Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, drama, liturgy
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IT IS a skill more deserving of praise than is generally acknowledged when an author does what he says he’s going to do, in the way he says he’s going to do it.
In his introductory chapter, Markus Rathey tells us that his “six introductions to Bach’s major vocal works . . . are geared towards music lovers who want to read about a piece before going to a performance or before listening to a recording.” He goes on to explain that he is particularly interested in providing the listener with a liturgical and theological background to these works. In the course of the next 200 pages, that is pretty much what he does.
The “major vocal works” that he discusses are the “oratorios” for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension, the John and Matthew Passions, the Magnificat, and the B-minor Mass. From all his writing — as you would expect of a distinguished Bach scholar whose career has been spent at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, surrounded by music practitioners — there exudes a reassuring sense that behind some of the necessarily brief engagements with complicated arguments there lies a firm grasp of the issues and the literature.
Thus he deals with the “unity” questions that hang over the oratorios and the B-minor Mass somewhat cursorily; but these essays, being elevated programme notes, are not intended as full expositions, and readers can always follow the conscientious citations if provoked.
The liturgical context for these works will be of particular interest to those familiar with them only through concert-hall performances. Another strand — and an instance where Rathey takes us beyond a synthesis of others’ work — is Bach’s consistent interest in the theme of love, as presented in the Song of Songs, which informs everything from his choice of texts to the re-use of secular love songs.
Dr Edward Wickham is Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge