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Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Hi Gang,
I'm thinking of programming JSB's BWV 248:1-6 next Christmas.  Any thoughts on how to program these in a concert series, any rehearsal ideas, juicy war stories?
Replies (41): Threaded | Chronological
on December 7, 2012 6:11pm
Bruce:  The basic problem in programming is that Bach never intended all six cantatas to be presented as a concert at one time.  (And since you mention a concert SERIES I'm not sure that's what you actually intend.)  Each was intended for a specific service during the "12 Days" of the Christmas Season of the Church Year.  And because of that he used a different orchestration for each one.  (Not a problem if you're doing them with keyboard, but a real logistical problem if you're using orchestra!)
He was also a very practical man, and had only one major chorus number in each Cantata, but of course if you program them all in a single program you'll have to have them all up and running at the same time.
I'm trying to remember what we did, several years ago, and I think we selected either two or three that used essentially the same orchestration (since we WERE doing them with orchestra), and we opened the program with the orchestra playing the Corelli Christmas Concerto.  It worked rather well.  And I'm not saying that you HAVE to do them as Bach intended them, but at least don't forget how he DID intend them to be used.
All the best,
on December 7, 2012 6:16pm
We're performing the Christmas Oratorio complete in one (very long) evening next December.  Considering an early start time and an extra-long intermission with time for eating as concessions to its length, which is still less than that of the St Matthew Passion.  Will let you know then, but that won't help you much, will it?

(Thanks in advance to that certain someone who, in response to this message, will helpfully point out that it's not a single piece but rather six cantatas designed to be played on different days.  That was then; this is now.)

Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman

Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
on December 8, 2012 9:27am
Hi, Jerome, and if your comment was directed at me, I beat you to it!
But of course this points out the problems that we CAN come across and must solve when we take functional music and turn it into concert music.  Starting, of course, with the not inconsiderable question of whether to use the language the composer used and his audience understood or to use the language that our own audiences will understand.  And Americans seem to be much more provincial on that question than people in many other countries.  (And yes, I'm aware of all the good arguments on either side, and even used the question to get students in my Choral Literature class thinking about it!)
Renaissance settings of the five movements of the Ordinary of the Mass present a similar problem.  They often use similar motives to achieve musical unity, but they were also intended to be used in services lasting several hours, when that unity over a span of time would enhance the service.  When they are presented one after another in concert form, the musical unity becomes so glaringly obvious that it's almost a drawback!
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't USE any of this music--including music that was never intended to be used in functional church services, or to be performed at all in the case of the B Minor Mass--in concert.  It just means that we've ripped something out of its original setting and forced it into a different setting.  But it still doesn't hurt to understand what that original setting WAS!
All the best,
on December 8, 2012 7:57am
An alternate solution to Jerome's plan to perform all six cantatas in one extended concert with longer intermission would be to program it as either a two (1-3 and 4-6) or three-concert (1-2, 3-4 and 5-6) series over a period of a few days or a week.  The problems of scoring are partly solved by that approach (the horns used in Cantata 4, for example, are not required in any of the other cantatas). Your marketing team would have a bit of a challenge selling this idea, particularly in midst of the busy Christmas concert season, with dozens of other concerts to compete against. No matter what format for programming is used, with the standard union service in most locals these days, you will be looking at significant expense for an orchestra and soloists, especially if travel and accommodation costs are factored in for your soloists.
An approach I have taken for a single night's presentation that has worked very well within the constraints of the typical 2.5 hour service (requiring no overtime costs) has been to program the first 4 cantatas complete, in 2 equal halves of a concert, and then add a few isolated movements from Cantatas 5 and 6: the fabulous opening chorus of Cantata 5, Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen, the Terzett for your soloists from Cantata 5, Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?, and closing with the final Recit (solo quartet again) and Chorale from Cantata 6. I realize this is not a typical 'purist' approach, but in the spirit of most Messiah performances these days, where cuts are often made to fit within the constraints of a standard union service, it is a possible solution that still presents the core of the story, and serves to round out the concert with a strong ending.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 8, 2012 10:12am
Leonard:  Thanks for bringing a strictly practical voice to this discussion.  Bach was very practical, knowing that he would have to rehearse and prepare his singers and orchestra for six separate services in less than two weeks, and wrote to accomodate that fact.  You are very practical for bringing in the question of musicians' union services and the possibility of having to pay both overtime AND for musicians who might only be used for part of a program.  Bach had his regular players and free access to his town bandsmen.
In my own case I usually deal with either student musicians and student ensembles, or with volunteer community musicians, even though I do hold a Life Membership in the AFofM myself, and Virginia is a right-to-work state in which the AFofM has very little influence and professional musicians are usually contracted by the job and not by the hour or the service, so I do tend to forget how important the expense factor can be in the real world.
All the best,
on December 9, 2012 11:51pm
Hi Leonard,
Interesting idea, to help shorten the concert, and still provide an arc to the evening:  1+2, intermission, 3+4+excerpts(5,6).  I'll look at that. 
Last spring we did Messiah, cover to cover, with our intermission after the chorus sequence at the opening of Part 2.  During intermission, we served box lunches, and had one of the high school choirs perform in the lobby -- things they had been working on all year, and for music festival.  This change of pace, with the moments of variety it provided, set up the rest of the Messiah program quite well.  I'm fairly sure I would do it the same again.
I'm wondering if such an approach might work well for BWV 248.  Maybe 1+2+3, intermission, 4+5+6; or even 1-4, intermission, 5+6.   But it's still a long program.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 11, 2012 2:05pm
Hi Leonard,
I find your idea intriguing:  1+2; intermission; 3+4+5(excerpts#43(opening)+#51(terzetto))+6(excerpts#63+#64(final two movements))
Using that concept, and expanding it, how about this, for a two day series?
Day 1:  (as you suggest)  1+2; intermission; 3+4+#43+#51+#63+#64.
Day 2:  1+2 + 3(excerpts) + 4 (excerpts); intermission; 5+6
This has the advantage of performing 1 and 2 twice; all of 3-6 once; and with the opportunity to hear major (interesting) movements from 3-6 twice.
What do folks think about this approach?  If it has legs, so to speak, for you, I would appreciate if you would weigh in on what should be included as privileged excerpts from 3-6.  It's difficult, I know, choosing a small number of jewels from all of these gems (somewhat like, I imagine, agonizing over "which children would you disinherit?"). 
Personally, I love the opening to IV, and the echo movement from IV has intelligence as well as audience appeal.  But I'm starting to answer my own question, and I'd really like to hear what folks who love this work have to say about this basic idea, and their nomimations for "thank goodness, we got to hear that movement more than once."
on December 9, 2012 10:00am
I don't know if any of you have noticed the banner ad that's been in the rotation on for a month or so, advertising a complete Christmas Oratorio performance taking place this weekend (yesterday and today) in the San Francisco bay area, led by Allen H Simon. They're serving "light refreshments at intermission" to help people make it all the way through. More info here:
on December 9, 2012 1:04pm
Hi David,
I did see the advert to the SDG performances in San Francisco this past weekend, and also see that Emmanuel Lutheran in Boston took it on December 1.  Anyone have a chance to attend either of these performances?  I am really interested in hearing how an audience member appreciated these cantatas, presented as a one-day event.
on December 9, 2012 10:09am
Hi dad! 
Indeed, it is quite a slog to do the entire group of 6 in one night and the pauses feel poorly paced for an evening long work - at least compared to his passions, Handel's oratorios, &c.  By contrast, the b-minor doesn't give you a chance to catch your breath so endless is the genius.  That being said, the xmas oratorio has some of Bach's most glorious music you've never heard, especially the writing for the trumpets and evangelist. The choral writing is serious business, as othes have noted, and you need a tenor who will dig into the story telling. 
I say do it, or most of them with extra arias interpolated, and take it as an opportunity to educate your audience about the liturgical function of cantatas in Bach's church(s). There is nothing wrong with performing liturgical music in concert, and the mere mention of the fact that the performance is out of context will help your audience to hear the formal issues with clarity.  You could even market it as, "in a rush this year? How about all of advent in one night..." which is, of course, theologically horrid, but likely appealing. 
-Ian Howell
P.s. we're doing 1,3,5&6 in los Angeles this afternoon with Musica Angelica
P.p.s. Daniel, say hi to my Yale classmate Derek! He's your tenor in Denton, I believe :-)
on December 9, 2012 11:56pm
Hi Ian,
Gotta say, your line "in a rush this year?  How about all of advent in one night...", really brought a smile to my face.  Clever, and fun.
I agree with you about the B minor mass -- it's so well constructed (even if Bach never heard it performed in one sitting), that it sweeps one from beginning to end.  I just wish I could figure out a way to make BWV 248 have the same force in one sitting.  Perhaps not possible.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 10, 2012 7:59am
Having devoted a large part of my professional career to performing music of Bach, both as a tenor soloist and a member of professional ensembles, here are some random thoughts about BWV 248......
First off, I adore the 6 cantatas that make up what we call the Christmas Oratorio (in fact, I've been battling an "Ohrwurm" of "Schlafe mein Kind" for the past few days....). As has been stated above, the works were not originally conceived to be a cohesive unit, something that is very obvious when you do them all in one go. Bach's lengthier works (the B Minor Mass, and the Passions) do hold together well and have a unifying thread, either as a narrative on the Passion of Christ or as composite parts of a larger form (i.e. the Mass). It's not to say that the 6 cantatas can't or shouldn't be done in one big chunk, but I almost feel it is too much of a good thing. Don't get me wrong, I love my Bach, but I've always felt that all 6 of these cantatas in one sitting is like too much of a really fine, rich dessert. I've performed all 6 on one concert as tenor soloist several times in my career, in The Netherlands and in Germany, where the cult and appreciation of Bach are second to none. Audiences there know their Bach through and through, as it seems to be an essential part of their cultural identity from the get-go. Not to necessarily denigrate the general American concert public (and I would underline the word "general"), but there is more of a wide-spread appreciation "over there" of Bach, and a 3+ hour performance of works in a language that is either native (in Germany) or is a second language (in The Netherlands) can be a long slog for an audience on this side of the pond. There's a LOT of German text for soloists and choir to master the subtleties of, and even with good translations in their programs it can still be a long sit for the audience. Of course, as musicians, most of us relish Bach's music, and we love the chance to bring it to life, but again, I feel the lack of a real thread of story or form holding it together (outside of the Nativity narrative) can make it a lot to take in one gulp.
Some practical considerations.....several of these have been mentioned above, chief among them the various instrumentations for each of the 6 cantatas. This can make it an expensive undertaking, but it also means some players will have to hang around through an evening, play their bits, then hang around some more. As with Bach, there are also a LOT of notes to play, and in my experience by the time you get to cantata #6 people are pretty fried, fingers and arms are tired, as are voices. Speaking as someone who has performed and knows the tenor part inside and out, it is particularly a long slog for the tenor. Not only does one have to bring off the Evangelist parts effectively (a tall order and something I made a specialty.....interpreting and singing Evangelist parts, and Bach recits in general, are art forms in and of themselves!), but you have 3 very distinctly different arias that the tenor also has to command. The first is incredibly florid and fast, and can be quite tricky to coordinate with the flute. The second is rather low (especially at 415Hz, which is where I usually performed it) and requires the tenor to be more of a voice in the contrapuntal texture with the strings. Lastly, the third aria is quite high and necessitates matching the oboe in colour and sound, plus it comes at the end of a loooooong evening. Throw into the mix that (glorious!) trio and the miles and miles of recits that each have to be handled differently (it was always worth all of it to me to sing that accompanied recit "Und du Bethlehem", one of the loveliest moments for the Evangelist). The tenor has to be almost schizoid vocally. Now I'm just speaking as a tenor here, but the other voices also have their practical considerations as well. The chorus has it a bit easier than in the B Minor or the Passions as their work is marginally less, neither are they are portraying an angry mob or speaking for all of humanity.
My own preference is for either doing maybe a maximum of 4 cantatas in one evening, or splitting them up 3 and 3 and doing them, say, a week apart. I've performed in both of these configurations and prefer either as a performer. Of course, that can create more logistic and monetary considerations to take into account, but I feel that the later cantatas can then be approached much more freshly and given their due, rather than at the end of a long evening when people are pooped. This also gives the performers the experience of learning and performing all 6 cantatas, and lets the performers better marshal their voices, instruments, and energies. As mentioned above, Bach never intended for these cantatas to be done in one go, and this was from a composer who generally did conceive things in a big overall scheme. The B Minor is a slightly different kettle of fish, and even though its composite parts were composed in separate chunks, they are all unified under the umbrella of the form of the Mass (what I happen to think is the ultimate statement of the Mass form....okay, maybe Beethoven's Missa Solemnis can be thrown in there too!). We wouldn't necessarily think of excerpting and performing movements willy-nilly from the B Minor, would we? One could, I suppose, but, say what you will, the B Minor does work as one entity. Also, then why not, say, take all the Advent cantatas and perform them at one go? Why not lump together the other Weihnachts cantatas into one big piece? With the 6 cantatas in BWV 248 one is essentially doing the same thing: putting together cantatas that are united in their subject matter rather than united musically, or conceived as one large whole.
Okay, them's my thoughts, and I'm sure that whatever you decide, Bruce (good name, BTW!), I hope it can bring more and more people to experience the genius of one of the greatest musical minds that ever lived. Good luck, and SDG!!!
- (another) Bruce *thinking of a Monty Python routine......*
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 10, 2012 10:21pm
Hi Bruce,
Thank you so much for your extensive and helpful comments.  Getting the straight scoop from a soloist in the trenches is a great thing.
I'm still considering options for our production.  My feeling is that after what's likely to be the major project for the fall, for the chorus anyway, it's nice to perform these works twice.  That either makes a grueling weekend, or an expensive proposition with perhaps marginal attendance -- some folks might give Bach one weekend of their holiday season ... but maybe not two.  (Don't know who those fools might be, but perhaps they exist ... :) ).
One thought I have is to use different soloists.  Like a dedicated tenor for the Evangelist, and another tenor (or tenors) for the arias.  For a paying gig, that could add up pretty fast, but assuming the costs are coverable (what am I saying, ... one can dream, eh?); but from your perspective, would that be acceptable as a soloist, or kinda annoying?  We do have a number of amateur soloists here in Juneau who are fantastic, so it might be fun to share the burden, or spread the wealth.
Can you offer any perspectives on the other solo (vocal) parts?  I'm thinking of laying the whole thing out, with voice ranges and so forth, to make sure I have all the facts about what is required, but perhaps any anecdotal thoughts you might have on what is easy and hard for vocal soloists, and if multiple soloists would be okay, would be very helpful.  If you care to offer these thoughts, of course.
I did read your comment with much interest, and will try to absorb your suggestions (and perhaps read between the lines, if there's any of that to be done).  Thanks much for your generosity, your valuable insights and contribution to this fine work.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 11, 2012 8:51am
I can easily understand your concerns regarding using two performance dates. It can work in places like Germany or The Netherlands where people are always going to "flock to Bach", but Bach isn't quite as highly regarded nor known as thoroughly by the general population in the US as it is there. (It's not unusual over there to see audience members with their own scores following along in a performance!) Trust me, it was a luxury performing Bach before audiences that understood his music--and it was also a bit daunting! They take their Bach seriously over there and have very definite ideas about how it is to be approached and executed. I learned a LOT in all my years over there!!
Using two tenors for Bach's Passions is widely accepted, and indeed a given in most instances. I never really encountered the practice of using the same tenor for arias and Evangelist parts until I came back to the US. I don't like it for a whole list of reasons--philosophically, musically, vocally, dramatically, etc. It is not that unusual in Europe to see one tenor doing all the work in BWV 248. Unlike the Passion tradition of using two tenors, using one tenor for the Weihnachts cantatas, like Bach's general cantatas, can work quite simply because of the nature of the works. But, I hasten to add that there is not as strong a tradition over there of doing ALL six cantatas in one go, and if doing, say, three of four of them then the tenor's work is a bit more manageable. All six cantatas, though, really is quite a slog for the tenor, and finding someone who can effectively bring off ALL the music is exceedingly rare. Conductors here seem to relish saying stuff like, "well, our tenor managed it all quite successfully...." Uh-huh. I'm always suspicious, because even for specialists in Bach, effectively (there's that important word again) singing ALL the tenor's music in all six pieces, effectively fulfilling all the demands of the music, is a tall tall order. One doesn't simply want the tenor to "get through it", but be effective in whatever he is called upon to do. When doing ALL of the cantatas I really had to marshal my vocal resources and pace myself to make it to the end. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it becomes more of a "challenge", and I never liked performing under such circumstances. I want to give my all ALL the time. Also, and this is a very important consideration, the vocal and interpretive skills required for Evangelist parts is one of the most difficult in the entire tenor repertory. It takes a certain type voice, a certain weight and use of voice, a certain skill with language and interpretation--one is quoting the Holy Scriptures after all, and essentially is singing the role of the author(s). The arias are a totally different ethos--the texts by a poet/librettist, they are from the standpoint of the Believer or the spectator, and the writing is often quite virtuosic and requires a completely different use of the voice. Not all Evangelists can also belt out the arias, nor can all aria singers convey an Evangelist's part. In Passion season, when I was called upon extensively as a soloist, I would either devote my energies to one or the other--arias or Evangelist. Early on in my career I could mix the two fairly successfully (i.e. tenor arias one night, an Evangelist a couple of nights later), but as I got older I tended to exclusively do the Evangelist roles. Once you become known for doing them, you are besieged with work every Passion season (there are literally thousands of performances of Bach Passions in The Netherlands and Germany every season starting in Lent). They are also much more rewarding for me as a singer/artist/Christian/etc. than honking out arias.
I'm getting off the subject a bit here, but in a broader sense I hope you can see what I mean. As I mentioned above, the 3 arias the tenor is called upon to sing in the Weihnachts each present very different challenges for the singer, three different uses of the voice. Usually, as with most voice types, one is going to shine in one type of aria, and maybe not be quite as effective in another. That's to be expected. (The 2 widely varying aria demands in the Johannes Passion are an even more dramatic example.) Also, what I find makes a world of difference is that having two tenors and two tenor sounds gives the audience a break from hearing the same tenor ploughing through the piece. There's a LOT of tenor warbling in the Passions and in all six Cantatas of the Weihnachts, and it is easy for an audience to "weary", perhaps, of the same tenor's voice over a 3+ hour period. A little variety can add a lovely spark of energy into a performance, give the Evangelist a break so he can concentrate on keeping his "Evangelist voice", and generally make for a more interesting performance, in my experience. As for the other voices, I don't feel their music necessarily needs to be spread out among other soloists. Soprano, alto, and bass soloists' arias, accompanied recits, and ensembles are well paced and don't seem quite as varied stylistically as are the tenor's. You do have to find a good "echo" for the soprano's echo aria (one of my favourite Bach soprano arias!), so you'll need a voice that is similar to the soprano soloist's (and one who can count!).
Sorry to natter on so much, but you seemed interested in things from a soloist's perspective, based on professional experience. As you can tell, I LOVE my Bach, and have spent many years singing his music. I relish trying to do whatever I can to be an "Evangelist" for his music on this side of the pond. I also love passing on and helping tenors learn the ins and outs of Bach recits, as it really is an art unto itself. It taxes any tenor's artistic and vocal resources to the max, but once you get there it is oh so rewarding!!
--Bruce S.
on December 11, 2012 9:17am
Bruce and others,
I forgot a very very important consideration in regard to the Evangelist part. It is absolutely essential that the tenor Evangelist and the players (cello and organist) rehearse extensively, and I mean extensively!!! These types of secco recits should under NO circumstances be conducted! If the tenor wants to be "conducted", then you'd best find another tenor. The players and the singer have to work as a cohesive unit in order for the flow of the recits to be natural and essentially un-metered--the rhythms and flow of the text are the sole consideration. Continuo playing for such recits can be extremely difficult for any cellist and/or organist not familiar with the style. I often worked with the same continuo group in many performances and I could always rest assured that whatever I did interpretatively they would be right there with me. Accompanying Evangelist parts is definitely an art--every bit as much as singing them! You must allow for loads of extra rehearsal time for the Evangelist and continuo group to develop a real sense of ensemble. It is exceedingly important AND difficult!
--Bruce S.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 11, 2012 1:15pm
Hi Bruce,
I concur with Mr. Sellers' comments below that you should think about having two tenor soloists if you can afford it. You will really notice a difference if you fly in an experienced evangelist.    The other solo parts are fine sung by one SATB quartet (plus your best echo soprano from the choir). Unless you are thinking of having the soloists sing all the choir parts too (and are programing all 6 cantatas in one evening), in which case you may have some very tired singers at the end of the night (effective or not).
If you are thinking about hiring a countertenor for the alto role, make sure that they sound good (have options) in the B4-E5 range. The alto role (especially the recits) sits up there quite a bit – not always with a loud/heroic quality.  Also, your soprano should project well towards the bottom of the staff, or she will have balance issues with the Bass in their duet.  
Good luck!
on December 10, 2012 9:08am
As David mentioned above, I just finished performing the whole thing. The two concerts went well, and we had pretty full houses — people come out of the woodwork for epic Bach, at least in the SF Bay Area. A handful of people went home at intermission, but only a small number.
We started the concerts at 2:30pm on both days, so they'd finish before dinnertime, but we did have finger sandwiches and Costco cheese puffs and other snacks at intermission to help fortify the audience for such a long piece (fed the singers too). This meant the intermission had to be longer than usual also: 30 minutes, which seems pretty appropriate to the scale of the work.
We had a big flip-chart showing the original performance date of the cantata currently being sung: Dec. 25, Dec. 26, etc., to help keep the audience oriented (these dates were indicated clearly in the program as well).
The performers all thought it was great to do the whole thing in one swoop, and most of them got plenty of rest time during the work so they weren't overtaxed — the first oboe had to sit out a few chorales, though, since she plays an awful lot. Big job for the tenor soloist, too.
The chorus part is pretty manageable (in terms of total duration), but there are a lot of chorales, a challenge for singers unfamiliar with German.
Instrumental rehearsals were a big headache to plan, since the instrumentation varies so much. Hate to be paying people just to sit around, but it's hard to avoid. We had one rehearsal just for soloists and continuo (very taxing for the Evangelist), and one short one with just oboes and soloists, then an orchestra rehearsal with trumpets and another one with horns and the 3rd/4th oboes. That was barely enough rehearsal, even for good-quality union players experienced with Baroque playing. Even so, we had to pay overtime for a few players at rehearsals and almost everybody at the performances, which went a little over 3 hours (incl. intermission) with snappy tempos and minimal breaks between movements.
One thing I wish I'd done was have a separate piano rehearsal just with the soloists. That way we could all feel comfortable with the tempos and know exactly which ritards were going where before we got in with the orchestra. Discussing it via email just isn't the same!
All in all, a worthwhile experience. Start learning the music now, though, if you're going to do it next December. There are a lot of notes.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 10, 2012 5:57pm
Hi Allen,
Thanks for this note.  Glad to hear it came off well, especially from the point of view of the performers.  That's got to be a relief.
I too wonder about the whole rehearsal scheduling process.  Can you give more details on the number of rehearsals with full ensemble, and how you dealt with rehearsing with the soloists?  This is, of course, a nightmare to figure out; but, hey, logistics are part of the job.
I agree, a piano rehearsal with soloists (and possibly instrumental solists) has got to be worth it.  And a soloist/continuo rehearsal for recit movements.
on December 10, 2012 9:35pm
I've contacted Bruce separately regarding my detailed plan, but I'll just mention we never did a whole run-through. We rehearsed the recitatives together, and the arias with small ensembles together, and the big parts together, and so on, and didn't hear the whole thing put together until the performance (obviously we practiced transition spots when necessary). I had also marked up the parts extensively before we started. At one rehearsal we did almost all of the second cantata in order, since we had all the oboes there, to give everyone a sense of the pacing.
on December 11, 2012 1:45pm
Hi Allen,
This triggers a thought for me; perhaps not really relevant to this discussion, and more appropriate to the bach-cantatas website.  But, I wonder, did Bach have a chance to rehearse each of his cantatas start to finish, or, as you have indicated as can happen even in modern productions, did Bach (at least in some cases) have to wait to hear the whole work, when it was presented in live performance?  I wonder.  And how did that work ... did he think of the Thomaskirche as "dress rehearsal" performance for Nikolai (or vice versa)?
Given his schedule, it's hard to imagine a lot of spit-and-polish rehearsal time. 
on December 11, 2012 5:26pm
Not only that, they were all reading off of hand-written manuscript. But they would be very familiar with the cantata conventions, so hearing it all together probably wouldn't be necessary for the performers.
on December 11, 2012 6:52pm
Bruce:  Excellent questions, and I have to admit that I've never read anything that gives a clue as to either his rehearsal schedule or his usual practice.  We do know, of course, that on regular Sundays he had to split up his choristers to cover all the churches, but for important services like Good Friday (for the Passions) we also know that the two largest churches traded off year by year, and there weren't two performances that day.

But we have to keep in mind that, like today's resident boychoir schools, he likely had daily rehearsals rather than weekly.  And that since they were performing not only music in the well-known style of their own time but music by a single composer (not exclusively, of course, since choir directors seemed to trade music pretty freely), preparation would have been quite different from a modern choir that tries (with varying degrees of success) to perform music from a 5-century span in a wide variety of styles.

I'm extrapolating from my own experience, both in professional performing and in teaching, and of course that's dangerous and almost impossible to prove, but I can't really see any reason or necessity for him to have insisted on complete runthroughs of the longer works.  He knew exactly how the different movements fit together, his performers knew exactly how each movement needed to be done in isolation, and during his first two years in Leipzig, at least, he was writing, rehearsing, and presenting new music practically every week!

True, his choirboys were boys and not highly experienced professionals, but they were HIS choirboys, he appears to have been constantly teaching, and by actual count he wrote in much more ornamentation for the soprano and alto arias than for the tenor and bass ones.  And don't forget that OUR concept of "dress rehearsals" comes to us out of the theater world, where it's necessary to see actors fully costumed with stage makeup and stage hairdos in order to makes sure they look right under stage lighting.  Musicians have never really NEEDED anything similar when they were active in presenting new music in a known style every week of the year.
Allen correctly notes that they were reading hand manuscript.  But that's all they DID read, so of course they were skilled at it.  Printed music is a modern luxury, and we're spoiled!

True story (as reported by a former member of his band):  Billy May was known to be writing out parts to a new arrangement for his jazz band on the bus, on the way to a gig, without benefit of score, and of course by hand, to put them on the stands at the gig, and for his band to sightread them without a single error showing up in the parts.  They didn't NEED extensive rehearsals because they knew his style.  And when I've played in the orchestra for show gigs, including several tours with Henry Mancini, we've gone on stage in the evening for the first performance NEVER having played through the entire book.  Hank hit the high spots in the union-required rehearsal, and we were EXPECTED to play at sight without errors.  Modern rehearsal schedules are ALSO a luxury, not really a necessity!!!


on December 12, 2012 7:38am
What John said is very true. I think his assertions about Bach's own singers are spot on. Having spent a goodly part of their performing lives doing Bach's cantatas every week as well as his other works in various forms, they were more than acquainted with the style and what was expected of them. I've always maintained that Baroque music is very similar to modern-day jazz in execution and what it asks of performers. Jazz musicians' "charts" (printed music or manuscript) are quite often merely a guide or road map for the performers to see how a piece is going to progress. They receive the bare bones of the music and are expected to fill in the rest. A lot of the execution is based on knowledge of improvisation. Baroque music, especially early Baroque music, often employs similar performance practices. Later in the Baroque, composers began to write out more of what they wanted, but even then they expected a certain amount of creative improvisation by the performer.
In Bach's churches I'm quite sure many times things wouldn't even be rehearsed before they were performed. The performers knew instinctively what to do. I can relate the experience of the very first time I performed the Evangelist in the St. John Passion as something similar. After singing the arias in countless performances I finally got asked to sing the Evangelist part in 1992. (I was MORE than happy not to have to sing "Erwäge" anymore!!!) This was in THE largest church in Amsterdam, one whose performances of the Passions were a big annual event of Holy Week and an audience of around 2000 would pack the church. High stakes here! I knew the part inside and out, having heard it a miliion times and studied it, so I knew singing it wouldn't be a problem. I ran through it with the conductor at his home to get an idea what he wanted regarding pacing of certain recits, and what to expect conducting-wise in recits that lead into choruses (the Evangelist most often has to help set the tempi for the ensuing "attacca" choruses). He was very happy with everything. I met the organist who'd be playing the continuo and we ran through things once at his flat to get used to each other. Come the day of the performance (what in Holland is called the "generale repetitie", or "dress rehearsal") we only rehearsed recits that led into choruses. The longer stretches of recitative were not touched until we did them in the performance! This more or less flew into the face of what I was used to in America: sometimes rehearsing things to death. I was not at all nervous because I knew that the continuo players were top-notch and very skilled at playing this part. I could sit back and do all the things I wanted to interpretively and we were all on the same wavelength. It was a fantastic feeling, leaving things to be done "in the moment", and made for a very moving performance. I know this may be anathema to conductors over here, but there's a lot to be said for spontaneity! I really believe that that was a similar state of affairs with Bach's immediate circle of musicians. They just did it. I know that such a thing as I described in my experience is only going to be possible with players and singers who are totally immersed in Bach, but it illustrates what I think was likely true in Bach's situation. FWIW, I went on to perform the Johannes Evangelist many more times, and eventually added the Matthäus Evangelist, though it is much harder, mainly because of the sheer stamina that is necessary. I also love the arias in the Matthäus much more than the Johannes and was happy to keep doing those.
Bruce S.
on December 12, 2012 11:43am
Again, Bruce's experiences should be very instructive to us, especially since so many of us here are dealing with amateur singers (in the very best sense of the word, of course!) and/or students.  The real professionals ARE different from the rest of us!
In researching Bach's Johannespassion for a major paper in grad school, I came to understand that amost EVERY writer considered the story as told in John much inferior to that in Matthew as a libretto, and by implication seemed to criticize Bach for choosing John as his first Passion setting.  (Leaving aside, or course, the thought that he may have written an earlier Lucaspassion that has been lost.)
And the criticism is completely justified.  Matthew IS a much more dramatic script!  The second half of John (which would have been performed after the sermon on Good Friday) contains much more solo work and much less chorus work, simply because Bach had to start with the existing Biblical text and work from there.  And in fact he DID borrow a couple of scenes or ideas from Matthew to increase the dramatic weight of the story line.  But what I found interesting was how cleverly he handled what was admittedly a challenge in the libretto and created a balanced work in spite of everything.  And I'm still blown away by some of the clever touches:  (a) the chorus of the soldiers gambling for Jesus' robe in the key of C major, the smoothest and blandest key in meantone tuning, contrasted with the use of F minor, a much more edgy key in meantone, at the moment of death (No. 58 in the old numbering, and one of the most poignant moments in the story); and (b) his writing of the chorus "Wir haben ein Gesetz" ("We have a law") as a perfectly constructed fugue following every rule, which resulted in a perfectly boring chorus!!! 
And his setting of the opening chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher" (which we now know to have been the original version) uses every trick of Affect and symbolism to create the scene at the crucifixion itself, and unlike the analysts who interpret the text as "a mighty cry representing the glory of God" I saw in that text the absolute horror of the entire Christian congregation viewing the central moment of their faith, which he spells out indelibly in the very first three chords of the chorus entrance.
The man's genius and the way his mind worked is truly awe-inspiring, and challenges us to bring it to life!!
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 10, 2012 5:53pm
More questions about BWV 248.  The work calls for oboes d'amore.  We have excellent oboists here in town, but none own their own d'amores. 
In the past (last year), I rented a pair of oboes d'amore from Forrests (BWV 60, last December).  I'm wondering, has anyone else gone this route?  Forrests was fine, great actually, but I'm wondering if anyone knows of other options.
on December 10, 2012 7:29pm
Not sure who Forrests is or are, but this is ALWAYS a problem.  Bach's town bandsmen obviously had oboes d'amore handy, but most of us do not, and they're pretty rare.  The closest to the proper SOUND is substituting English horn, but that doesn't always work because Bach had the bad habit of using pretty well the full range of whatever instrument he was writing for!  Some of the parts are quite playable on regular oboe, but won't have the right sound.  (It's often hard enough finding oboists who actually own English horns, of course.  Luckily we have a few around here who do.  But of course no oboes d'amore.)
I'm not sure where you are, but I think the Roanoke Symphony uses the oboe professor from Ohio State and his wife, who do have the instruments.
All the best,

on December 11, 2012 12:45pm
Since this thread started, a few other helpful threads on choralnet have come to my attention, apropos to BWV 248:
   German pronunciation of text to BWV 248 (IPA and audio files) from John Cavallaro

     German pronunciation of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (BMW 248) (BMW?) :)

  Another discussion of practical issues about performing BWV 248
  (from the "Rehearsal and performance management" forum):

    Performance strategies for Bach Christmas Oratorio
on December 11, 2012 1:36pm
Another issue:  the 2 corno da caccia parts; i.e., the horn parts in BWV 248:4.  I believe these are challenging parts.  Any suggestions on what works?
on December 11, 2012 7:13pm
Yes, the horn parts in the opening and closing movement of 248:4 are definitely challenging.  But what's interesting is that in Bach's manuscript, THEY ARE NOT LABELED as being for horn.  They are definitely for an instrument in F, but it appears that the BG scholars made the decision that they were therefore horn in F parts.  And it wouldn't be the only mistake they ever made!!!  (Assuming that is is a mis-attribution.)  But there's no reason to believe that one could not substitute some other instrument with the appropriate range, just on the basis of the autograph ms.  (They would work quite well on trumpet, for example, and he did--apparently--write for F trumpet in Brandenburg 2.)  But yes, it would take an excellent player to play the 1st part on horn, and one might well decide to play it on a Bb or even a high F horn.
All the best,
on December 11, 2012 10:55pm
Hi John,
What does the Neue Bach Ausgabe have to say about the use of corno da caccia in the Kritische Berichte?  I don't have access to these here in Juneau, and I'm curious.
I am very interested in this corno da caccia question.  I hadn't heard that there was ambiguity here; very interesting indeed.
For those who have performed this, did you use descant horns in your productions of BWV 248:IV?  Or trumpets??  Or did you try the "flugel horn" thing???
Tricky instruments, these.  And like Bruce Sellers has pointed out, wrt to the tenor demands in BWV 248, where soloists who career this genre might specialize in the Evangelist recits, and not (necessarily) the tenor arias, I have heard the same is true of horn players.  Careerists specialize in the demands of high horn ("1st/2nd part") or low horn ("3rd/4th part"), but not both.  Or so I remember hearing once.
NB:  That might actually be "1st/3rd" and "2nd/4th", instead of "1st/2nd" and "3rd/4th", for horn specialization, but I reckon you get the idea.
on December 12, 2012 8:42am
Bruce:  The NBA Kritische Berichte would indeed probably be the latest word on this, but I don't think our library has it, and if we did my Deutsch isn't good enough to read it!!
I was surprised to find that scans of Bach's original manuscripts for 248 are actually available on the IMSLP website, but they are (with all the pages mixed up so you have to be creative in reconstructing them!), so I downloaded 248:4 to look at, along with a scan of the BG edition.  And there are actually TWO strange things about that ms.  First, of course, is that the instruments are not labeled.  But even more intriguing is the fact that the 2 parts that appear to be for instruments transposed in F (typical for either horn OR trumpet, whereas woodwind instruments usually use the movable clefs rather than being written as transposing) are at the TOP of the page, and the 2 parts that are assumed to be for oboes are BELOW them on the page.  And THAT suggests that the 2 upper parts in F are for a treble instrument, but one in F!!  (Which is why I suggested trumpets, since the parts AS WRITTEN are quite playable on a natural horn OR trumpet but up in the clarino register.)
And what you remember about horns was definitely true at one time, and is still at least partially true, but is no longer a given.  Most 18th century orchestral uses of horns (including Mozart's) use a single PAIR of horns.  But as soon as anyone started using more than 2, they started writing for 2 PAIR of horns, usually in 2 different tunings, in order to get access to more notes of the chromatic scale by going from one pair to the other.  (Beethoven's use of 3 horns, all in the same key, was a new and non-standard idea for his time.)
In the horn parts Mozart wrote he included notes that are theoretically impossible on the natural horn, but that players were able to produce by using their hands in the bells to modify the tube length.  That's true in his horn concertos, written for a friend in Vienna, and of the music he wrote for his buddies at Mannheim.  But we're about to start working on his Symphony No. 25 (the OTHER G Minor symphony!), which may have been written much earlier in his career when he was in Salzburg, and he wrote for 2 pair of horns, one pair in Bb alto (a VERY high horn part!) and the other pair in G (a moderately high horn part). 
In Berlioz' treatise on instrumentation, he assumed that orchestras were still using natural horns in pairs, and even specified that it was better to have the players in each pair sitting so that their bells were together (possible with natural horns, but not with valve horns), to help them tune to each other!
And when composers used this approach it automatically gave  each PAIR of horns one high specialist and one low specialist, so it was indeed 1 and 3 as high horns and 2 and 4 as low horns.  But modern players, while they MAY choose to specialize in one or the other, try to be able to play equally in all parts of the range.  In fact the International Horn Association (or whatever it's actually called), in their competitions, have categories for high horn, low horn, and just plain horn!  And concert band scoring has NEVER adhered to the pairs of high and low horn approach, for the simple reason that 19th century band music was written not for natural horns but for valved Eb alto Saxhorns with full chromatic ranges.
More information than you needed, I know, but it's interesting.  And I learned most of it when I studied and played horn in junior high and high school.  Orchestral players have to be able to transpose ANYTHING that's put in front of them.  Band players do not, and never learn to do so.  And the nastiest transposition I ever ran into was playing 4th horn for a Brahms Symphony, which was chromatic and obviously written for valve horns, but was for Horn in H (B natural), a diminished 5th transposition for an F horn!!!  (Technically I would have been considered a low hornist, since my lips were more comfortable and I had a solid sound in that range, and my current band instruments are bass trombone or truba.  But I still practiced and could play the high horn parts, including the neat licks in the "New World Symphony.")
All the best,
on December 12, 2012 8:17pm
Hi John,
It appears that BWV 248:IV:1 is one of Bach's many parody (warning: YTOTI) movements in his Christmas Oratorio.  I can't find all of the details, but apparently BWV 213 predates BWV 248 by about a year.  BWV 213:1 - Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen - (full cantata known as - Herkules auf dem Scheidewege -) - calls for horns (or at least that's what I can find from online sources, I can't find a facsimile online).  Perhaps that's how the Bach Gesellschaft chose to assign horns to BWV 248:IV?   It's a good question, though, asking and figuring out how the BG came to make its decision.
For any who have have been lucky to perform (conduct?) BWV 248:IV, I wonder if you can recall any concerns raised by the cornists?  (Do they like being called cornists? ... cornedians?).  I'm guessing that playing the opening movement is exhausting, and that players will "hold back ('mark')" during rehearsals, if rehearsals occur too close to performances.  And, I wonder if these players welcome/dread performances, two days running?
Gosh, I wish horn players who have played this wonderful work are lurking, or could be contacted to contribute, and would be willing to offer their perspectives?
PS:  YTOTI ~ "yikes, tip of the iceberg" - :) - ie, eg, cf:
on December 12, 2012 9:41pm
Hi John,
<side topic about modern horns ...>
Thank you so much for your insight / explanation about horns 1/3 and 2/4.  It makes a lot of sense, I had never given this the thought it deserves.
As the romantics took over from the classicals (who took over from the baroquen), and the modern orchestral sound evolved, horns at extreme ranges were inevitable.  Or so we know now.  And there's that Wagner fellow to thank for a bit of this.
PS:  sheesh ... like I know anything true or important about music history ... (sorry if I give that impression ...)
on December 13, 2012 10:50am
(More side discussion on mdern horns):  Actually it didn't take the 19th century to see the use of extreme instrument ranges.  Orchestral trumpets evolved out of renaissance trumpet corps, which were attached to the military branches of aristocratic houses rather than the musical branches.  (For the Toccata that opens his first opera, "L'Orfeo," Monteverdi obviously borrowed the trumpeters from his Duke's military, but they do not play throughout the rest of the opera.)
And in those trumpet corps the typical voicing was in 6 parts.  The Apprentice players were stuck on the lower notes, bascially 1 and 5, along with the timpani that often reinforced the bass line.  The Journeymen played the midrange parts, playing arpeggiated rhythmic figures on the open notes in the midrage (the only notes that WERE available!).  The masters played in the high clarino range, where they could play high, virtuosic scalar melodic passages.
In other words, the typical renaissance fanfare was harmonized in 6 parts, nothing at all like the one- or two-trumpet fanfares of Verdi and others in the 19th century.
Bach took advantage of Gottfried Reiche and other available trumpeters who had mastered that high clarino range.  And it was both a range and a playing technique.  The trumpet in high F part in Brandenburg No. 2 is hard enough for a modern player with modern equipment to play, plus it was obviously intended to balance with solo violin, oboe, and alto recorder!!!  But by the end of the 18th century that playing technique had been lost, for reasons no one really understands, so what were we left with?  Those midrange arpeggiated "trumpeting" parts that we find in Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven!
But in the meantime we have the example of Haydn's "Hornsignal" Symphony, No. 31 from 1765, an early one more in the style of a concerto grosso, that took the 1st horn up to the top of the range and was written to celebrate the restoration of a 4-horn section that had been decimated by the death of two players.  Pretty obviously the "hunting horn" used just for signalling had been followng in the footsteps of trumpet players in developing high register playing, at approximately the same time that the clarino trumpet technique was fading away.  (And was being taken over, in theory, by the upper register of the newly-developed "clarionette," whose upper register is still called its "clarion" register.)
All the best,
on December 13, 2012 4:09pm
Hi John,
Thanks for these details.  With respect to BWV 248 (recalling the score from memory at work), I think this means, in I, III, V, and VI, that two ("master" as you say) high clarino players (piccolo trumpets, in A or D, I assume), and a suitable ("apprentice") player who can reinforce the percussive natrure of the timpani are needed.   And, it's an open question if trumpets (instead of corni da caccia) might be used in IV.
Killer parts, these?  Any trumpet players out there?  Are these totally "satisfying" or basically "terrifying"?  Anything we, as conductors, really ought to know, for the rehearsal process, and for performances?
on December 11, 2012 1:59pm
Bruce's wonderful comments "from the trenches" are very valuable.  And don't forget that since Bach had his soloists step out of the choir, instead of hiring opera singers, he could have had (and probably did for very practical reasons) more than one tenor, alto, etc. as soloists in his larger works.
And regarding the recits, remember that the long-held-out notes weren't necessarily intended to be held out full value.  (This may have been first pointed out in Arthur Mendel's extensive introduction to his first edition of the St. John Passion, but at least that's where I first came across it.)  They are intended more as punctuation, rather than being a sustained pad, for which he and Handel both used strings.  And that means that they don't need to be conducted, but absolutely must be rehearsed, with the evangelist leading.  In fact this may well apply to ALL baroque recits.  (I won't attempt to go into later practice, but I'd certainly keep it in mind.)  And of course this doesn't apply to inexperienced and student singers, who will need lots of help just to get through their recits.
All the best,
on December 12, 2012 1:58pm
Hi all,
I've really enjoyed this thread re: the Christmas Oratorio--this is exactly the kind of intelligent discussion and sharing of ideas for which ChoralNet is built!:) Here follows my "two cents" on the Bach:
I have been a professional musician (orchestral and solo clarinetist, tenor soloist (a heldentenor now who was a 'straight-tone' pro chorister in my early days), musicologist, and educator) for over 30 years.  When I lived and worked as a freelance musician in NYC 10 years ago, one of the highlights of my year was singing in the chorus of a pro performance of the Christmas Oratorio complete (no cuts, in order), in German, with full orchestra (modern) and soloists. The entire performance was 3.5 hrs with intermission.  We did the entire work three years running until the death of the director unfortunately brought the enterprise to an end.  We always had a full house who loved every minute and hung on every note and word as did all the musicians!!:) It IS possible to do the whole work in one concert at a very high artistic standard without killing your singers, instrumentalists, and audience!! The only issue I noticed was the possiblity of "brass fatigue" in the trumpets, especially in the final chorale of VI which would end the work chronologically.  Yes, as a musicologist, I know Bach didn't intend the six cantatas to be performed at one sitting, but it doesn't violate the "oratorio" (so called) to be performed that way.  The work also speaks eloquently in sections or in a complete performance with the six cantatas in different order. That's one of the great beauties of Bach's genius: he was so practical a musician married to his genius that the work works pretty much anyway you "slice" it!!:) Long Live Bach!!:)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 13, 2012 12:48am
Hi David,
Actually, your contribution is worth much more than $0.02!  Impressive, BWV 248, three years running.  Bless NYC for its opportunities and audiences.
What was the venue?  ... and how were rehearsals run? 
Must have been a very charismatic conductor.
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