Daniel R. Melamed, Hearing Bach’s Passions

Updated edition, OUP: 2016
204pp, £14.99
ISBN 978-0-19-049012-6 (paperback)

This indispensable handbook for all interested in performing, exploring and listening to Bach’s remaining Passions was first published in 2005. Now Daniel Melamed has revised and updated it in the light of recent research and some new discoveries, as well as the changing fashions in historically informed performance practice. Alongside up-to-date bibliographies and discographies, it has a set of tables in the back with the contents of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig in Bach’s time, the Passion repertory in Bach’s possession and a Calendar of all his known passion performances in Leipzig; there are lists of the vocal parts for the 1725 John, the 1736 Matthew and the anonymous Mark passion. There are lists of the various movements in the different versions of the Passion, including the Mark BWV 247 and the anonymous Luke BWV 246, and there are suggestions for further reading and a good index. All this makes this slender volume – 178 pages in all – an enormously useful guide to the issues around current research and performance.

Melamed’s Preface to this 2016 edition lists the new discoveries: a printed libretto for the ‘lost’ St Mark Passion BWV 247 of 1731 dated 1744, confirming that this Passion entered Bach’s repertoire and was not just a one-off; a Nuremburg publication of 1728 containing a number of church texts including a libretto that corresponds to the 1725 version of Bach’s St John Passion; and a libretto for a Leipzig performance directed by Bach of a poetic Passion by Heinrich Stölzel, containing no direct biblical text, but only a paraphrase on the lines of the Brockes passion set by Telemann and Handel amongst others. A Passion without the actual biblical text seems to have been frowned on in Leipzig.

He lists other important published sources, including the www.bach-digital.de website that reproduces most of the surviving autograph scores and parts, outlines the areas where research continues – in the connection between the Cöthen Funeral Music and the Matthew Passion, for example, and draws our attention to significant recent studies – Eric Chafe’s J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology  (OUP, 2014) and John Butt’s Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions  (CUP 2010) among them.

His introduction is impressively comprehensive: Melamed takes us through questions of performing forces, the liturgical context and the text of Bach’s Passions and then comes to the music itself and the way we hear it compared to Bach’s listeners. Novel to them would have been the recent Oratorio Passions, with their operatic sounding ariosos and arias. But while we can pretty accurately reconstruct the instruments and the size of both playing and singing groups, what can we discern about the ears through which these compositions were heard and the sound of those voices through which they were realised?

Part I rehearses the evidence for Vocal Forces in Bach’s Passions, and their numbers in relation to the instruments – still, in spite of the evidence marshalled by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, a hotly contended issue – and follows this with a section on Singers and their Roles in the Passions. Melamed reminds his readers of the evidence for the size of the chorus, and of the nineteenth century origins of the tradition of performances with large choirs. He then helps his readers to step behind the modern operatic convention that one singer ‘represents’ a particular character and realize that Bach’s singers sing all the music in their voice-part, and so – like us – find themselves exposed to contradictory demands and emotions. This is important if listeners are to feel drawn into the liturgical action of the Passions and experience the challenges they pose, and not merely observe them from their seats as concertgoers. He also rehearses the diversity of practice between different performances, and asks why subordinate roles were sometimes given to the principal singer or to a ripienist  or even sometimes written in an entirely separate part – were these parts perhaps sung by an instrumentalist? We have no means of knowing, as each performance produced its particular revisions. Certainly my own conducting scores are littered with names of performers who took roles on different occasions, crossed or rubbed out when other singers’ names were inserted. This is a useful summary of the discussion that was generated first by John Butt in Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity  (CUP 2010), who has put into practice much of what we know about the place of the Passions in the liturgical life of the worshippers in Leipzig in the first third of the eighteenth century in his recording with his Dunedin Consort of the St John Passion in 2012/3 (LINN CKD419).

Part II is headed: Passions in Performance, and devotes a chapter to each of the Matthew, John and Mark Passions. The focus of that on the Matthew is: Is Bach’s St Matthew Passion really for double chorus and orchestra? To which his answer seems to be both yes and no. In some ways I find this a less satisfactory chapter, though its fuller form published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, 2004, vol. 57, no. 1 is more persuasive. Unlike other chapters, it does not seem to me to address the essential question that those who listen to or perform the Matthew need to grapple with. For me, that question is not about the two cori and whether they have independent or merely intertwined lines: several of the motets are in two choirs, and there are those cantatas like BWV 67, Halt im Gedächtnis, which have a Vox Christi responding to disciples or some other form of one against three like Eilt, eilt  in the John Passion. Nor does Melamed refer to Peter Seymour’s recording with the Yorkshire Bach Soloists of the early version of the Matthew with its single continuo line (Signum SIGCD 385) as I imagine that his revised book was already with the publisher before Seymour’s recording was published.

The Matthew is nowhere as dramatic as the John in its setting of the biblical narrative, but the quality of the melodic material in the ariosos and arias has an instinctive appeal. In a work where each singer covers many different roles, how does the principle, enunciated by Luther in his sermons on the Passion in 1519 and 1521, that it is wrong to blame others – the Jews or Judas – for the death of Christ as we are all we are fallen sinners so corporately responsible, work out in practice for the listeners – the congregation? The more pressing question for me about the Matthew is how Bach works with the two cori, a step beyond the single coro with the additional four ripienists of the John, to help us understand the theology of Matthew’s passion narrative and develop our reflection on it. In other words, how does the dramatic interplay between the ‘Daughter of Zion’ (coro I) and the ‘Believers’ (coro II) contribute both musically and theologically to the evolving work?

The Chapter on the John Passion is called Which St John Passion BWV 245: What do we do when a composition survives in several versions? Here we are on ground that performers have been grappling with for some time, and where the questions of how a ripieno group or second coro was used seem relatively clear: you cannot perform Mein teurer Heiland  without a second bass singer, and ripieno parts for all four voices survive, making it clear that the St John Passion was performed by eight singers in the coro.

What is more complex is to establish with some clarity just which of the four known versions any one performance will follow. Clearest is the second, from 1725, because it is from this version that the bulk of the surviving parts date. But that is also the least typical, with a large number of substitutions of different arias, choruses and chorales steering the work in a more apocalyptic theological direction, made perhaps to distinguish the work from the previous year’s performance. In the third version from around 1732, Bach restored a good deal of the material from 1724, though he substituted muted violins and a keyboard for the violas d’amore and lute of 1725 in Betrachte  and Erwege, and in this version, Ach, mein Sinn  and Zerfließe  had a substitute aria and an instrumental sinfonia respectively, both of which are now lost. For the final revision in 1749, there was a more wholesale return to the earliest version musically with only slight tweaks musically, but this time the rather striking imagery in the text of a number of the arias was toned down in a more rationalistic manner, and we can only imagine what theological controversies or undercurrents may have provoked this. Again, what developing theological understanding of his own might lie behind Bach’s changes? We cannot know, and can only surmise from the textual history.

The third chapter in this section is called A St Mark Passion Makes the Rounds: What should we make of the eighteenth-century practice of reworking passion settings for performances in various times and places? This section is on how working church musicians like Bach used and adapted other people’s work to fulfil a liturgical requirement, when there was not the reverence that would now be felt for the integrity of a composer’s composition. The working example is the St Mark Passion that was long thought to be by Reinhard Keiser, and first surfaces in a performance in 1707 at Hamburg. Some arias in a more Italianate style were added to this Passion – these were  by Keiser – before this bundle reached Bach for the first of his performances of it somewhere in Weimar between 1711 and 1714. In making a set of parts, Bach seems to have added a couple of arias of his own. This was the Passion that he performed in his third year in Leipzig, in 1726, and at least again in the 1740s for which a number of further arias were added from Händel’s Brockes passion, as evidenced by the very few parts that survive from that revision, prompting Melamed to conjecture that someone somewhere is sitting on the surviving set! What these substitutions and borrowings show is that Bach was adapting other people’s material, but with each revision making it closer to the theological conception behind his own setting of the Mark Passion, to which he turns next.

In Parody and Reconstruction: The St Mark Passion BWV 247, the question he asks is Can the eighteenth century practice of reusing vocal music help us recover a lost Passion setting by Bach? Here there are two examples: first the extensive parodying of the Matthew Passion and the Trauerode  in 1729 to produce the funeral music for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. Those familiar with Andrew Parrott’s 2004 reconstruction and have had the opportunity to compare that with Morgon Jourdain’s more recent version by the Ensemble Pygmalion under Raphäel Pichon will have seen the ‘restorer’s’ skills at work. The second is the St Mark Passion which we know that Bach presented on Good Friday 1731, and we can reconstruct some of it, because the libretto survives in a collected publication of Picander’s – Bach’s favourite librettist’s – verse published in 1732. To use the rhythms of Picander’s verse to recover suitable music is sometimes easier, and the Trauerode  seems again a likely source for at least the opening and closing choruses. The chorales too can mostly be traced in Bach’s extensive oeuvre. Arias can sometimes conjecturally be matched, but the ariosos and the recitative carrying the narrative never. So he concludes that all the versions – and there are several by reputable conductors – are ersatz, and at best can be no more than a modern pastiche in the eighteenth-century tradition. I think that this is right, and have never felt able to present one of these versions, as they have never seemed to me to be what it says on the tin.

Where does that leave Melamed with the Luke Passion to which the nineteenth century editors of the BG confidently assigned the number BWV 246? Clear for internal reasons and from what we can discern about the music’s transmission that it cannot be genuine Bach, and uncertain as to whether it was ever performed by Bach, Melamed concludes that it will be its fate to be Bach and Not Bach forever.

While it is good to be reminded of the reception history of these imperfect works, my take on this guide is that it is those performance issues that surface in the earlier part of the book that are the most useful practically to performers and listeners alike. Other performance issues that might have deserved a mention include the use of the harpsichord, the pitch of the violone, the use of the Bassono Grosso in the 1749 revision of the John – does it really mean what we mean by a Contra-bassoon, or was it used more as the wind equivalent of a G violone? – and the pitch and temperaments of the organ(s). Another table might have given the ranges of the voice-parts in the various Passions, including the bit-parts.

But performers and listeners alike will learn something they did not know from this brief work, and the publishers should be congratulated on this revision and reprint.

David Stancliffe