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The Significance of Bach

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

My Own Position

We have explored ideas having to do with the quality and the meaning of Bach's life's work, the bases for possible interpretive approaches, and his self-concept. Having done this, I would like to describe the position to which I personally subscribe for the presentation of Bach's church music. It is this position that characterizes my recordings of the complete church cantatas and oratorios. Permit me to do so by returning once again to the three categories of possible Bach interpretation that I previously outlined. I encountered very early the nineteenth-century performance tradition that has grown further during our century. The first St. Matthew Passion that I ever heard was performed by the Wurttemberg State Theatre under the direction of Ferdinand Leitner. I still remember being deeply moved at that time. Naturally, then, when Bach's oratorios are programmed, conductors such as Von Karajan try to perform them as intensely and with as much involvement as they do the works of other composers. What I see with critical eyes here is the lack of consideration for style that occurs when Baroque works are treated symphonically. Almost everything that musicological research on Bach has brought forth over the last decades and has made available to practicing musicians is ignored here. We know today that Bach performed his St. John Passion with a maximum of thirty singers and the St. Matthew Passion with forty-five. In addition, there were twenty instrumentalists for the former work and a maximum of thirty-five for the latter. Why not give Bach the justice of the smaller complement of strings that has long been the rule in the performance of Mozart? What one gains in intensity of sound with large string forces does not compensate for the loss of balance within the ensemble as a whole. Even in tutti sections, Bach's compositions still possess a chamber-music quality. The solo wind instruments, which are given obbligato parts, must not be lost under the rest of the ensemble; Bach's concept of internal balance must constantly remain audible. It goes without saying that, in addition to the fundamental question of the performing forces to be used, the use of thoughtfully differentiated articulation plays a large role, that crescendo,diminuendo schemes can be introduced only where the structure of the work itself justifies it, and that the choice of vocal soloists must take into account their basic integrality with the sound of the choir as well as with the accompanying solo instruments of the orchestra. The institutional cooperation between symphony orchestras and local choirs is something I hold to be very important, because this forges a link between professional and amateur music making that is profitable for both sides. When works by Bach are on the program, the criteria for quality should be twofold: on one hand, that there has been a considered application of the appropriate principles of style, and on the other hand, that the performance embodies the spirit that characterizes the original objective of Bach's church music. We now come to the second of the previously discussed methods of dealing with the music of Bach today, the "historical-authentic" approach to performance. Allow me to go into this approach quite thoroughly, since it raises fundamental questions and has received very great popularity in recent years. I am critical of the "historical-authentic" approach to interpretation, and I would like to explain the general reasons for my opinion. Even if one could succeed in precisely reconstructing the original sound of Bach's music, this would represent but one side of the Bach performance situation. The listener, the person for whose ears, feelings, and intellect this music was intended, is not reconstructable. We hear, feel, and think differently today. A modern performance that reconstructs Bach's original sound does not reach us in the situation that the creator of the music assumed it would. Bach made music with the forces that were available to him for the people of his time. In order for us to recreate this performance situation, we must perform with the forces available to us today for the people of our time. This is because it is not this or that concept of sound that is of importance, but rather the strength of the message, the meaning of the music for which the sound is the vehicle of communication. The goal should not be to make us hear differently, but rather, to make us learn to understand better. Permit me to develop these broad ideas in further detail. Taking as his basis the surviving sources, the score, and/or the parts used in Bach's performances, there are three principal levels on which the interpreting musician can influence the conversion from music on paper to music in sound. The elements of this influence are performance forces, dynamics, and articulation. On the subject of performance forces, let us first look at the vocal ensemble. Bach wrote his music for a boy choir. For church music in Bach's time and place, there was nothing but boy choirs, but there were very many of them. Today such choirs are quite rare. Ignoring for the moment the fact that a demand for the recreation of the original sound would reject the legitimacy of the use of 99 percent of our current (mixed) choirs for the presentation of Bach's music, we must realize that even our modem boy choirs are not "original." Bach's boys reached puberty between fifteen and seventeen years of age, whereas our boys today experience the vocal change between eleven and thirteen. It is certain that the vocal sound of Bach's sopranos and altos was utterly different-"older" sounding-than that of our boys; it is just as certain that their longer training and experience made them more secure musically and more capable of expression. This latter point seems to me to be of special importance regarding the question of who should sing the solo vocal parts. "Clarity" and "purity" are certainly important principles for the presentation of Bach's recitatives and arias, but are "virginity" and "the innocence of youth" as well? The texts that are dealt with in these movements belong to the complex of Christian beliefs. Is our attempt at belief a childlike belief? Certainly, there are Bach texts that can be stated by a child. But do not movements such as "Dissolve Away, My Heart, in Floods of Tears" from the St. John Passion, or "Have Mercy, My God, for My Tears' Sake" from the St. Matthew Passion, or the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B Minor presuppose the experience of an adult who knows the limitations of her abilities from having lived them? In these cases, Bach wanted to move and unsettle his listener. Do we want to turn over to a child the responsibility for bringing these unsettling messages into our own lives? The era of mulier tacet in ecclesia, of women being banned from participation in worship services, is gone. Are we supposed to remain anachronistic in this one regard? A few words are warranted on the use of countertenors for the solo alto part. The middle-German Kantorei tradition and its music, which had its roots in the endeavors of Martin Luther, knew nothing of the English countertenor practice. Boys sang the solo alto parts. Why, then, use countertenors today, when they represent a historical performance practice that did not exist as far as Bach was concerned? It is for this reason that I prefer the natural-sounding, low female voice that belongs to our current concept of vocal sound. You know, I often think that Bach's alto arias were conceived as arias for the female voice. Consider, for example, the Christmas Oratorio, where the recitative "But Mary Kept All of These Words and Stirred Them in Her Heart" is followed by the alto aria "My Heart, Enclose This Blessed Miracle Securely in Thy Faith." Is not Mary speaking here? There are numerous such examples. In terms of instrumentation, the "historical" performance-practice school makes use of string instruments that correspond roughly to the instruments that are in common use today (the gamba family excepted). They are, however, strung with gut strings and played with an upward-curving bow. Reproductions of original wind instruments from the time of Bach are often used. These both lack playing aids that were invented at a later time, such as additional keys and valves. I find the resulting sound thoroughly charming, but for me the charm is fleeting. The sound is, on the whole, too thin, too lacking in body. In the case of the strings, for me, they lack the greater dynamic spectrum and the sharp attack and brilliance of sound that are made possible by the use of wound gut and steel strings. The old wind instruments disturb me primarily because of their uneven tone quality, the difficulty of playing them, and their problems of intonation. It seems to me a shame when one cannot hear the flute's lower register; this is even true in an ensemble of old instruments. Furthermore, why should one complicate the omnipresent intonation difficulties of a wind ensemble by giving up what later instrument builders invented precisety to help with this problem? Finally, does one want to put up with bungled, cracking high notes from the trumpet, merely to hear old instruments? I am speaking, of course, of a concert situation, not of a recording, in which most any problem can be solved by microphone placement, retakes, or editing. Of course, it is not my intention to deny the right to play Bach to musicians who have specialized in old instruments-particularty those in the realm of chamber music. I know that they consider what I have described as the "uneven" characteristics of their instruments to be especially delightful, and that they make use of them in their manner of playing. But I believe that the objecttve must be an interpretation based on the structure of the music and not on the way in which an instrument is constructed. Modern instruments as well are capable of being played softly, intimately, and with differentiation. And last, in the final analysis, it is the technical mastery and personality of the artist that are decisive, whether on old or new instruments. The second way by which the interpreting musician can influence the sound of the music as it is written on the page is via dynamics. In his music, Bach used the full spectrum of dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo. But what he obtained in the Leipzig churches, and what his listeners there heard, was either soft or loud. Our dynamic palette, however, is completely different. Not only are we familiar with Wagner and Stravinsky, but we are constantly surrounded by background noise that ranges from the engines of our cars to sonic booms. If we want to experience Bach's expressive desires in our time, then his forte must be loud to us and his piano soft to us. This seems to me once again to speak against the use of "old" performance forces, particularly when the performances take place in large halls with "dry" accoustics. There, the dissonant "Barrabas" chord in the St. Matthew Passion must possess the piercing sharpness that Bach intended. This becomes possible only with a forte that is extreme to our ears. Thus, in order for us to truly experience the expression Bach had in mind, a scale of dynamics is needed that corresponds to our contemporary capabilities and to what our ears are accustomed to hearing. I have already discussed the fact that one must not approach this question of dynamics from the standpoint of what one feets or likes, but rather from the point of view of the style and the structure of the individual work. I am particularly critical of many of the conclusions that the representatives of "historical" performance practice reach with regard to articulation-that is, the question of how short or long each individual note is to be played or sung. Based upon theoretical writings from the time of Bach, such as those of Quantz, C. P. E. Bach, Mattheson, and many others, representatives of the "historical" school of interpretation have voiced opinions that assume an obligatory character. The theoreticians of that time were not always of the same opinion, however, and they turned their attention to aspects of their contemporary musical life of which they were critical. It is for these reasons that I am uncomfortable with conclusions regarding articulation that presume to be based upon the above-named theoreticians, and therefore to a certain extent to be endorsed by them, but that actually represent individual and perhaps capricious viewpoints. This specific criticism can be addressed properly only in detail, but I believe I can generalize regarding two points. First, the proponents of the "historical" approach direct their attention too much to microstructure. Short individual notes or groups of notes that are separated after a tie emphasize momentary events and distract one from more important interrelationships. It seems to me that this might be a possibility for small-scale movements, but it is an encumbrance for complexes of large dimensions. Second, a certain form of tone production, the so-called "bell tone", has achieved entirely too much prominence. This crescendo diminuendo of each note is, by its very nature, not particularly well suited to the conveying of a linear character. Can this quality properly dominate, then, in a type of music that was written for the church and the primary characteristic of which must therefore be singability? Of course, Bach's interest included the organization of details and the differentiation of small forms, but it was certainly directed at least as much to the architecture of large-scale movements. Otherwise, how could he have written a piece such as the opening chorus to the St. Matthew Passion? I believe that it is our right to use the complete range of available possibilities of articulation, including those developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-since the time of Bach-in order to bring clarity to the structure, architecture, and thereby the meaning of a Bach work. It is precisely for this clarification of the meaning of a piece or a movement that the nature of its articulation is of exceptional importance. For example, a dance movement in, say, an orchestral suite, might have a playful character; in the "Hail, King of the Jews" from the St. John Passion, however, it has been given strange characteristics for the sake of parody. The "Shepherd Symphony" of the second part of the Christmas Oratorio, has the function of an entryway from which-as in the case of the other introductory choral movements-the entire second cantata of the work becomes manifest. To make these ideas clear is the task of an articulatory scheme based on Bach's expressive wishes. We have considered the most important of the variables involved in musical interpretation: the performing forces, the dynamics, and the articulation. Further components, such as questions of tempo and the scope of variation of the expressive use of diction, would be worth consideration. But let us leave what has been said as sufficient. I hope that you will allow me a personal evaluation of the "historical-authentic" approach to Bach's music. On the most basic level, the "reconstruction" approach to interpretation is a reaction against those who too unthinkingly ignore facts relating to Bach performance practice. We owe thanks to this movement and to the musicians who are a part of it for the significant impetus they have given to an understanding of Bach's music as he knew it. This, the knowledge of the performance practice of Bach's era, is something I consider today to be a precondition to the presentation of Bach's music. Reconstruction, however, is not interpretation. Have we, as men of our time, become so insecure that we no longer have the courage to adapt the spiritual heritage of our history to fit the times in which we live? Are we not, by making music in this "historic" manner, erecting alien facades that deflect our vision from the actual message, the meaning of this music? I have previously cited church music, performed in the churches, as the third level of confrontation with the music of Bach. Here, within the context of the church service, the message of the music and the expectation of the listeners are attuned to each other and fit together. It is a great loss to the immediacy of the declarative power of Bach's music that we today seldom come to know this unity of purpose. In order to recreate this, I would be willing to make numerous compromises, such as when we perform a cantata in the worship service of the Memorial Church with some 350 singers. The central importance of this environment to the meaningful experience of Bach's church music would suggest that it be left in the sanctuary. But our congregations have become too small a forum, and what Bach has to say is too important to be confined to our churches. When I am asked in Japan, as I often am, if it is necessary to believe in the content of the St. Matthew Passion in order to understand it, this signifies an interest beneath the surface of the sound itself that is inquiring into the self-understanding of the Christian West. Thus, what we are talking about is not the preservation of a cultural heritage, but rather the life and actual relevance of this heritage in our time. I consider it a great mission to carry Bach's church music out of the church, to make its message available to many people, to explain it, and to perform it. For this purpose, it needs a sound that gives a clear picture of the work without any sort of symphonic or historical distortion. I perform with an ensemble of essentially chamber dimensions, the size of which takes into account the facts of Bach's performance practice while allowing for our larger, and very often drier, halls. The soprano and alto parts are sung by women, and the orchestra makes use of the usual modern instruments. With this ensemble I attempt to make emotionally relevant and timely what 1, through analysis and reflection, believe Bach wished to communicate. In this way, the historical distance between speaker and hearer is bridged as much as possible. At the same time, each performance should have a character as if it were the only one. I hope very much that it will always be possible for me to see new and undiscovered elements in works that I and others perform often, so that their manifestation in sound will change, and the direction of their message will shift. This is true also of the complete recording of the Bach vocal works, the conclusion of which we celebrate this year. These recordings as well, made over a period of fifteen years with a spirit of involvement and emotion at each and every recording session, never establish a final level of understanding, but reflect the understanding of the moment. The fact that I would do many things differently, even in the case of very recent recordings, seems to me not to be something negative, but rather evidence of the multifaceted spirituality of Bach's music. It is under this heading of "multi-facetedness" that I would like my interpretive approach as well included in the ongoing history of the music of J. S. Bach…. I would like to hope and wish that the hearing with interest of Bach's music, the hearing with interest of the tradition of the Christian West that lives in this music, might in the years that lie ahead of us be a criterion for quality, a stimulus for creativity, and for many, a personal enrichment and deepening of the reality of their lives. 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