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The Essential Bach Choir Paperback – March 9, 2000
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Probably no scholar or performer has done more than Andrew Parrott (who is both) to keep Rifkin's idea alive. Over the years Parrott has argued eloquently for both the historical and the artistic legitimacy of performing Bach with one singer per part--and has produced some impressive recordings to back himself up. Several prominent Bach scholars have professed to be "waiting for the book" before giving their assessments of the Rifkin thesis; in time for the "Bach Year" 2000, Parrott has produced "the book"--and a very fine effort it is.
The Essential Bach Choir's virtues as a presentation and discussion of evidence may make it a bit difficult (though by no means incomprehensible) for lay people: the text is heavily footnoted, there are many musical examples, illustrations, and quotations (always given in the original as well as in translation); except in the prologue and epilogue, there is little discussion of the artistic merits of the one-singer-per-part approach (something for which The New York Times criticized Parrott). But this book isn't a critical essay on how good single-voice Bach sounds to our ears, it's a work of musicology intended to lay out the evidence and reasoning behind a thesis which has been dismissed, argued over, and viciously mocked for nearly two decades.
Parrott includes evidence commonly cited by the opposing camp; where warranted, he acknowledges their arguments, but more commonly he shows that the interpretation his opponents have given to the evidence is based on largely unexamined--and unfounded--assumptions. (Parrott quotes one esteemed Bach scholar who actually wrote, "Bach would have wanted..."--the sort of statement that academics in many disciplines would rip to shreds.)
What are these assumptions? That Bach's sacred works were quite naturally written for the medium of chorus-and-orchestra, like the oratorios of Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn (who revived Bach's vocal music in the mid-19th century). That those works are both the foundation and the summit of the entire choral-orchestral literature. That to posit such towering masterpieces as the St. Matthew Passion as originally meant for a little consort of soloists was literally unthinkable.
Parrott, following Rifkin's lead, argues that Bach's autograph scores and performing parts provide indications only for soloists. A very few works (all of which Parrott examines in detail) explicitly call for extra "choral" singers; for those works that do not, Rifkin and Parrott point out, it may not make sense to assume out of hand that Bach had or wanted such extra singers.
But isn't a choir by definition made up of several singers on each part? Not always--and Parrott presents much convincing material about the conventions governing vocal music in 17th- and 18th-century Germany that indicates otherwise. He also includes the complete text of Bach's much-argued-over Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music, a memorandum the composer wrote to the Leipzig Town Council setting forth (depending on whom you ask) either the forces he wanted to perform his own music or the way he wanted the music program at the St. Thomas School and the church choirs for which he was responsible structured.
Since we have no rosters of performers--of the sort we have for some of Handel's operas and oratorios--for individual Bach works, this dispute may never be entirely settled. Also, as Parrott points out, modern-day performers and listeners are free to choose whatever medium for Bach's music satisfies them most--and musicians from Wanda Landowska to Angela Hewitt to Wendy Carlos have done so. But understanding Bach's sacred music surely requires understanding the medium for which he wrote it, just as understanding Beethoven's string quartets requires understanding that they weren't written for, say, a string orchestra. This book contributes immensely to our understanding of Bach's medium and milieu--and should be read by anyone who cares about Bach's music. --Matthew Westphal
- Publisher : Boydell Press; Illustrated edition (March 9, 2000)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0851157866
- ISBN-13 : 978-0851157863
- Item Weight : 1.22 pounds
- Dimensions : 7 x 0.63 x 9.81 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,715,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The appendices are worth the price of the book, too. Among other things, they include a new and annotated translation of Bach's "Entwurff", other relevant contemporary documents, a reference table of the surviving vocal parts in Bach's music, plus a reprint of Joshua Rifkin's 1981 paper that sparked this revolution in Bach performance practice.
Advanced readers in this topic should continue by finding a copy of Dr Rifkin's 2002 book "Bach's Choral Ideal", already out of print but available through libraries. That book presents another 66 pages of argument and citations, further developing and updating his thesis over the 21 intervening years of discussion.
That Bach's normal practice was to employ solo voices in his cantatas, passions and oratorios should now be considered beyond serious scholarly dispute. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for conductors to say, as does Philippe Herreweghe, that they simply like the sound of a full choir in Bach, without pretending that this conforms to Bach's own practice. What is less attractive is the efforts of others, such as Ton Koopman, to defend what is merely a personal preference by belittling the Rifkin/Parrott discoveries.
Among Bach conductors, Rifkin and Parrott themselves were the first to put the theory into practice in concerts and recordings. Lately they have been joined by Jeffrey Thomas (Koch), Sigiswald Kuijken (DHM), Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi), Daniel Taylor (Atma) and, most recently, Paul McCreesh, whose single voice recording of the St Matthew Passsion (DGG Archiv) is a revelation. Parrott's book is intellectually convincing; these recordings are aesthetically and emotionally compelling.
The arguments in the first half of the book concentrated on Bach's extant scores, iconography, and contemporaneous accounts of Baroque practices. At this point of the book, I was not completely convinced by this information. The arguments in the second half of the book focused on resource, balance, and instrument-singer ratio. The arguments from the second half are far stronger in my opinion and they strengthen and validate the arguments from the first half. The book is very well illustrated and includes the original text and a translation of the 1730 Entwurff.
Joshua Rifkin's 1981 recording of the Mass in B minor used 1 singer per part. Andrew Parrott's own recording in 1985 used a mix of 1 and 2 singers per part which I consider probably the most satisfying recording of the Mass in B minor that I've ever heard. Rifkin later went on to record a number of Bach cantatas with 1 singer per part. The argument from the 1700s that the use of one singer per part brings clarity and beauty is spectacularly evident in these recordings. For me, the musical result of using 1 or 2 singers per part trumps any historical argument.
Unfortunately for various reasons that I won't go into but are related to the size and nature of today's music venues, 1 singer per part does not work as well in live performances as it does in a recording.