Thursday, March 30, 2006


Bach lies at the end of an era. His tradition is the German Baroque, uncontaminated by any interest in Italian opera. The Italians completely dominated the Baroque, to be sure, but this reached Bach through a distinctly German filter, the filter of his musical family and his own personal German idols, such as Buxtehude. These German composers always showed a much stronger tie to the ancient art of counterpoint descended from the Renaissance and earlier. His counterpoint is fully tonal. The revolution of tonality is complete by the time of Bach.

In his instrumental periods he took foreign forms, French suites e.g., and transformed them into his own German versions. He wrote arias da capo in a distinctly German style without an implied ornamentation. His ornaments were notated. Perhaps it is the German influence that has kept extemporized ornamentation to such a low level in modern performances of Baroque music prior to about 10 or 15 years ago.

Suddenly I think of a question to ask Cecilia. She would know this: in the original scores of Italian composers do they use the symbols for ornaments that are found in Bach’s cantatas? We know that the performed ornaments are supposed to be used in Italian opera, but how often does one actually see them written in?

Bach’s singers were not the opera stars of his time, as was the case with Handel, but ordinary people, perhaps members of his large family. I imagine the problem when composing for castrati was to get them to perform anything unornamented. They would have wondered what was the point?

Bach’s intentions are spiritual. He sees the tools of his era—the use of one emotion per movement, the polarized bass and treble texture, the use of continuo, the solo instruments that perform with the singers—as tools of the spirituality he wants to impart.

The use of the chorale is especially wonderful, for it is us. The chorales and passions of Bach are deeply personal experiences. Here is the drama unfolding, and here is our reaction to it. The sense I have of Harnancourt’s version of the Matthew Passion is of extreme intimacy. The last hours of our lord are unfolding in my sight.

Lately I have begun to notice that the long versions are often more interesting and involving than the abbreviated ones we are used to (Don Basilio’s aria notwithstanding). The long Giulio Cesare is somehow more interesting than the short one. And this complete St. Matthew feels more real, more specifically spiritual than the shortened version.

There is throughout a sense of truth.

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