Staffing J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion Then and Now
DANIEL R. MELAMED
The Tangeman Lecture delivered April 9, 2006
We have learned a great deal about how J. S. Bach performed passion music, and have come to recognize that his presentations were very different from most in our time. This has consequences not only for the sound of the compositions but also for the way we think about them. Even if we choose to perform Bach’s passions with modern forces along modern lines, we can learn a great deal by considering them from the perspective of Bach’s own presentations, particularly with respect to the way he organized and thought about his performing forces. I want to consider three aspects of the St. Matthew Passion here: the disposition of voices, the performance of dramatic roles, and (of special significance for this work) the use of a double chorus. In each, understanding eighteenth-century practices and thinking can help us hear modern performances in new ways. It can also remind us that the meaning of a musical composition does not lie in its score alone, but depends greatly on the work’s execution in performance.
We need to begin with the recognition that early eighteenth-century German church musicians thought about singers in vocal/instrumental music differently than we do. We typically divide singers into two categories, chorus members and soloists, and tend to be pretty sure who is responsible for performing what. The recitatives and ornate arias, it seems clear, are for the soloists, and the ensemble pieces (“choruses”) are for the choir. Soloists wear especially nice clothing, have chairs up front, stand up when it is their turn to sing and sit down after they finish, and are often professionals paid for their services. Chorus members stand or sit in the back and are often volunteers.
This is not how Bach and his contemporaries saw things. As every eighteenth-century German church musician understood, ensemble vocal music was indeed designed for two kinds of singers, but they did not fall into the modern categories of “soloist” and “chorus member.” The first kind was essential to a performance. These necessary singers were called “concertists,” and they had duties just like those of the principal (“concertante”) players) in an instrumental concerto, presenting solo music framed and accompanied by the more anonymous ensemble that supports them.
In a vocal concertothe term for the sort of work represented by the St. Matthew Passionone soprano (the soprano concertist) was responsible for the soprano line, singing all the recitatives and arias in that range. Similarly, alto, tenor, and bass concertists handled the music in their ranges. But each of these singers was also responsible for his lines in ensemble pieces that called for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass singing together. This kind of piece, which typically involves most or all of the instruments as well, was most often found at the beginning and end of a church cantata or similar work. The eighteenth-century name for a movement like this was a “chorus.” In this sense a chorus is a kind of movement calling for all the voices together. It’s a chorus even if it is sung just by these four singersit does not require a big ensemble of the kind we often associate with the word. A piece of concerted vocal music could be (and, it seems, often was) sung just by four principal singers, the concertists, performing solo numbers on their own and functioning as a group in choruses.
But performances were not restricted to four singers. The director could choose to add more singers in a particular way. Optional additional singers, known as “ripienists,” represent the second kind of singer recognized in the eighteenth century. Once again the instrumental concerto provides an analogy: “ripienist” is the word used to describe additional players in an instrumental concertoadditional, that is, to the player of the solo or concertante part. In a vocal concerto these optional ripieno singers had no musical numbers of their own, but joined the concertists as reinforcements in appropriate numbers, typically “choruses.” In a church cantata by Bach, for example, ripienists might sing the choruses and choralesand only those movementsleaving arias and recitatives to the concertists. Concertists sang everything and ripienists, who had no music of their own, simply doubled the concertists when told to do so.
In Bach’s St. John Passion, for example, this is reflected in the vocal parts from which Bach’s singers performed, which survive. They consist of four parts for concertists (Soprano, Alto, Tenor Evangelist, and Bass Jesus) and four for ripienists (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass). The concertists’ parts contain essentially all the music of the work (less a few small characters’ music placed in other parts), including recitatives and choruses of the Gospel narrative, chorales, and poetic arias and choruses. The four ripienists’ parts predictably contain only the choruses and chorales, in which they double the concertists. Unfortunately we have no time here to examine the construction of these original parts, which strongly suggests that each was designed to be used by one singer. Clearly, though, the two kinds of parts line up exactly with the eighteenth-century understanding of two kinds of singers.
All this adds up to a view of forces very different from the modern one. The eighteenth-century “chorus” was simply the sum of available singers, even if that amounted to only the principal singer of each line. The two categories of singers were not soloists and chorus members each responsible for different music, but principal singers (concertists) responsible for everything, and optional additional singers (ripienists) who might reinforce them. Concertists had to be more skilledthey sang solo arias as well as chorusesbut they did not sit with their hands folded smiling beatifically during choruses because they were the principal singers of those movements, and sometimes the only ones.
Modern performances that use distinct soloists and a large chorus give a different view of a Bach passion setting. Of course there is the sheer volume produced by the larger vocal forces, and a typically larger instrumental ensemble used to match it. The larger forces have the potential to create an aura of monumentality, and often suggest a powerful and athletic kind of singing.
Subtler differences exist as well, however. These are illustrated by the framing choral movements of the St. Matthew Passion, “Kommt, ihr Töchter” and “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder.” In a modern performance these are typically “choral” movements sung by the large ensemble. In this sense they appear to be related to the Gospel choruses and chorale settings also sung by the large group. The texts of these movements are poetic, however, and their metrically-regular musical settings reveal them to be ensemble arias. In Bach’s time, in fact, they were called “arie tutti.” They are thus actually more closely related textually and musically to the solo arias and duets in the work, and function like them. The connection is clear when they are sung by the same singers who perform the arias, but masked when singers are divided along modern lines. They are different movements when sung by the chorus rather than by concertists supported by ripieno singers, with potentially different meanings.
One consequence of staffing the vocal lines of a passion in the way Bach did is that the principal singers served several different functions, presenting poetic and hymnic commentary (arias and chorales), narrative in recitative (especially the tenor who sang the Evangelist’s words and the bass who sang Jesus’) and the portions of the narrative sung by the vocal ensemble together (choruses of groups in the passion narrative). This meant, for example, that in one stretch of the St. Matthew Passion the bass concertist sang Jesus’ last words (“Eli, Eli lama asabthani”), participated in the Gospel chorus “Der rufet dem Elias,” sang the chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” just after the moment of Jesus’ death, participated in the Gospel chorus “Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen,” then delivered the reflective recitative and aria “Am Abend, da es kühle war” and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.”
The modern listener often has trouble imagining how it was possible for one singer to present the words both of the central character and his accusers, and to offer commentary on the story as well. This is especially problematic if we think of the bass singer as portraying Jesus as a characterthat is, according to an operatic model.
The paradox is, of course, that from a structural and stylistic point of view, the text and music of an oratorio passion did borrow from opera. The solo commentary movements draw on operatic models, both in their organization (pairs of free and lyric poems set as orchestrally-accompanied recitative and as arias) and also in borrowed musical styles (such as the rage aria type clearly audible, for example, in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”).
But this borrowing from opera does not significantly affect the Gospel narrative portion, at least not in this kind of passion setting. The multiple duties of singers strongly suggest that the “roles” of Evangelist and Jesus were not operatically representational and that Bach was not attempting dramatic realism in his setting of the passion story. The principal tenor and bass in a Bach passion performance were simply responsible for the delivery of the narrative and commentary, not for the realistic portrayal of individuals. That some of the words they sing are direct speech makes those words immediate and evocative but does not mean that the conventions of dramatic realism apply. Bach’s singers stepped in and out of various roles, and we need to accept that there was understood to be no conflict among them. This is a real contrast to modern performances that divide up the music along dramatic lines, especially those in which a resonant-voiced bass sings nothing but Jesus’ words, leaving the words of groups to members of the chorus, and the bass arias to another soloist.
Once again there are consequences for the listener. This kind of performance emphasizes the dramatic presentation of the story, and arguably invites listeners to react directly to the characters as they might in a play or opera. The poetic texts and carefully selected chorale stanzas that serve as commentary were designed to bring out particular themes, and to lead listeners down specific interpretive paths as they contemplated the story. A dramatic presentation of the piece arguably distracts the listener from the interpretive messages the librettist and composer chose to emphasize, replacing meditation on the texts’ themes with a more direct response to the characters in the story. Once again, the meaning of the work changes with its execution.
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