Hearing Bach's Passions

Daniel R. Melamed

Published in print April 2005 | ISBN: 9780195169331
Published online January 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780199865376 | DOI:
Hearing Bach's Passions

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Johann Sebastian Bach's two surviving passions—St. John and St. Matthew—are an essential part of the modern repertory, performed regularly both by professional ensembles and amateur groups. These large, complex pieces are well-loved; but because of our distance from the original context in which they were performed, questions and problems emerge. Bach wrote the passions for a particular liturgical event at a specific time and place; we hear them hundreds of years later, often a world away and usually in concert performances. They were performed with vocal and instrumental forces deployed according to early 18th century conceptions; we usually hear them now as the pinnacle of the choral/orchestral repertory, adapted to modern forces and conventions. In Bach's time, passion settings were revised, altered, and tampered with both by their composers and by other musicians who used them. Today, we tend to regard them as having fixed texts, to be treated with respect. Their music was sometimes recycled from other compositions, or reused itself for other purposes. We have trouble imagining the familiar material of Bach's passion settings in any other guise. We can learn about these issues by exploring the sources that transmit Bach's passion settings today, performance practice (including the question of the size of Bach's ensemble), delving into the passions as dramatic music, examining the problem of multiple versions of a work and the reconstruction of lost pieces, exploring the other passions in Bach's performing repertory, and sifting through the puzzle of authorship.

Keywords: J. S. Bach; passions; St. Matthew Passion; St. John Passion; performance practice; vocal scoring; parody; singers; sources; transmission

Book.  190 pages. 

Subjects: Musicology and Music History

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Table of Contents

Vocal Forces in Bach’s Passions in Hearing Bach's Passions


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