"Bachs Chor und Orchester"

In reference to the Ton Koopman article translated at:
(as of Friday June 10th 2005)....

This article is published in Die Welt der Bach Kantaten [Bärenreiter, Kassel, 1999] Vol. 3 Chapter 14 "Bachs Chor und Orchester", pp. 233-249. It was published under the auspices of Koopman's own ensemble, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir...in part as an apologetic for the existence of their own group, along with the fine series of recordings they have made of Bach's music.

I have already remarked elsewhere, reviewing the German version of this article, about the sometimes less-than-convincing aspects of the logic in it; not much more need be said here on that account. And this translation omits all the red-herring illustrations from the original article, anyway (they served as much to weaken Koopman's case, by being irrelevant, as to strengthen any of his remarks about part-sharing, or about practices specifically in Bach's time and place). The general problem still remains that the article mostly recycles its own premise (about a number of singers allegedly prescribed by the Entwurff) stating it several times, with only a handful of questionably relevant circumstantial evidence in support, and then that premise itself comes out as an ersatz conclusion. In any event, most of the article's value (in my opinion) is in the information it presents, and not the line of reasoning that is its scaffolding.

But, in the interest of having Koopman's article represented fairly as it is, I believe it is necessary to remark about the many additions (and several deletions!) that accreted into this English translation. (Was this translation itself approved by Koopman, checking it himself against his own article?) The translation introduces several dozen changed meanings, unwarranted emphases, and misleading conflations that (I believe) misrepresent Koopman's work. These errors cause erosion of some of the value of Koopman's article.

Before going point by point, as I have done here comparing the German and English side by side, the most important remark is: the translator has relied on the false cognate "Chor" in Bach's and Koopman's usage to mean "choir" in English. It is obvious, at least to me looking directly at Bach's Entwurff (especially the first nine paragraphs) and at Koopman's German, "Chor" does not mean "choir" in the English sense of a body of singers, several per part. Rather, it might be translated more accurately as the general word "ensemble" where some of the members play instruments in addition to being able to sing. Bach in the Entwurff specified four ensembles for the church duties. I believe he used the word Chor here the same way he used Coro in the score of the St Matthew Passion: to differentiate two entire ensembles (singers plus players; the orchestra 1 vs 2 of the SMP is also labeled "Coro" whenever any of its singers are performing!), not merely to differentiate several groups that are entirely singers.

Koopman, in this article, avoids such a trap most of the time; he faithfully sticks with the German original "Chor" wherever it comes up, except in the several places where he has switched it to "Sänger". But the more glib notion of "choir" (and all the assumptions that we English-speaking readers bring with that, from musical experience) is particularly introduced in this English translation, in a way that turns out to be quite misleading. Where the distinction of Chor seems especially important and not the same as English "choir", I note it below.

The first page (six paragraphs) of the Entwurff is readily available in facsimile: page 148 in the New Bach Reader edited by Wolff. A German transcription of all of it is available as Appendix 3 (pages 163-66) in The Essential Bach Choir by Andrew Parrott. Another close study of the Entwurff is Joshua Rifkin's book Bach's Choral Ideal, but the present remarks are apart from that. We are concerned here only with the German and a faithful rendering of Koopman's German into English....

My remarks on the translation are in red. The broader point is: those wishing to find out what Koopman really wrote might best look at this whole book, rather than relying on internet translations (or rather than relying on my own markup of this, for that matter). Look back at the source, to get past the errors and the polemic filter of a translator. Anyone with better German skills than mine is quite welcome to check up on all this. I had printed out the handy English translation to keep with my German copy of the original, but it quickly became apparent that the two do not say the same things and the divergence is sometimes acute. My notes about that, the more closely I looked into it, have become this web page.

The book (Wolff/Koopman with almost a dozen other scholars) has other good articles as well. For example, Martin Petzoldt's article about the Leipzig liturgy lists the daily/weekly duties of Bach's four ensembles, and the other activities that were happening in those churches during the days through the parts of the church year. In this broader perspective next to the Entwurff, it is apparent that that the Entwurff itself was about staffing the music programs for a whole season (which is also one of Joshua Rifkin's points in his book), and not anything very direct about the ideal numbers of singers who should be performing in any particular repertory.

The Koopman article seen here in isolation simply implies that there are no pertinent questions (such as Rifkin's and Parrott's, et al) to be asked along this avenue, and that the Entwurff should simply be read (rather superficially) as a prescription of vocal ensemble size with all the members singing simultaneously. That is indeed a mainstream view, or has been until recently, but it's a premise being read into the material and not found in Bach's document itself.

Even more unfortunately for Koopman's article: it's apparently not even his own original work, wholly! Most of the points in it are found, in the same presentation sequence, in George Stauffer's book Bach, The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass (1997, Schirmer), pp206-216, part of Stauffer's chapter about historical performance practices. A comparison of that Stauffer chapter and the Koopman article (1999), side by side, reveals that Koopman in writing his German article has merely presented the same material (and the same non-argument about the Entwurff) as Stauffer, with essentially the same set of scarcely relevant circumstantial evidence. Whether the cribbing here comes directly from the B Minor Mass book, or possibly from some yet earlier Stauffer material, the line of red-herring reasoning presented here clearly did not originate with Koopman himself. He has simply brought it over to German and dressed it up a bit.

Bradley Lehman, June 2005

Bach's Choir and Orchestra

By Ton Koopman as translated by Thomas Braatz, February/June 2005

(...) Bach certainly preferred 16 vocalists in each choir: "nota bene It would be much better if the 'pool' from which the vocalists were selected [Here Koopman has used Bach's Latin, and his whole phrase is: "wenn der Coetus [die Schulgemeinschaft] so beschaffen wäre" and not anything like "pool from which the vocalists were selected"; I believe the translator has got a notion of "pool" from reading Parrott's report of part of Rifkin's argument, with which he (the translator) openly disagrees elsewhere...] was so constituted that 4 vocalists were available for each vocal part and, in this way, each choir [Chor] would have 16 vocalists." [No; Bach and Koopman both used "16. Persohnen" here, not specifically vocalists] To fulfill this need a minimum of 36 musically able pupils would be necessary.

To complete his orchestral requirements, Bach demanded the following instrumentalists:
1st violin: 2-3 players ["Spieler" here, as contrasted with "Persohnen" above and below]
2nd violin: 2-3 players
1st viola: 2 players
(...) If you take Bach's 'Entwurff' as a basis for consideration, then various musicians are missing for completing the list given above:

1st violin: 2 players ["Persohnen" here; presumably the ones in Bach's "Persohnen" who (among the 16 of the ensemble, Chor) can play and not only sing...]
2nd violin: 2 players
viola: 2 players
violone: 1 player
flute: 2 players

Up to the time when Bach presented his petition, the deficit (in the "Entwurff" it is called "Mangel" = "shortage") in the number of instrumentalists available, those to whom Bach is referring, was compensated for by using students from the university, but also by calling upon pupils from the St. Thomas School. This deficit to which Bach refers forced Bach, as a consequence, to lose good singers who were needed in the orchestra. [Koopman: "daß der Chor gute Sänger an das Orchester verlor"...the important distinction here being that the Chor is comprised not only of Sänger but also Spieler; in any case, "der Chor" (i.e. "from the ensemble") hasn't made it into the translation.] This was particularly an acute situation on holidays. It was also Bach's opinion that St. Thomas School was accepting too many pupils who lacked any kind of feeling for music. This caused Bach to become very concerned about the quality of performances. This is particularly evident in the "Entwurff" where Bach evaluates the musical abilities of his pupils as he places them into 3 categories:

1. 17 "usable" vocalists ["Sänger" here] appropriate for use in the 1st choir [Chor]
(...) Even his best singers were labeled by Bach as being barely usable! ["lediglich": "barely" or "merely"?] (...) These also participated in music instruction and it would not appear improbable to me that there may have been musically more ["more" added by translator] talented pupils among them as well.

Bach personally conducted the 1st choir and demanded incredibly much from its members. [No; it's "ersten Chor" and "von seinen Sängern". At this point Koopman has preserved the distinction between singers in the Chor and its whole membership. But, that distinction is removed by choice of words in the translation. "Choir ... members" to English-speaking readers brings up the inevitable imagery of a group of folks, all charged with singing some composition for church, participating with several on the same part in unison.] (...)

For this reason Bach submitted a petition to the City Council of Leipzig: "since it was impossible for me to entrust to him [Krause] the conducting of the 1st choir ["des ersteren Chores"] , particularly since the cantatas ["Kirchen Stücke"] are performed by the 1st choir ["im ersteren Chore"] and most of these are my compositions which are more difficult and intricate than most; nor could I entrust him with the other choir mainly on those special church holidays where I personally have to choose the cantatas according to the abilities of those who will perform them." ["so im anderen Chor und zwar nur auf die FestTage musiciret werden, als wo ich mich im choisiren selbiger, nach der capacitè derer, so es executiren sollen, hauptsächlig richten muß." Again, not "cantatas"; and we've also lost the macaronic thrust of Bach's original, where Bach has interspersed foreign words into this official and formal document. These ensembles performed a variety of music, selected by Bach but not always composed by him; and the 2nd Chor did not perform what we today think of as Bach's cantatas.] (Bach-Dokumente I)

As already mentioned, Bach chose the best vocalists for the 1st choir and directed it himself. He also had at his disposal the "Stadtpfeifer" ["city pipers"] and freelance violinists. Only Bach could carry out the decision to take pupils from the 2nd and 3rd choirs and put them into the 1st choir. This might be necessitated by the illness of a pupil or because one or more boys had advanced musically or their voices had changed and developed to the point that they could be moved to the 1st choir. We can certainly assume with a great amount of assurance ["with a great amount of assurance" is an interpolation by the translator, changing Koopman's tone. Koopman's phrase: Wir können es als gesichert betrachten, daß der erste Chor...] that the 1st choir always had singers who were better qualified than those in the 2nd or 3rd choir, not to even mention the 4th choir. ["Chor" usw.]

(...) During Bach's tenure in Leipzig, the "Florilegium Portense" was purchased twice; the music books were used frequently and wore out quickly from this intensive use. ["from this intensive use" interpolated by the translator...]

From time to time Bach must have had difficulties finding enough good singers for the tenor and bass parts because voices at that time mutated at a very much later age than they do now. Johann Friedrich Agricola in his "Anleitung zur Singkunst" [1757] takes note of the fact that boys already mutated at 14, [6] yet others maintained that mutation occurred approximately at age 18 (as stated by Martin Heinrich Fuhrmann in his "Musicalischer-Trichter" [Berlin, 1706.] Without a doubt the truth was somewhere between these extremes. ["these extremes" is interpolated by the translator's emphasis, and changes the tone; Koopman simply wrote "Zweifellos liegt die Wahrheit irgendwo in der Mitte." "Extremes", "intensive"...the translator imputes to Koopman a polemical vehemence that is not in the article, and it weakens rather than strengthening Koopman's statements.] It should also be taken into account that Bach himself may have occasionally sung a solo part (probably the bass part.) For it was reported that as a choir boy in Lüneburg he had 'an uncommonly beautiful soprano voice" [Bach-Dokumente III] and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach reports expressly in view of his father's later career that "he had a good, penetrating voice of great depth and a good singing technique." [Bach-Dokumente III]

[At this point the translator omitted an entire paragraph from Koopman's article. It is about the way the Entwurff named some of the instrumentalists, and that some of them were probably capable of playing more than one instrument.]

The instrumental ensemble at Bach's disposal was a long way from fulfilling the demands made by his cantata orchestrations. In earlier, pre-Bach times, this deficit in instrumental performers was covered by the "Studiosi" [university students] who were paid for their services. But when the monies for this purpose were cut under Bach's predecessors, Schelle and Kuhnau, the students had less interest in participating in the cantata performances as instrumentalists. ["participating in the cantata performances as instrumentalists" where Koopman simply wrote "hatten die Studenten weniger Interesse daran mitzuspielen." The translator's bias here is subtle: casting it as "as instrumentalists" (as opposed to "as singers"?) where Koopman was not drawing such a dichotomy.] This is why Bach added the comment: "For who would work or provide any services without getting paid for it?" [Bach-Dokumente I] So he was required to fill out the unfilled positions in the orchestra with pupils (mainly in the 2nd violin, and always in the viola and violoncello) thus depleting the number of choir members. ["Chormitglieder", i.e. ensemble members. Koopman's own bias here is that when these Persohnen get reassigned to instrumental parts they somehow exit the Chor...which isn't necessarily Bach's distinction in the Entwurff!] But how did all of this function in reality? For this there are several considerations necessary:

(...) (...) (...) Johann Heinrich Winckler, a teacher at St. Thomas School (the librettist of BWV Anh. 18), later a professor of philosophy and physics at the University of Leipzig, in 1765 referred to a statement by Johann Matthias Gesner as follows: "Gesner, who is well-renowned in the sciences and the arts expressed this thought [...] by the example of the now famous Bach, whose attentiveness regarding the consonance ["Uebereinstimmung der Tönen" isn't merely "consonance" to musicians...] of the various sounds in a choir of 30 to 40 persons he [Gesner] was often privileged to experience with astonishment." [7] ["he [Gesner] was often privileged to experience with astonishment" is the translator's amplification of "zum öftern in Leipzig bewundert hat."]

(...) However Johann Mattheson presents his reactions to this in "Der musicalische Patriot" [Hamburg, 1728] as follows: "...but such a simple/small setup will not be able to accomplish much in large churches, much less even be considered impressive. Even if you added to the ripieno parts another 8 of lesser musical abilities, then these will nevertheless create even more harm than any conceivable advantage by playing with poor intonation on the string instruments and blowing wrong notes or notes not in tune on the brass instruments....and then it will amount to at least 24, which is the smallest number needed for performing cantatas. [Mattheson's phrase here is "Kirchen-Musik", which is not limited to Bach-style "cantatas".... The conflation here is the translator's, not in Koopman's article, and it covers over Koopman's presentation of questionably relevant circumstantial evidence. We're led to believe, by this English translation, that Mattheson was remarking about Bach's cantatas.] In the city-states this number could even be increased more than at a court if you really want to spend some money on such a performance. [10] ["on such a performance" not in Mattheson or Koopman]

(...) (...) (...) 3. Occasionally those who advocate OVPP or OPPP [Koopman: "der Kleinsetzung"] maintain that the majority of the Bach's cantatas ["Kirchenmusik"] have come down to us with the original parts complete and that among these parts there exists only a single example of each vocal part. [15] Even a superficial investigation of Bach's original parts shows that the transmission of parts is by no means "obviously complete." Stated briefly, even a superficial check of 60 primary sources for Bach's cantatas makes it clear that the parts for at least 24 of them are incomplete: [16] [Not a problem with the translation here, but I must point out: Koopman by phrasing it as "eine oberflächliche Prüfung" has said something here rather inflammatory and contemptuous of the deeper study by Parrott and Rifkin et al; as if nothing more than a superficial or cursory glance is appropriate in coming to decisions?]

(...) BWV 192: From all the vocal parts ["all" is added by the translator; it implies, beyond Koopman, that perhaps this was ever some number greater than four] the tenor part is missing, from the instrumental parts the horn parts are missing.

(...) BWV 148: All the vocal parts are missing [Here the translator has added "vocal" which changes Koopman's emphasis and meaning...] (the autograph score is often the only part that remains of many cantatas.)

(...) BWV 39: It can be proven that CPE Bach had in his possession the doublets for the 1st and 2nd violin parts and 2 bc parts [Koopman: "1-2 bc"] of which only a single continuo part remains.

BWV 174: The parts have been saved but today they are located in 5 different libraries, arriving there through various paths. No wonder that parts can be so easily lost!

4. A relatively late (1780), but very accurate ["very" is the translator's own emphasis, as an appeal to Koopman's authority and beyond that to G. J. Vogler's. A look at Koopman's own footnote reveals that this citation is at least two levels removed from Bach and Leipzig. It's a 1986 book by Günther Wagner citing a 1780 book Betrachtung der Mannheimer Tonschule by G. J. Vogler.... What does the Mannheim school with its own cutting-edge orchestral reforms--especially in secular music such as symphonies--have to do, one whit, with Bach's church music practice in Leipzig? But this is all glossed over by the translator's assertion of "very accurate" and Koopman's already questionable "treffende", muddying the water that this is inapplicable circumstantial evidence.] characterization of the duties assigned to soloists and choir: "With the word 'am,' ["amplius"] the choir singers ["Chorsänger"] known as 'Voci ripiene' join in with the main singers known as the 'Voci concerte' or 'Voci concertanti.' When this happens, it is indicated in the score with the designation 'Tutti.' (...)

And at this point the translated footnote 17 gets it backwards, as if Vogler was quoting a book written 200 years in his future? 17. GŁnther Wagner "Die Chorbesetzung bei J. S. Bach und ihre Vorgeschichte" ["On the number of choir members in J. S. Bach's performances and the history of this which preceded Bach's time"] AfMwXLIII (1986), p. 297, note 58, quoted by G. J. Vogler in "Betrachtungen der Mannheimer Tonschule," ["Observations regarding the Mannheim Classical Period of Music"] 3 [Mannheim, 1780] p. 125. As remarked above, "number of choir members" is a misleading way to render "Chorbesetzung" due to the way English-speaking readers take "choir members".
Johann Adolph Scheibe insists upon some musical variety in order to "....make pleasant the exchange between the loud and the soft movements. As a result it would be best if, after a movement with one or two voices, the entire choir would enter." [18] About singing motets he writes: "They [the singers] all have to have clear and audible voices, and each part should be sung by several singers." [19] [Here the translator has deleted Koopman's brackets that indicate that Koopman himself has inserted into Scheibe that assumption about multiple singers! Koopman's quote of Scheibe, with his brackets intact: "Sie [die Sänger] müssen alle deutliche, vernemhliche und reine Stimmen haben, und es muß auch jedwede Stimme mehr verschiedenemal [mit mehrerer Sängern] besetzt seyn."]

In 1732 Johann Gottfried Walther gave the following definition for the word, "Capella": "is that particular choir that is large ["denjenigen besondern oder großen Chor" - shouldn't that be something like "that special or large ensemble"?] and which only joins in from time to time for additional support. [20]" (...)

(...) In other words: there was a difference between having one singer per part (solo) and several singers per part (ripieni), both types of which created a single choir. How big was such a choir? The 'Entwurff' gives an ideal number of 16 singers, or 12 singers respectively if the ideal number could not be attained. ["Chor" again in each place; and then by transmuting both of those to "Sängern" Koopman is merely asserting his own premise again, on the way to using it as his conclusion....]

Is it even possible that the number of singers and instrumentalists can be ascertained from examining the extant parts? How many musicians played or sang from one and the same part? Why, for example was the 4-part "Florilegium" printed as a score? Would it not have been more practical to sing from separate parts as with the "Florilegium Portense?" Yes, unless the score was used simultaneously by more than a single singer. The "Florilegium Portense" was printed in 9 separate part books, however there was also a 10-part motet included in these books. Since 2 parts were printed in one book, it would be necessary for 2 singers to use the same part book. This type of situation also prevailed regularly with Bach's predecessor Johann Hermann Schein [24] and still took place the same way much later as well. This can be seen in the "School Rules and Bylaws of St. Thomas School" (1723) where the rules of conduct during church services were spelled out: "All of the 'Alumni' (those staying at the school with room and board, not those living with their parents) [This entire parenthetical amplification is not in Koopman] should...sit still on their benches until they are called to their 'lecterns' [solid music stands] ["solid music stands" also not in Koopman] , but then they should stand in front of these lecterns in such a way that each one can see the music and words ["music and" added here by the translator] placed on them and that none of the pupils [more literally from Koopman, "that none of the pupils" is simply "none"] should hinder the others in their singing." [25] Here as well there is a description which gives details concerning the fact that several singers sang from the same music (or part books.) [Indeed, if these were lecterns, and since "music and" isn't in the quote, and neither are any music stands solid or otherwise...why is there this conflated idea that these pupils are singing from lecterns at all, as opposed to reading something aloud in the service? What if this is simply a code of conduct for readers not to interfere with singers who are different people from themselves?!]
Here is that same passage again, with the translator's conflations excised: This can be seen in the "School Rules and Bylaws of St. Thomas School" (1723) where the rules of conduct during church services were spelled out: "All of the 'Alumni' should...sit still on their benches until they are called to their 'lecterns', but then they should stand in front of these lecterns in such a way that each one can see the words placed on them and none should hinder the others in their singing." [Koopman's German of this passage: Denn die "Ordnung der Schule zu St. Thomae" (1723) gibt als Verhaltensmaßregel für den Gottesdienst: "Alle bey dieser Schule sich befindende Alumni sollen [...] so lange auf ihren Bäncken stille sitzen, bis sie zu denen Pulten geruffen werden, so dann aber sich dergestalt vor dieselbe stellen, damit ein ieder den aufgelegten Text sehen, und keiner den andern im Singen hindern möge." And then Koopman uses that to push his own point: "Auch hier wird beschrieben, daß mehrere Sänger dasselbe Notenbuch benutzten." What's in that ellipsis, by the way, about the proper behavior of the Alumni? And is it really about being singers, or is this a smoke-and-mirrors use of selective quotation from the school rules? Does any of this part-sharing have anything to do with lecterns, or Alumni, whatsoever? Or with the 1st ensemble (the one that performed Bach's concerted music) as opposed to the other ensembles that performed different music, sharing parts in different repertoire?]

[The remainder of the translation is arguably accurate enough to Koopman's words. But, is it really doing Koopman any good service here to have such a questionable translation freely available for a book that is still in print and relatively easy to obtain?]