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Sinfonias in Bach Cantatas

The shortest Bach Symphony

Luis Enrique Prieto wrote (December 7, 2000):
Bach wrote some "symphonies" as short introductions to some of his works. I know some of these symphonies are as short as 14 measures. But does anyone on this list know which is the SHORTEST one written by Bach?

Cory Hall wrote (December 7, 2000):
(To Luis Enrique Prieto) By "Symphony" you are probably referring to when Bach uses "Sinfonia." If this is so, then the shortest I believe is from Cantata BWV 76, movement 8, which is a 4-measure Sinfonia introduction. He also uses this same movement in the Trio Sonata BWV 528.

Paolo de Matthaeis wrote (December 7, 2000):
(To Luis Enrique Prieto) BWV 4?

 

Sinfonias

Julian Mincham wrote (February 11, 2008):
Peter Smaill write:
< Per Wolff, the reuse by Bach of purely orchestral movements is a feature distinguishing him from the other composers of Cantata cycles. In the case of BWV 52 , as noted by many others, the effect is alarming: the pomp and circumstance of the Brandenburg Concerto? leads to a plaintive recitative denouncing the falseness of the world. The inference is that the preceding concerto movement, with its kingly horns (note their remarkable syncopation in the Leonhardt recording) is giving the impression of Caesar passing by. The drama of the boy soprano Seppi in this recording, much criticised?I know, is the utter contrast in affekt. Think perhaps of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's "Emperor's New Clothes" and something similar occurs but in a radically more frivolous narrative than this libretto. >
Could this juxtaposition be Bach recording his feelings of being let down by some broken promise relating to the Brandenburg Court?

I agrees that Peter's point about the extreme contrast of style, scale and social (courtly?) implications between the two movements as being something that Bach may well have had in mind. However I have also wondered whether the images of the serpents and scorpions in the first recit may have led him to choose a movement with very 'busy' bustling counterpoint which may suggest groups of these things constantly on the move and writhing about. We know that he often portrayed images of Satan in a rather opera buffo fashion, apparently wanting to depict them without any great sense of granduer or nobility. Maybe he was responding to both of these ideas?

I still believe that he didn't just choose any old concerto movement in these circumstances---they had to be fully fit for purpose. Although what that purpose was is not always clear---not with a mind as complex and convoluted as I suspect Bach's to have been!?

 

Sinfonias in the cantatas

Julian Mincham wrote (June 7, 2010):
William Hoffman’s detailed and scholarly introduction to BWV 31 prompts Doug Cowling to raise a few questions about Bach’s use of instrumental movements in the cantatas. I deal with a lot of these issues in the relevant essays on the website: www.jsbachcantatas.com

but I guess only a few list readers will read them through so I am putting a short summary below (excluding comments on the secular cantatas).

First cycle. There are perhaps, fewer instrumental movements (sometimes called sinfonias, sometimes sonatas) in the sixty-plus cantatas of this cycle than one may suppose. The main examples appear in cantatas BWV 21, BWV 18, BWV 182, BWV 4, BWV 31 and BWV 12. Cantatas BWV 75 and BWV 76 are in two parts and in each case the second part begins with a sinfonia. Earlier cantatas not reused in the cycle which begin with instrumental movements are BWV 150 and BWV 152.
,
So Bach uses these movements only in around one in seven of these works.

I think it can be strongly argued that the instrumental movements were conceived as a coherent part of the overall cantata conception in these cases. I argue this point in a number of cases where the use of musical material (e.g. BWV 18 and BWV 4) clearly links the sinfonias to the rest of the cantata and, in the case of BWV 182 where the quite particular character of the approaching King is perfectly encapsulated in the opening sonata. Furthermore, it must be remembered that many of these were early works, reused in the first Leipzig cycle and composed before Bach had built up the repertoire of concerto movements which he was able to draw upon in the post second-cycle periods.

Second cycle. There are only two cantatas which begin with a sinfonia, BWV 4 composed several years earlier and BWV 42 (this is not really surprising as 42 of the 53 cantatas adhere to the pattern of beginning with a chorale/fantasia). However, the sinfonia from BWV 42 is an interesting case. The internal structural planning is identical to those of the violin and keyboard concertos in E major (a key in which this movement may also have begun life) which suggest strongly that it comes from a lost concerto. There is a strong possibility that this was the first cantata in which Bach took a large scale, pre-composed concerto-like movement which may have given him the idea for the relatively common adoption of this practice following this cycle (purely as an aside, this is one of the few movements which Schweitzer thoroughly misinterprets both structurally and in terms of its
character).

Later cantatas. Bach frequently recalls pre-composed concerto movements in the post-second cycle works even, in the case of the alto cantata BWV 35, beginning both parts with a sinfonia. The key question here is, did Bach choose the existing movement first and then set about composing the rest of the cantata or did he compose the cantata and then seek out the most appropriate concerto movement? The first of these works to begin with a sinfonia is BWV 146 where the first movement of the Dm keyboard concerto is used as the sinfonia and the second movement, with the addition of a four part choir, forms the following chorus. It does not seem logical to me that Bach ‘stuck these movements on’ to the rest of the work. It seems more reasonable to assume that he had selected this concerto as the basis of the cantata and worked on from there (incidentally this is the only concerto with which Bach made use of all three movements in the cantatas, the last movement in a later work).

I believe that Bach chose the pre-existing movements with great care for their appropriateness and suitability for purpose, sometimes going to extraordinary lengths to re-present them for the cantatas e.g. the (some might argue, not entirely satisfying) addition of horn and oboe parts to the first movement of Brandenburg 3 (incidentally the fact that Bach made such little use of the Brandenburg movements in the cantatas may well suggest the care that he took in seeking out precisely the right one for each particular cantata.

Ironically, my study of the cantatas suggests that the traditional belief that the first two movements of the Easter Oratorio were derived from a lost concerto is unsustainable through the internal musical evidence. Those who wish to follow the arguments will find the essay in chapter 49 of volume 3 on the website.

PS is anyone on list able to give a brief review of the recent book on Mariana von Ziegler by Mark Peters?

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 7, 2010):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< William Hoffman¹s detailed and scholarly introduction to BWV 31 prompts Doug Cowling to raise a few questions about Bach¹s use of instrummovements in the cantatas. I deal with a lot of these issues in the relevant essays on the website: >
I've noticed that in your admirable cantata analyses you haven't yet addressed the question of what sort of prelude preceded cantatas such as BWV 19, BWV 50 and BWV 80 which all begin without orchestral introduction even though a large band is scored.

Any speculations? This is a real conundrum from a practical performance point of view.

Julian Mincham wrote (June 7, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] Interesting point, to which there may be no convincing answer, although I suspect there may be more than one explanation. In BWV 50 for example, only the chorus has survived so its possible that it was originally preceded by some sort of instrumental movement (although the unique double choir scoring casts doubt as to whether it was ever intended to be part of the basic cantata canon)

Interestingly the three cantatas you quote all begin with a single voice over the continuo bass line. One explanation might be that Bach, with a typically dramatic flourish might have wanted to get the key opening phrase across to the congregation in as pithy and direct a manner as possible---we can be certain that his flair for dramatic expression over rode his willingness to conform to regulation!. I would guess that the practical problems of note finding may well have been solved by a short improvised organ movement?

The final point is that, as proven time and again in the first cycle, Bach was constantly experimenting with different ways of starting cantatas and this may simply be another example of this.

But that is the limit of my speculations--any other ideas?

George Bromley wrote (June 7, 2010):
[To Julian Mincham] Surly a choir used by Bach would not need to 'note find

Julian Mincham wrote (June 7, 2010):
[To George Bromley] Only if they all had a sense of 'perfect pitch' which I would think unlikely

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 7, 2010):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I would guess that the practical problems of note finding may well have been solved by a short improvised organ movement? >
That would certainly be the traditional method, one which goes back to the Gabrielis who published several collections of "Intonations" which provided short fantasias that outlined the principal harmonic modulations of the mode to set the pitch for the choir's motet or mass movement. This tradition continued in the Catholic Church as late as Mozart. On one occasion, he slipped onto the organ bench and, after the priest sang the opening "Gloria in Excelsis", played an improvisation for "Et in terra pax" that was so spectacular that everyone in the church turned around to see who was at the organ.

These modal preludes are seen throughout the Lutheran rite, particularly in the works of Praeotorius and Scheidt. Lutheran composers also provided introductory "intonations" for hymn-singing: there are innumerable miniature pieces based on chorale melodies which signalled to choir and congregation what the pitch of the hymn would be.

Bach's powers of improvisation were so formidable that he tossed off these little masterpieces every time he played in church. One could make a good case that the short preludes of the "Orgelbüchlein" were used precisely in this manner, as introductions to chorale-singing. Bach carefully noted on the cantata wrapper where he had to preludise on his first Sunday in Leipzig.

It is not hard to imagine Bach improvising a stunning free prelude to introduce the fugues which open BWV 19, BWV 50 and BWV 80. Why then the sudden interest in concerto movements which presumably replaced the organ prelude in the later cantatas? Was this a "modern" development in the cantata, something more fashionable?

Was a prefatory concerto movement always an integral part of the cantata score? It would have been very easy to have orchestral parts on the players' desks beside the cantata. I'd love to hear the opening of the Fourth Orchestal Suite as the Overture to "Ein Feste Burg" – with Fridemann's added trumpets of course.

Evan Cortens wrote (June 7, 2010):
George Bromley wrote:
< Surly a choir used by Bach would not need to 'note find' >
My guess would be that while many in this forum might not agree on the size of Bach's choir, we can probably agree on its quality. Certainly Bach complains quite a bit about this. That being said, I can't think of an instance in which he identifies his precise concerns, whether it's a question of accuracy or of vocal quality can't be said for sure.

Evan Cortens wrote (June 7, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< I've noticed that in your admirable cantata analyses you haven't yet addressed the question of what sort of prelude preceded cantatas such as BWV 19, BWV 50 and BWV 80 which all begin without orchestral introduction even though a large band is scored. >
It's worth mentioning that Joshua Rifkin has recently demonstrated (Bach-Jahrbuch 2000) that BWV 50 was probably not by Bach. It survives only in a much later source and stylistically differs significantly from anything else by Bach. Even if it was written by Bach though, it almost certainly wasn't a single movement.

Evan Cortens wrote (June 7, 2010):
[To Julian Mincham] While on the topic of instrumental movements, especially ones based on pre-existing compositions, in the cantatas, I wonder what we might make of, for instance, BWV 146/2 and BWV 169/5. Both of these are vocal compositions, chorus and alto aria respectively, based on pre-existing concerto slow movements, BWV 1052/2 and 1053/2 respectively. Perhaps the aria is the more interesting of the two, for what Bach has done is, in effect, added an entirely new obbligato line. In the chorus, the voices basically sing backup to the organ solo, with parts derived from the string accompaniment.

PS Apologies for responding to various issues in this thread in three separate emails... perhaps I should have written just one to save people's email notification!

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 7, 2010):
Evan Cortens wrote:
< It's worth mentioning that Joshua Rifkin has recently demonstrated (Bach-Jahrbuch 2000) that BWV 50 was probably not by Bach >
Sigh ...Unfortunately, I bonded as a choirboy with "Schlage Doch Gewünschte Stunde" (BWV 53) and "Nun Ist Das Heil" (BWV 50). They will ALWAYS be by Bach for me!

George Bromley wrote (June 7, 2010):
George Bromley wrote:
< Surly a choir used by Bach would not need to 'note find' >
I do not know the orchestral tuning practice in Bachs day but the 'Oboe A' has and can be used by choirs to get the correct starting note.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 8, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Sigh ...Unfortunately, I bonded as a choirboy with "Schlage Doch Gewünschte Stunde" (BWV 53) and "Nun Ist Das Heil" (BWV 50). They will ALWAYS be by Bach for me! >
Fortunately, musicology is not science: probably is the operative word, in probably not.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 8, 2010):
George Bromley wrote:
< I do not know the orchestral tuning practice in Bachs day but the 'Oboe A' has and can be used by choirs to get the correct starting note >
<< Surely a choir used by Bach would not need to 'note find' >>
A choir of students would not need to note find? For arguments that they were sight-reading experts, as well, see BCW archives.

Correction/elaboration invited: it is my understanding that current orchestral practice is to tune to the oboe at A = 440 hz. The oboe is the instrument of choice because it is not otherwise tuneable. How long has this been going on?

George Bromley wrote (June 8, 2010):
[Ed Myskowski] A recent trend is A=443 which gives a brighter and at least one concert hall in europe has on hand two piano's one for each standard.

Julian Mincham wrote (June 8, 2010):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< It is not hard to imagine Bach improvising a stunning free prelude to introduce the fugues which open BWV 19, BWV 50 and BWV 80. Why then the sudden interest in concerto movements which presumably replaced the organ prelude in the later cantatas? Was this a "modern" development in the cantata, something more fashionable?
Was a prefatory concerto movement always an integral part of the cantata score? It would have been very easy to have orchestral parts on the players' desks beside the cantata. I'd love to hear the opening of the Fourth Orchestal Suite as the Overture to "Ein Feste Burg" (
BWV 80) – with Fridemann's added trumpets of course. >
I'm not aware of any evidence suggesting that the majority of the first cycle and almost all the second cycle cantatas would have had a prefatory instrumental movement. Had they been used I think there would be at least some surviving evidence. I think more likely reasons are 1 that Bach liked to alter direction in the matter of cantata construction and 2 changing public taste. As to the first the first cycle demonstrates a regular pattern of changing movement structures (e.g. use of 1-3 chorales, beginning with chorus, aria, recit, sinfonia etc etc ) the second shows a further development with the block of chorale/fantasias and the thereafter there is further experimentation in a number of ways, the use of extended sinfonias being but one of them.

As to the second point I think it likely that public taste probably did alter in a number of ways. The acceptance of the sinfonias may be one, that of solo cantata, possibly led by the spread of italian opera, another. Bach tried the solo cantata (BWV 199) in the first cycle and then dropped it for 2-3 years. After the second cycle (which contained none) there are solo cantatas for all four voices---some including sinfonias as well.

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 8, 2010):
George Bromley wrote:
< I do not know the orchestral tuning practice in Bachs day but the 'Oboe A' has and can be used by choirs to get the correct starting note >
In their notes to the recording of the recreation of the Epiphany Mass, Paul McCreesh and Robin Leaver suggest that the organ prelude before a concerted work was also used as an opportunity for the instrumentalists to tune discreetly -- tuning had to take the organ's fixed pitch as its norm. McCreesh points to a number of preludes in which there are sustained notes corresponding to the open strings. There were none of the increasingly elaborate tuning exercises which we see at modern concerts.

The service proceeded without breaks for tuning or the choreography of singers standing, sitting and moving around. This procedure was not especially difficult. Modern timpanists tune and reset constantly during performance. Wagner's "Rheingold" plays without a break for 2 1/2 hours. We always need to exercise caution in projecting the pararmeters of modern concerts back into Bach's performance situation.

Sidebar. On one occasion when Handel was conducting his music in the Chapel Royal, the Archbishop of Canterbury was annoyed because the instumentalists began to tune DURING his overlong sermon!

George Bromley wrote (June 8, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] Please can you explain to me how you know there were no elaborate tuning exercises, sorry just curious, one method would be to tune up "off stage" a practice used at on stage in Germany I believe.

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 8, 2010):
Tuning & performance

George Bromley wrote:
< Please can you explain to me how you know there were no elaborate tuning exercises, sorry just curious, one method would be to tune up "off stage" a practice used at on stage in Germany I believe >
Again, I think we have to be careful about assuming that modern concert "offstage" had an equivalent in Bach's choir loft. We can't be certain how rigorously silence was enforced before a service as people were coming in and whether the initial tuning was permitted at that time. Bach didn't play "mood" music before a service as is universal in most churches today. The service began as the 7 am bell was rung and Bach began the prelude before the Introit motet.

The writings of Praetorius at the beginning of the 17th century would suggest that tuning was checked during the organ preludes which preceded concerted music -- just as instrumentalists retune during a one-act opera such as Strauss' "Elektra" or "Salome."

One of my chief objections to modern performances is that there is far too much tuning between movements of a cantata and that frequently even good performances reduce the work to a fragmented series of musical moments separated by tuning and the standing and sitting of soloists. We rarely hear the continuous sweep of a complete cantata. Most reprehensible is the frequent break between a recitative and its companion aria just because two soloists have to sit and stand rather than be stand together.

 

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Last update: ýJune 9, 2010 ý00:34:44