keep it dancing along.
As Brad commented, a key role of the continuo player is to hold everyone together rhythmically. Anyone who has tried to play the slow movement of a Beethoven string quartet will know hard it can be to keep the tempo going and to feel the beat when everyone is playing sustained notes and there is no conductor. Similarly, if the continuo is playing long notes all the time, it is no doubt very hard to feel the pulse.
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 11, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: >>On the positive side of the argument (i.e. Dreyfus (et al), Niedt is convenient here as corroboration, especially since JS Bach himself taught basso continuo using a book written by Niedt;<<
If we believe the theory that Thieme faithfully recorded the entire teaching situation!
Bach did, however, own and study Heinichen's book on thorough-bass. Here there is a very clear statement which Dreyfus, on p. 76 of 'Bach's Continuo Group,' finds very puzzling because he is trying to prove that Bach, in his own long notation of the bc in secco recitatives, did not really mean to have the long notes played as he wrote them down. It is very clear that Heinichen says to play the notes as written on the organ, but that there are exceptional circumstances which he delineates that might have to be left to the musical judgment of the accompanist.
With Heinichen we have a much more reliable witness for this method of accompaniment than with Niedt.