Dialogue Meeting 2009

Fourth J. S. Bach Dialogue Meeting Report

New Directions in Bach Studies

3-4 January 2009
Oxford University, Faculty of Music and Merton College

Musical Moment
The meeting opened at 14:00 with the traditional “Musical Moment”, this time consisting of a complete performance of Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) in the Merton College Chapel, with Carys Lane, Soprano, Gregory Skidmore, Baritone, Christopher Watson, Tenor, and Stephen Farr, Continuo.

Bach the Dramatist
This concert served as a splendid introduction to the first of the two main sessions of the meeting, Bach the Dramatist, held in the Faculty of Music. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is widely heard as being dramatic and full of action or gesture. The composer himself understood many of his compositions as dramatic works, even if they were not performed on a public stage. In his introductory address Reinhard Strohm emphasised our wish to understand the concepts and practice of drama in Bach’s environment, and to compare them with our own views of his music.

The first paper of the session, by Michael Maul (Leipzig), answered the question Could the Thomaskantor Bach have been Allowed to Compose an Opera? almost with “yes”. Drawing on his research of the history of opera at Leipzig, Maul showed that the city was used to the genre and the closure of its opera-house in 1720 was for several years afterwards not considered to be definitive. The Leipzig Collegia musica, directed by Bach in subsequent years, could be regarded as a substitute for this enduring interest among the citizens (see also the paper by Burkhard Schwalbach, below). Christoph Wolff (Harvard University) discussed Bach’s Oratorio Trilogy of 1734-35, the three works for Christmas, Easter and Ascension for which Bach reserved the name of “oratorio”, as a distinct group of dramatic works. Although they completed a liturgical cycle also comprising the Passion, they were quite different in character from the Passions, as they were musically based mainly on secular cantatas (“drammi per musica” in Bach’s terminology) and related to the definition of a “sacred opera” as given in Johann Gottfried Walther’s Lexicon (1732). Thus Bach created operas which were at the same time devotional works. The long history of Passion and Drama in German Literature was unfolded in the paper by Irmgard Scheitler (Würzburg University), who gave a comprehensive view of the fluctuating definitions of the dramatic genres and their theological significance from Luther to the enlightenment. She addressed various interactions between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and mentioned foreign influences on their practices. Bach’s Passions, belonging to a phase characterised by the poets Hunold, Brockes and Picander, are also among the last Protestant works to withstand a rising opposition to religious drama with biblical actors, a trend exemplified by the cantatas and allegorical works of his contemporary Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Ruth HaCohen (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) spoke on The Dramaturgy of Religious Emotions in Bach’s Cantatas: Aristotelian Processes in Neo-Platonic Frames. Having outlined the different mixtures of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophical traditions which influenced art in the early modern period, she offered a comparison between the roles of individual beliefs and spiritual communities in Cantata 131 (Aus der Tiefe) and the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249). This led to new interpretations of these works as different mixtures of individualist drama (the Aristotelian tradition) and collective, devotional, “atmospheric forms” (the Neo-Platonic tradition).

Concluding the session, John Eliot Gardiner presented the keynote lecture Opera and its Twin: Career Choices for the Class of ‘85’ – an investigation of the historiographical significance of musical genres and styles in the era of Bach. Gardiner opposed the conventional view (already held by Charles Burney) that Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had “missed out” on the dominant musical genre, opera, because they had not worked, like Rameau or Handel, in opera-friendly environments. Instead, he outlined the great aesthetic alternative of sacred musical drama, which had developed in Germany since the seventeenth century and which was perfected by Bach to reach a dramatic potency in music beyond the reach of his peers.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Young Scholars’ Forum
In its third Dialogue Meeting (January 2008) Bach Network UK had introduced a Young Scholars’ Forum, which was designed to introduce students in the course of their postgraduate studies to the more senior scholars in the Bach community. This year three students took part, each one briefly outlining his or her area of research, with the idea that afterwards, in a casual setting, ideas might be exchanged and valuable connections made.

Peter Lagersted (University of Zürich) presented a short paper entitled Cantata As Dramatic Progression: Musical Metaphor Of Tribulation And Triumph in the Cantata BWV 146 “Wir Müssen Durch Viel Trübsal In das Reich Gottes Eingehen”. In a careful hermeneutical examination of the relationship between music and text, Lagersted traced potential links between Bach’s compositional techniques and textures, and the text of the Gospel for Jubilate Sunday. Each movement revealed significant layers of meaning, with Bach’s parody technique (second movement) and his use of echo being of particular interest. Jennifer Dieffenbach (Queen’s University Belfast) next spoke on Recovering Connections between J.S. Bach’s Passiontide Cantatas and his Passions. She considered hermeneutical issues when drawing connections between certain cantatas and the Passions. Our understanding of the Passions can be made more complete by considering the cantatas on either side, treating them as “prequels” and “sequels”, rather than as isolated works. Using as a springboard Eric Chafe’s work on Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach, Dieffenbach also explored how Bach may have linked the cantatas and Passions by the use of rhetorical devices. The third young scholar was Carlo Cenciarelli (King’s College London). His paper, entitled From The Silence to the Lambs: Listening to Bach in Film, brought us decidedly into the current age, by looking at the way films can be “documents of reception” and contribute to the meaning of the music, and by exploring how Bach’s music specifically can function as interpreters of a film’s narrative. From this perspective, it is possible to see a film’s use of particular music as a positive move to expand the ways Bach’s music is perceived, and secure its place in everyday life.

In their exploration of Bach’s many-layered resonance, all three papers addressed interesting and important areas of research. We look forward to hearing how the ideas are expanded over the coming years.

Lecture Demonstration
As a special item on the programme, Reinhold Kubik and Margit Legler (Vienna) presented a Lecture demonstration, entitled Rhetoric, Gesture and Scenic Imagination in Bach’s Music. They introduced to the rhetorical representation of language in Baroque music and its traditional attention to gesture as part of the orator’s performance. Gestures articulate the flow of language not only in dramatic genres. In acted-out demonstrations, various options of gestural performance were shown, using the scores of operas as well as non-operatic works. Bach’s and Handel’s approaches to musical oratory and gesture differ: Handel’s opera music leaves performative space to the actor, whereas Bach’s music has absorbed all the musical gestures into its own fabric.

Music and Text
The second main session of this year’s Dialogue Meeting, Music and Text, opened with a keynote lecture given by Tatiana Shabalina (St Petersburg), entitled Recent Discoveries in St. Petersburg and their Meaning for Understanding Bach. Shabalina concentrated on a handful of items from her recent discoveries. This astonishing source find amounting to more than 300 text booklets reveals that, among other things, on 27 August 1725 Bach performed the lost Rathswahl cantata BWV Anh. 4 “Wünschet Jerusalem Glück”, in 1727 he performed a series of four cantatas: “O ewiges Feuer! o Ursprung der Liebe” (BWV 34) for 1 Whitsun, “Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut” (BWV 173) for 2 Whitsun, “Erwünschtes Freudenlicht” (BWV 184) for 3 Whitsun, and “Gelobet sey der Herr” (BWV 129) for Trinity 1; and that for Good Friday Vespers in 1734, he performed G. H. Stölzel’s Passion Oratorio Die Leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu (1720). Shabalina’s final illustration concerned the Cantaten auf die Sonn- und Fest-Tage durch das gantze Jahr (Leipzig 1728), the so-called Picander cycle of 1728, which was available to Spitta for his study, who hinted that Bach may have produced a fourth cantata Jahrgang. The issue was not revisited by later scholars, as the only known copy was reported lost after World War II. Although the bulk of the musical sources do not survive, the rediscovered Picander cycle of 1728 offers renewed hope of finding out the truth. Shabalina places the collection in the possession of Johann Christoph Gottsched, a leading literary figure of Bach’s time in Leipzig. If her speculation is correct, it could open a new door for research into the reception of Bach’s vocal works during his lifetime. It seems striking, for example, that many of the text booklets contain opera librettos, and not church cantatas. The fact that the texts of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions are not among them is also telling. It may take scholars many years to reassess the new information and repaint the picture of Bach.

The Music and Text session continued on Sunday afternoon with a rich array of papers, interpreting the issue of text in broad and diverse ways. Peter Smaill (University of Edinburgh) struck out on an unusual tack in Bach scholarship: after outlining the various forms of heresy that were latent around the time and environs of Bach’s Leipzig, he searched Bach’s cantata texts for various shadings that could be interpreted as tendencies towards or reactions against such stirrings. Whilst adhering to the conventional view that Bach’s own Lutheranism was unremittingly Orthodox, Smaill suggested that examining the such shades of theological nuance might make us more able to solve problems such as why Bach’s 1739 Passion performance was prohibited, on account of its text. Julian Mincham (Kings Langley) continued the session with a study of Bach’s ‘hybrid’ recitatives, those that combine recitative with some form of arioso, and which are often given short shrift in the critical literature. By combining the generic musical characteristics of recitative and arioso, Bach is able to communicate theological and emotional processes that can work out in a single recitative or between two which are are separated by an aria. Burkhard Schwalbach’s (University of Oxford) rich interdisciplinary approach to the culture of Leipzig’s “garden music” revealed that many of the secular cantata texts contain specific references to a topical discourse about gardens and their associated symbolism. Particularly important to this culture was the myth of Echo and its relation to the numinous realm; other topics included the relation of nature to morality and the metaphysical implications of the weather. Szymon Paczkowski (University of Warsaw) took further the examination of Bach’s secular cantatas by examining closely the political implications of “Tönet, ihr Pauken” (BWV 214). Contrary to the tendency to devalue text-music relations in Bach’s secular writing, Paczkowski showed that the text contains many subtle allusions and metaphors for its original Saxon audience and that Bach is just as sensitive to these in his musical setting as he is in the case of his religious writing.

Burning Issues Forum
This year, too, a new type of session was created: a Burning Issues Forum on miscellaneous themes thought to be of immediate relevance to Bach scholarship and performance.

In a paper entitled Accusations of Apostasy: the spiritual implications of the Buttstett-Mattheson controversy, Ruth Tatlow (Stockholm) gave an exposition and analysis of the vituperative exchange between the Thuringian, Johann Heinrich Buttstett, and the famous musicologist Johann Mattheson (of Hamburg) in the period 1716 to 1718, concluding with reference to implications for Bach scholarship. Mattheson’s Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre of 1713, though lamenting the perceived decline of Music, posits the development for the “Galant” man, “of discernment and good taste” in music. Such a subjective and forward-looking approach evidently irritated Buttstett whose reactionary polemic demands a reversion to “old, true, sole and eternal Foundations of Music”. This discourse was conducted not solely on the basis of tension between conservatism and innovation. For Buttstett, Music is a construct of God; and to breach the traditional forms of solmisation was tantamount to blasphemy. By rejecting the modes Mattheson, in Buttstett’s opinion, was threatening the very essence of Harmonia, God’s ordained plan for the universe. Tatlow ended by asking what light the controversy might shed on Bach’s philosophy of music and his compositional practice.

Speaking on Ways to Bach, Margaret Steinitz (London Bach Society) brought a fresh and thought-provoking angle to the discussions, by stepping away from the exploration of the musicological past, and instead looking at the contemporary reality of Bach reception. Contrasting this with the culturally-attentive world of 1946 when Paul Steinitz founded the London Bach Society, Mrs Steinitz drew attention to the collapse in levels of participation in German language and musical education in the UK, both negative for the future of Bach appreciation. As a countervailing force against these trends, she suggested that a discovery of Bach for the new generation could utilise innovative and informal methods, focussing on dance, rhetoric and exploration rather than didacticism. The lively discussion suggested that these problems are felt throughout Europe; and that we should all try to devise new ways of passing down the values and pleasure of Western classical music. This is especially true for Bach, in respect of a new generation for whom his works’ profoundly life-enhancing qualities are a refreshing antidote to contemporary superficiality.

The meeting closed at 5 pm.

Many of the papers presented at this Meeting will be published in the next issues of Understanding Bach, the web journal of BNUK.