BACH’S LEIPZIG CANTATAS - Alan Senior
The interior of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig is different now, with stone and concrete having replaced much of the woodwork in Bach’s day. The well-off had private boxes to survey Bach (approvingly or disapprovingly) and the boys would sing from the organ loft. The acoustic here was dry and the four-hour Sunday service began at 7.00 a.m., continuing until 11.00, with music before and after the one-hour sermon. Over 2,000 people crowded in for the services, some arriving late for the only show in town after the closure of the Leipzig Theatre. Bach disregarded instructions from his superiors ‘not to be theatrical’ and this led, among other things, to ill-feeling and many confrontations.
The Nikolaikirche was the main town church and Bach had to alternate between the two on Sundays. It, too, is unrecognizable today, having been remodelled with Rococo decoration, but the ambience here is quite good. The instrumentation used in the cantatas was constantly expanding and trumpet-playing then was more delicate – celestial rather than aggressive – so the soloists (or concertists as they were then called) were never overwhelmed by the brass sound.
In 1981 Joshua Rifkin proposed that, in Bach’s time, four soloists provided the choruses in the cantatas, masses, passions, etc rather than a larger choir. Andrew Parrott took up the challenge and agreed that, musically, this enriches and enlivens performances. Moreover, as he maintained in a Radio 3 broadcast*, one voice to each part makes it easier to sustain a good balance, with supple phrasing and greater clarity. He added that the flexibility and precision arrived at with only four soloists helps draw out the details, creating a translucent sound that aids the projection of the text. But we have to learn to listen differently and we can never be sure of the spaces available to Bach in the two main Leipzig churches since the 18th and 19th century re-building of the interiors.
However, John Eliot Gardiner and Ton Koopman (who at the time of writing are recording all the Cantatas) would have none of this. Gardiner states that one extant instruction says that all the boys in Bach’s charge should participate. Perhaps we should ask: how would Bach have responded to the conditions found in your local church? If he’d had more space, a larger number of good singers and instrumentalists – ever the innovator, Bach would, I feel, have used the forces available to determine the style of performance, just as Bruckner wrote his symphonies with cathedral acoustics in mind to open up a vast cavern of sound.
Finally, Bach himself tells us in a letter to the Town Council that there are 17 singers useable, 20 not yet useable and 17 totally useless; so if he’d used only one treble and alto in the choruses, the other boys would have been underemployed and generally confined to singing in the cantatas’ final short chorales. Therefore, I suggest that Bach would have had at least a dozen boys in the choir and a similar number of tenors and basses (drawn from the University, etc) to achieve a balance.
Sadly, only three-fifths of the Cantatas have survived. Bach realized in his old age that they were all tied to the epistles and gospels for specific days in the church calendar and salvaged the best numbers for inclusion in his masses. But many scores finished up as firelighters, which also happened to some of Schubert’s operatic music, as well as many invaluable Gnostic texts after their discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.
* ‘Performing Bach’ - 24/11/02