LaripS.com, © Bradley Lehman, 2005-13, all rights reserved.
All musical/historical analysis here on the LaripS.com web site is the personal opinion of the author,
as a researcher of historical temperaments and a performer of Bach's music.
Variant of the temperament for vocal ensemble accompanimentThe main layout, for the chamber and solo music (including the organ repertoire and service-playing), is: F-C-G-D-A-E 1/6 comma each; E-B-F#-C# pure; C#-G#-D#-A# 1/12 comma each; very slightly wide (but nearly pure) A#-F resulting.
But, to play keyboards in the Bach passions, masses, oratorios, and most of the cantatas there is a different version to use!
Tuning a harpsichord or continuo organ at Cammerton to that main Chorton organ in the church (for example, preparing a second organ for the St Matthew Passion's second orchestra), the temperament gets transposed as follows:
G-D-A-E-B-F# 1/6 comma each; F#-C#-G#-D# pure; Eb-Bb-F-C 1/12 comma each; very slightly wide (but nearly pure) C-G resulting.
That is: to play Bach's continuo parts to vocal works today, using modern scores that have been transposed so the keyboard continuo is playing at the same pitch as the orchestra, it is best to use this latter version. It simulates the resulting sound as if the organist were reading his/her part a whole tone lower. (The temperament is transposed to offset the transposition of the part, in print.)
That's the version for the harpsichord, organ, or rehearsal piano when rehearsing or performing most of Bach's vocal music.
Why does it matter to use this transposed version?The attempt here is to find the sounds that may have influenced Bach's compositional process. The tuning helps to indicate how strong or gentle the various musical elements might be, in accent or articulation or dramatic progression. The assumption is that Bach did some of the compositional work either at or checking with the organ, for the sound created by the basso-continuo chording: providing a harmonic backdrop of tensions and resolutions for each composition as a whole. This has the organ continuo part in its originally-notated key, i.e. for the first performances: what harmonic layout did that organ create, with the assumption that it had the normal "C" version of the temperament? And then, to the rest of the orchestra and the singers, that sounds like a "D" temperament (from the perspective of the page they are looking at) because the organ is producing a sound a step higher than the rest of the ensemble.
Within that scenario, with the composer working or checking at the keyboard while composing (or at least with knowledge how it would sound in the first performance), how might those sounds influence the direction or balances in the composition? (This is rather like the question: what can we deduce from Stravinsky's or Schoenberg's orchestral music by looking at the piano sketches and playing them in their standard, equal temperament? Did those sets of pitches influence the composing imagination, for orchestra and singers?)
To whet the appetite, here are several observations from the way the tuning sets up on the organ, through its interaction with the orchestra and singers. Everything comes around to the sound created in practice by this tuning, and the way it provides contrast and dramatic motion. In the cantatas and passions a whole world opens up, simply by setting up the organ/harpsichord in the tuning for which he wrote this music, and then listening to the way it interacts with the texts being sung. Bach was a brilliant composer, and his strongest medium of expression was the sounds he deployed to create approprate effects.
A few short illustrations from the St John Passion:
And the St Matthew Passion? Set up a piano or harpsichord, and get a piano/vocal score. Then, to hear the contrasts of Affekt, play through at least the following sequences:
The organ, with its layout of harmonic contrasts objectively available as the expression-keeper, is the primary reference point for the ensemble. The compositions stem from the way the (transposing) basso-continuo part will sound, as to its dramatic tensions and resolutions in forward motion. The basic Affekt is laid down by the organ's temperament. Bach took that into account before writing the music, and he used those effects objectively to create music appropriate to the motion/meaning of the words.
That is: all the musicians in the ensemble do not have to work as hard to create the appropriate musical effects, artificially. It suffices to listen closely to the way the music is already revealing itself (in overall shifts of Affekt and in specific strokes), and then react appropriately as sensitive musicians, going with the flow of the emotions. The music has already been composed, brilliantly.
That's evidenced both in the resulting sound in these Leipzig compositions (playing through them in the temperament that Bach wrote down for use on the Leipzig organs, allowing for the transposition!), and in Bach's well-known pedagogical remark that thorough-bass is the soul of music and composition.
"The thorough-bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough-bass should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub." (New Bach Reader, pp 16-17: Bach dictating his basic principles to his students of thorough-bass; Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, p 309.)To experience this directly: Set it up on a harpsichord, organ, or rehearsal piano according to the instructions here, and then spend several hours playing through each piece with a piano/vocal score, or from full score, to hear and see what's going on in the drama. All these tonal colors emerge on their own, and show the player how to weight them according to the meaning of the words.
Another exercise: play through the Bach four-part chorales in an edition that respects their original keys. (Thank you to Margaret Greentree for her cross-referenced catalog of chorales, in open-score PDF format!) Listen carefully to the characteristic sounds of the scale and the harmonies, with the meaning of the text that is being sung or the overall spiritual themes of the cantata.
[Note: If the chorale came directly from a cantata written in a transposing-organ situation, either play the chorale by reading everything down a whole step, or transpose the entire temperament to the "D" version as described in the article or here.]
Details about this are in the "Ensemble music" section of part 1 of the article. See also the math page, where this secondary transposed version is presented next to comparative charts of the main one.
Thanks are due also to Jos van Veldhoven, Siebe Henstra, and the Netherlands Bach Society: using this temperament for twelve performances of the St Matthew Passion in the Easter 2006 season. One of these performances has been recorded for radio broadcast: 13 April 2006, Netherlands Radio, channel 4, 1:00-4:00 pm (GMT +1).
Similarly, the St John Passion has been performed using this temperament: by Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo's Fire.
B Minor MassChannel Classics 25007: - Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven. Bach's B Minor Mass. This was recorded in December 2006. It was released in the Netherlands February 2007, with the rest of Europe and North America soon to follow. The performance uses this recommended tuning (transposed version) in the organ continuo.
The following observations about the Mass in B Minor are based on the original organ keys from the cantata movements that were rewritten as Mass movements. And unfortunately, the transposition situations are especially problematic. Of the completed Mass, performing parts survive only for sections 1 (Kyrie/Gloria) and 3 (Sanctus), and that organ part is written out in Chorton...apparently for performance at a venue away from Leipzig. On the other hand, Bach composed these in Leipzig; and if he ever had occasion to try them out in performance -- such as the three Gloria movements of BWV 191, from 1743 or 1746 -- their (lost) organ continuo part would have been transposed to Chorton, i.e. C and F major, instead of D and G. (These movements in the completed Mass were the "Gloria in Excelsis", "Domine Deus", and "Cum Sancto Spiritu".)
Electronic device instructionsThis is the transposed version for Bach's vocal music. (The main version for solo or instrumental music is elsewhere.)
Sorge 1758, transposed for this same purposeThe following temperament published by Bach's colleague and admirer, Georg Andreas Sorge, is also explicitly for Chorton organs. And it too reveals the vocal-music effects I have described above, when set up in its simulated-Chorton transposed version. It has the same set of colors, only slightly paler and less intense (i.e. moderated toward equal temperament) and may be a good all-around compromise for modern ensembles:
F -1/12 C -1/12 G 0 D -1/6 A -1/6 E -1/6 B -1/12 F# 0 C# -1/12 G# -1/12 D# 0 A# -1/12 F.
- Hear samples
- Tune it:Begin
- Tune it:Interm
- Tune it:Expert
* Vocal music
- Test pieces
- Affekt tests
- Organ 41