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 by the Hamburg minister Erdmann Neumeister in the early 1700s, poetic texts became the standard for Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, and their adoption opened the door to reusing vocal works through the parody procedure. A secular birthday or homage cantata, usable only once, could be transformed into a repeatable church cantata by simply changing its text.

Bach’s favorite Leipzig librettist, Christian Friedrich Henrici (who went by the pen name “Picander”), was a master at transforming old texts into new ones. Through his magical pen, the first line of the St. Mark Passion evolved from “Let, Princess, let one more ray shoot forth from Salem’s starry vaults” (Cantata 198) to “Go, Jesus, go to thy pain! I will unceasingly lament thee.” Such transmogrifications were possible as long as the poetic meter and rhyme scheme remained the same and the general character of the music suited both texts (in this case, the perfect match of the poetry allows one to reconstruct the St. Mark chorus even though the music is gone).

When Bach’s heavy reliance on parody technique came to light in the nineteenth century, scholars found it embarrassing. It ran counter to the Beethovenian principle that composers must write new, highly original pieces, and the realization that several of the St. Thomas Cantor’s most-revered sacred works—the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B-Minor, in particular—were derived largely from secular tributes to earthly kings and queens was difficult to accept. In more recent times, scholars have moved beyond those prejudices and embraced Bach’s use of parody, devoting much study to the brilliant ways in which he carried it out. But large questions remain: How did Bach work with his librettists? Did he compose certain secular cantatas with parody potential in mind? And most significantly: As Bach grew older, did he find it more and more difficult to write original music?

Thus at the biennial meeting of the American Bach Society at Yale University last spring, I was among the first to claim a seat for the keynote address by Daniel R. Melamed of Indiana University titled “Parody Is Overrated.” The premise of Melamed’s talk was that while the study of parody in Bach’s compositional process is fascinating, it doesn’t tell us much about the nature of the recycled music. To understand the music, one must look at what’s there, not at how it came to be. Melamed objected to what he termed the “genetic fallacy”—the idea that knowing the derivation of a score illuminates its musical properties. “Parody appears to be overrated as a starting point for appreciating the Mass in B Minor,” he concluded. “We are probably better off beginning with what we can hear as we try to understand this music.”


I was more than a little surprised, then, to open Melamed’s latest book, a listening guide to the Mass and Christmas Oratorio, and discover that more than one third of the text—the preface and two of the six chapters—turns out to be devoted to the matter of parody. In fact, parody resounds through the volume like an idée fixe, also entering the remaining chapters on style and performance choices for the Mass in B Minor and on the liturgical calendar and ties between the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio. Melamed’s paradoxical reservations aside, this makes for a highly unified and informative book, one enhanced by sixty-five recorded examples (presented on the Oxford University Press website and performed mostly by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort) and an appendix of nine helpful tables.

In a rich examination of parody and its consequences in the Christmas Oratorio, Melamed underscores the extremes that Bach and his unidentified librettist (possibly Picander) went to in order to squeeze every movement possible from the source works—Cantata 213, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (commonly known as “Hercules at the Crossroads”); Cantata 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!; Cantata 215, Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen; and a lost church cantata, which in turn had been derived from a lost secular model. He also shows how they capitalized on traditional genres and gestures in the secular realm that could be exchanged for equivalents in the sacred. Thus Pleasure’s sleep aria in Cantata 213, a set piece in opera (Melamed cites models from Lully and Handel), could be readily converted to a slumber song for the baby Jesus in Part II of the oratorio, a familiar theme in church music. Or the trumpet imagery of Fama spreading news of Electress Maria Josepha’s glory in Cantata 214 could be turned into a resounding proclamation of Christ’s birth in Part I of the oratorio. Bach and his librettist must have been collaborating very closely in such pieces, drawing on a shared knowledge of musical and poetic prototypes.

Some exchanges were counterintuitive, however, such as the transformation of Hercules’s rage aria in Cantata 213 into a song of adulation in Part I of the oratorio, with Hercules’s indignant cries of “I will not, I may not” becoming praise of Christ as “the fairest, the dearest.” Bach accomplished this metamorphosis in the music by making only slight changes in articulation. Melamed warns that musical expression is sometimes surprisingly mutable in the parody process, and he takes this case, among other things, as a sign that Bach did not anticipate transforming the secular cantatas into the Christmas Oratorio but rather scrambled afterward to make the best of music planned independently.

Parody worked differently in the Mass in B Minor. Bach could draw on several earlier Latin-text settings and incorporate them intact: a Sanctus setting from 1724, and a Kyrie and Gloria from 1733 that were already based on parody. With these segments in place, he filled in the rest of the Mass through the parody procedure once again, drawing heavily on existing sacred and secular cantata music (Melamed sees only two sections in the entire work as newly composed: the “Et incarnatus est” and “Confiteor”; to this one can probably add the short introduction to “Kyrie eleison” I). In repurposing the earlier music, Bach had to replace the poetry of the cantatas with the prose of the Latin Mass Ordinary, which forced him in many cases to rework the text underlay extensively.

Bach did some ruthless things in the course of converting old music. He obscured imagery, such as the graphic portrayal of drums and trumpets in the opening chorus of Cantata 214, which is lost in the generalized text of the Christmas Oratorio. He yanked movements out of their usual order, using the final choruses of Cantatas 213 and 214 (dance-like and less serious than typical first movements) as opening choruses in the oratorio. He transposed music out of its natural pitch, disrupting the Baroque principle of key character (this is especially evident in the “Crucifixus” of the Mass in B Minor, whose model, the opening chorus “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” of Cantata 12, was transposed from F minor, an expressive tonality traditionally linked with lament, to E minor, a much more neutral key). Most strikingly, he dropped entire sections of movements (the B section of a da capo chorus for the “Crucifixus” or the instrumental introduction for “Osanna,” for instance) when adopting them for the Mass in B Minor, creating, in effect, a great assemblage of musical torsos. Bach was clearly willing to compromise—and even distort—the music of old scores in order to accomplish structural and dramatic goals in new ones.


Did Bach turn to parody because he was running out of ideas? Fully new works from the 1740s such as the “Goldberg” Variations, Musical Offering, and The Art of Fugue show that he could still draw on robust creative powers when necessary. But the parody process provided him the opportunity to revisit earlier music, distill and revise its contents, and lift it to an even higher level of refinement. It offered Bach the chance to give free rein to his relentless drive for self-improvement.

Elsewhere in the book, Melamed considers the questions raised by hearing the Mass in B Minor “in an age of choices.” As he points out, both the Mass and the Christmas Oratorio were conceived for performance forces very different from those encountered today. Bach intended them for a small orchestra of twenty players or so and a choir of fifteen or sixteen singers at most. The solos would have been taken by members of the choir—the lead singer for each part. In addition, in Leipzig the choir would have consisted solely of young men and boys (in Dresden possibly men and women, if the Kyrie and Gloria portions of the Mass in B Minor were ever performed there). The Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio, and Bach’s other vocal works were written for a chamber ensemble in which the instrumentalists and vocalists were of nearly equal weight.

All of this changed in the nineteenth century, when Bach’s vocal works were revived by the Berlin Sing-Akademie, the group of music enthusiasts that Felix Mendelssohn notably led in the groundbreaking revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. The Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio were soon embraced by choral societies in Germany, England, and elsewhere and performed by large professional orchestras, huge choirs of bourgeois citizens (often kept on track by an assistant pounding out the vocal parts on a piano placed in their midst), and operatic soloists. The Passions, Mass in B Minor, Christmas Oratorio, and Magnificat became staples of the choral society repertory, grouped together with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Brahms’s German Requiem, and other large choral works. By the arrival of the twentieth century, Bach’s masterpieces were commonly performed with an orchestra of one hundred instrumentalists and a choir of three or four hundred singers (the poster for the United States premiere of the Mass in B Minor, presented by the Bethlehem Bach Choir in 1900, heralds the event as “The First Complete American Production”).

The choral society tradition held sway until the beginning of the 1950s, when the advent of the early music movement and a greater awareness of Bach’s practices led to a paring down of ensembles. The result was performances of the Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio with small bands of Baroque instruments and modest-sized choruses of light voices. The listener today can choose from a wide range of performances and recordings, on early instruments and modern, with choruses ranging from one-on-a-part to symphonic choirs. But as Melamed notes, the use of women’s voices and the convention of “choir, soloists, and orchestra” remain strong. Even recordings following historical practices continue to single out the soloists as if they were opera stars.

Melamed’s discussion of the “musical topic” of the Mass in B Minor is possibly the most enlightening section of the book. He begins by posing the question: “So what were eighteenth-century pieces about, if anything?” The Latin text of the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary was set over and over again by hundreds of composers, often in a routine, mechanical way. Such settings were not intended to make an individual statement—they were written to get through the Mass text. So what makes Bach’s setting different? What is the Mass in B Minor about?

To Melamed, it is about Bach’s desire to reconcile old and modern musical styles. Old style, or stile antico, meant the a cappella writing of the Renaissance motet, with its slow-moving, mostly stepwise themes and imitative textures. It was emotionally neutral and best represented by the serene vocal polyphony of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (whose music Bach performed in Leipzig in his later years). Instruments had no independent role in old style: at most, they doubled the voice parts. The new, or modern, style, stile moderno, meant opera and instrumental writing of the eighteenth century, with its animated, emotional themes and ensemble textures. It was highly expressive and best represented by the music of Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, and their contemporaries.

In the Mass in B Minor, the vast majority of movements are set in modern style, including bright “trumpets and drums” choruses such as “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and “Et resurrexit.” In modern movements, instruments set the tone, and in arias, which are by definition modern style, the solo vocal parts often sound as if they were written for violin, flute, or oboe (Melamed points to the “Laudamus te” as a typical example). But in a number of special movements, most notably “Kyrie eleison” II and “Confiteor,” Bach cast the music in old style (albeit with a Baroque-style walking bass under the vocal fabric in the latter).

Melamed’s analysis of the “Confiteor,” one of the most contrapuntally complex movements Bach wrote, is brilliant. After systematically leading the reader through Bach’s web of polyphony, assisted by several audio excerpts, he concludes:

It is essential to note that Bach’s construction of the “Confiteor” has little to do with the meaning of the text at the level of words and phrases or with its affective (emotional) elements. The focus rather is on musical artifice, counterpoint, and constructive techniques—on contrapuntal imitation, the combination of musical subjects, the presentation of a chant tune as a cantus firmus embedded in the texture.

Even more astonishing in the Mass in B Minor are those movements in which Bach mixes elements of old and modern style to achieve a type of historical rapprochement. In the “Credo in unum Deum,” he folds first and second violins (modern element) into vocal polyphony (old element). Or in “Kyrie eleison” I and “Pleni sunt coeli,” he combines vocal polyphony (old element) with animated instrumental ensemble writing (modern element). In Melamed’s view, the most remarkable reconciliation of all takes place in the chorus “Gratias agimus tibi.” It begins as a pure old-style piece, with Palestrina-like vocal counterpoint and doubling strings and oboes. But then a trumpet enters, innocently doubling the soprano but adding a modern sound to the old music. Soon the first trumpet sounds again with the second one, the two picking up the vocal counterpoint on their own. And finally a third trumpet joins the first two, bringing with it the kettle drums. Trumpets and timpani have nothing to do with old style; they are hallmarks of modern style. To Melamed, the “Gratias” movement represents the ultimate union of old and new, and it was fitting that Bach decided to recycle this particular music directly in the Mass by using it once again for the concluding “Dona nobis pacem.”

With his great concern for styles, it is surprising that Melamed does not discuss the special nature of the Credo, or Symbolum Nicenum, portion of the Mass. Written fifteen years or so after the Kyrie and Gloria, it demonstrates a distinct shift in Bach’s thinking, away from virtuosic aria and chorus writing to a greater emphasis on pure choral sound. Seven of the Credo’s nine movements are for chorus, and in the music Bach seems to have abandoned bravura elements and focused instead on matters of transition and cyclical unity (the pulsating bass notes of the “Crucifixus,” for instance, also appear strategically in the “Et incarnatus est” and the adagio bridge of the “Et expecto”). Like the Requiem for Mozart, the Credo was Bach’s last word on sacred vocal music—the portions following it appear to have been assembled under duress, as his eyesight began to fail. It was not by coincidence that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach later chose it above all his father’s other works to present in a 1786 Hamburg benefit concert. The Credo forms a self-contained dramatic entity, and modern music directors ought to follow Emanuel’s lead and single it out for performance.

In his remaining chapters, Melamed discusses the Christmas Oratorio in relation to the liturgical calendar (its six parts, each performed on a different day, were not fully heard by all Leipzig congregants) and Bach’s Passions (its early interpretation was influenced by that of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions).

In the end, Melamed’s book is about Bach the craftsman, the astonishingly inventive but pragmatic composer who compiled monumental choral works by blending styles—old and new, secular and sacred—and by appropriating, revising, and even abridging preexisting pieces. His approach reflects the tendency of today’s scholars to present Bach as an enlightened, humanistic figure by stressing his musical and intellectual accomplishments and playing down his religiosity and observant Lutheran worldview. The biographer Philipp Spitta, writing in the nineteenth century, portrayed Bach as the Fifth Evangelist, spreading the gospel through his sacred vocal works. The eminent scholar Christoph Wolff, writing in our time, paints Bach as a “learned musician,” a Sir Isaac Newton–like figure of insatiable curiosity, rising above the religious squabbles of his day to create music of universal appeal.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Michael Marissen, the author of Bach and God (2016), reminds us of the centrality of the Bible in Bach’s outlook and the degree to which the composer’s unswerving Lutheran conservatism was at odds with the progressive currents of his day and ours.1 One gets more of that view in Markus Rathey’s latest writings, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (2016)2 and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (2016), which highlight the sacred symbolism in the Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio and demonstrate how Bach touched on religious iconography familiar to the Lutherans of his time. It might be best to read Rathey’s volumes in tandem with Melamed’s thoughtful guide, to gain an even broader view of the seemingly endless layers of meaning in Bach’s remarkable triumphs of musical recycling.