The Master Recycler

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach; drawing by David Levine

Around 1730 Johann Sebastian Bach began to recycle his earlier works in a major way. He was in his mid-forties at the time, and he had composed hundreds of masterful keyboard, instrumental, and vocal pieces, including at least three annual cycles of approximately sixty cantatas each for worship services in Leipzig, where he was serving as St. Thomas Cantor and town music director. Bach was at the peak of his creative powers. Yet for some reason, instead of sitting down and writing original music, he turned increasingly to old compositions, pulling them off the shelf and using their contents as the basis for new works.

The roots of this change can be traced, perhaps, to the summer of 1726, when Bach decided to incorporate instrumental music written earlier in Cöthen into his third Leipzig cantata cycle, refashioning concerto movements for violin or oboe into a series of inventive sinfonias (orchestral introductions), choruses, and arias featuring solo organ. Here the recycled material remained brilliant filler amid newly composed music. With the St. Mark Passion of 1731, however, Bach began to appropriate existing scores wholesale. In contrast to the St. John and St. Matthew Passions of the 1720s, the St. Mark Passion appears to have been pieced together extensively from earlier works, alternating revamped choruses and arias from Cantata 198 (the “Funeral Ode” for Electress Christiane Eberhardine of Saxony) and Cantata 54 with harmonized hymns and freshly written recitatives (the music of the St. Mark Passion is lost, but we can trace the borrowings from its extant text).

From the St. Mark Passion onward, Bach relied almost exclusively on existing compositions to produce large-scale vocal works. The Christmas Oratorio of 1734–1735, the Easter and Ascension Oratorios of 1735, the Four Short Masses of the late 1730s, and the Mass in B Minor of 1748–1749 are compilations of reused material. Recycling crept into other areas of his composition as well. Bach returned to the Cöthen violin and oboe concertos and reworked them again, this time creating harpsichord concertos for his collegium musicum ensemble; he revised and expanded miscellaneous preludes and miscellaneous fugues to produce new prelude-fugue pairs for The Well-Tempered Clavier, volume 2; and he transformed a series of instrumental trios into organ music to gain additional movements for the Six Sonatas, to cite but three examples. Bach the composer was rapidly becoming Bach the recycler.

In the case of vocal works, recycling was facilitated by a process called “parody,” after the eighteenth-century literary term that referred to creating a new poem from an old one by writing verse that matched the meter and rhyme scheme of the original. Fashions in cantata texts changed during Bach’s lifetime, from mostly Bible citations and hymn texts (seen in an early work such as Cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) to libretti dominated by rhymed poetry, which was used for expressive arias and choruses. Introduced…

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