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The Significance of Bach

  • Nov 25, 2010
IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position

The State of Bach Interpretation Today

Within the continuing history of Bach's life's work, we are now at the eve of his 300th birthday. What is the response of Bach interpretation today to the challenge of presenting his music in a way that is suited to our age? At this point we must consider a factor that has never, in the history of Bach's music since his death, been as favorable as it is today. The musicological efforts of the past decades have led to the present situation in which we possess absolutely superb critical editions of Bach's works, exemplified above all by the New Bach Edition, for which the Bach Institute of Göttingen and the Bach Archive of Leipzig are responsible. In addition, musicological research has been intensely and continuously concerned with the performance practice of the time in which Bach's works were created as well as with related fields of study. A wealth of information is thus available to us that earlier generations did not possess. On one hand, this situation simplifies decisions regarding the interpretative presentation of Bach's work. On the other hand, it narrows the latitude within which one can make such decisions, as it calls into question an approach to the music based purely on instinct and feeling. Within the spectrum of Bach interpretation today, I see three distinct categories. First are the Bach interpretations that continue the grand Bach tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unbroken into our time. This approach is characterized by the use of large choirs and orchestras and modern instruments. The unforgotten Karl Richter was an exponent of this interpretive approach. As current proponents of this philosophy, though in ways quite different, one could cite Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Diametrically opposed to this approach are the interpretations of those musicians and ensembles who have as their goal the most precise possible reconstruction of the sound and performance practice of Bach's time. Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, among many others, are representative of this philosophy. Our third and final group consists of church musicians, church choirs, and congregational instrumental ensembles, primarily in Protestant (Lutheran) churches. These performers present Bach within the worship service or perhaps within the context of a special music worship service or concert in the church. The performance forces available vary widely and are often of limited capabilities and lack appropriate balance. But these musicians have one thing over the others: they perform Bach's music in the setting for which it was written and with the same goal Bach himself had in mind. So here we have three different approaches to Bach interpretation. What is the thinking behind their positions? The reason for the style of Bach interpretation characterized by von Karajan, Masur, and many others seems to lie in the established circumstance of today's concert life. There is hardly a symphony orchestra concert series that does not incorporate choral works. The fact that Bach's oratorios have a place here seems to be an expression of tradition, and perhaps convention as well. Their worth is seen less in the context of Bach's work overall than in isolation and is defined as the expression of a "greatness that transcends time." The artistic stance of the self-declared "historically authentic" performers seems at first to us today to be a form of alienation. The music of Bach sounds different than we as listeners to so-called classical music first expect. It is supposed to reach our ears in its original form, like a painting freed from the layer upon layer of varnish that has built up on it over the centuries. For the subscribers to this interpretive approach, it is precisely the fault of the Bach tradition that has developed progressively over the centuries and of its conventions, that to present Bach's works without distortion should be viewed as alienating. The church's music-oriented stance is completely different: Bach's music is performed here because it fits the particular theme of a worship service or the shifting focus of a particular time of the church year (such as Christmas, Passiontide, or Easter), but primarily because it has something to say above and beyond that which is simply musical. Next: Bach's Concept of Himself IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position Read All