Emotional, Operatic Bach

Hadleigh Adams (center) as Jesus in Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the National Theatre, London, 2011
Simon Annand/ArenaPAL
Hadleigh Adams (center) as Jesus in Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the National Theatre, London, 2011

One of the most interesting discoveries in Bach research recently is a series of text booklets for the composer’s sacred vocal works. Surfacing little by little in St. Petersburg since the 1970s, the booklets were printed during Bach’s years in Leipzig, where he served as cantor of the St. Thomas School from 1723 to 1750, and distributed to members of the Lutheran congregation just before performances of his cantatas and passions. It is not entirely clear how the booklets made their way to Russia, though several seem to have come via the plundered Zaluski Library in Poland. But no matter what their origin, they are of great interest because they confirm the performance dates of a number of pieces and reveal adjustments that Bach made to the texts during the act of composition (the booklets were published in advance of the performances, often before Bach had written the music).

A twenty-four-page booklet that surfaced in 2009 contains the text of the now-lost St. Mark Passion, with the venue (St. Thomas Church) and the date (Good Friday, 1744) filled in by hand, apparently by Bach. This hints at what scholars have suspected for some time: that Bach may have had the text booklets printed himself in order to sell them to parishioners, much like the practice of selling opera librettos before opera performances, only without the accompanying candle (operas normally took place in the evening, hence the candle; Bach’s cantatas were performed at 7:30 AM, when no additional light was necessary).

The strong connection between opera and Bach’s church pieces is pursued in depth in Markus Rathey’s new book devoted to the music, drama, and liturgy of Bach’s major vocal works. Indeed, the composer’s use of operatic forms and gestures to enhance the drama of liturgical texts is a major theme for Rathey, who teaches at the Institute of Sacred Music, the Divinity School, and other divisions at Yale. The idea that Bach drew liberally from opera for his sacred works has been brewing for some time among specialists, but Rathey is one of the first to embrace it wholeheartedly and demonstrate its validity in convincing detail.

The second recurring topic in his book is Bach’s powerful treatment of emotional contrasts: humility vs. pride, sacrificial death vs. triumphant resurrection, ignorance vs. knowledge. In six chapters framed by a prelude and postlude, Rathey explores how these matters play out in the Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Easter Oratorio, Ascension Oratorio, and B-Minor Mass. Calling the essays “guides for informed listening,” he supports his points with citations from early theological treatises, descriptions of German Lutheran…

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