Doyen’s delight

Doyen’s delight

Williams, Peter

Doyen’s delight

PETER WILLIAMS

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion: genesis, transmission and meaning

Alfred Durr

Translated by Alfred Clayton

Oxford UP (Oxford, 2000); xiii, 182pp; 05. ISBN 0 19 816240 5.

It would be fair, I think, to describe Alfred Durr as the doyen of Bach scholars worldwide: former director of the Bach Institut, Gottingen (now retired), an immensely productive editor over many years for the New Bach Edition (especially of the central repertory of cantatas), a distinguished man of urbanity and modesty who tactfully dealt with the ghastly East German situation of yesteryear, and a scholar of legendary reliability and good sense. Like many others, I feel a deep pleasure in welcoming the spate of books and articles of his post-retirement years, for whatever he touches is in safe hands. Faithful to the painstaking positivism of traditional German scholarship without being indifferent to certain modish criticism, whatever he says about the cantatas, the Well-tempered clavier, the Passions, and a good deal else, can form the basis for sound judgments and indeed for any subsequent conjectures.

Durr’s politeness is clear when he cautiously says that `it is certainly worth asking’ […] `whether we occasionally accord too much importance to the rhetorical and figurative dimensions of Bach’s musical language nowadays’, and whether symmetry – and especially the kind suggested by [Professor Xi, which is based only on mechanical numbering and not on harmonic relationships may be interpreted as a cruciform sign construed as such by Bach.

I could imagine that anyone knowing the sources and background of the cantatas and Passions as well as he does is often bemused (to put it at its mildest) by current speculative approaches that see a number-symbolism, a theological hermeneutic, a rhetorical house-of-cards or even a socio-political gesture around every musical corner. Calling rhetorical analyses a house-of-cards gives my own position away, of course; Durr is much kinder, always seeking to distil any worthwhile spirit there might actually be in the speculative mash.

Thus, on the question of how big the composer’s choir and orchestra were expected to be, Dun rules categorically neither for the simplistic school (one to a part) nor the old-fashioned (large forces required), though he argues for smaller rather than bigger forces. This was important for his original readers in a country slow to catch musical tastes from elsewhere. I like especially his point that in continuo playing, such as whether the organist actually held the chords in recitative, it is quite possible that `Bach changed his mind on the subject’ in the 1730s. So often one sees people pontificating today on details of performance in Bach – size of ensemble, string bowing, organ registration, harpsichord fingering, temperament and so on – as if things remained the same during the whole of his fifty years as an active composer. One would not see much in common between the issues arising in Beethoven’s op. 111 and op.2 respectively, and it is hard to see why one should in Bach’s keyboard or choral works.

The obvious strength of the book is its alert and intimate description of three complicated matters listed in the title and covered here better than ever before: the Passion’s genesis (its several versions, none of them quite ‘final’), transmission (sources, copyists, occasions of performance) and meaning (text, forms, shapes, significances). Occasional references to the St Matthew Passion make one wish for a similar treatment of it, the Mass in B Minor

and the Christmas oratorio, all of which might be easier to control, for the St John Passion is straightforward in very little. Durr’s sensitivity to and historical grasp of the text, both in its nature as scripture and in those non-scriptural parts of unknown and probably unknowable authorship, give the book an authority that can hardly be surpassed, for English readers, too, now that they have here all the variant texts in translation.

Of course, the reader has other thoughts. The discussion of patterns tonal symmetry, the common material in certain choruses, the pictorialisms is balanced; but I would like to see what Durr thinks of the relative immaturity of the St John Passion (compare its chromatic rhetoric at Peter’s Denial with the same moment, understated but devastating, in the St Matthew), or of the irrelevant (?) charm of such moments as the Casting of Lots. As for the former, Durr too, perhaps, might agree that such rhetorical details as the chromatic phrases used for ‘weeping’ are formulaic and thus less and less what a great composer would turn to; and for the latter, perhaps he too would find here another scriptural allusion, for the Casting of Lots is an important item in the Johannine view of a story unfolding as scripture foretold (the Robe was not to be divided). And perhaps, when Durr came to say what was so special about Bach’s recitatives, he might praise their unique blend of harmonic tension and melodic flare.

But I am putting words into his mouth, invoking what the literary critic Harold Bloom once said about Hamlet: he is a person whose views on everything you would want to hear, they are bound to be interesting.

On the English version itself: in addition to some over-literal translations (e.g. where German says Problem we would surely say ‘question’ or ‘issue’),

I think it needs more in the way of paraphrase and/or annotation, which I hope Oxford University Press’s forthcoming version of Durr’s book on the cantatas will provide. Each time he uses a word like ‘enlightenment’ or Affekt, or distinguishes Passion oratorio from oratorio Passion, there is an unspoken aura of traditional German association and usage that really ought to be explained. The problem of a translation simpliciter (as here) is that such culturally loaded references to ‘rationalism’ as appear on pp.49-50 leave the passage hardly intelligible for English readers, because the culture concerned is not theirs.

Peter Williams, John Bird Professor at Cardiff, is revising his volumes on Bach’s organ music (Cambridge UP).

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Spring 2001

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