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What is a Bach Passion?


This is a more complicated question than it seems, and many large books have been written on this subject (I read four of them recently, so I’m either an expert or an idiot, or alternating between those.) So what is a Passion? (We use the uppercase P to distinguish this musical work from other kinds of passion, though Bach did have 20 children…)

At its heart, a “Passion” is a musical setting of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, taken from one of the four Gospels, or sometimes from an amalgam of the four. Originally intoned by the priest in mediaeval times, eventually lines of chant began to be taken by individuals to represent characters. The evolution of the musical Passion led to a more or less complete musical characterization; a distinct individual took each speaking/singing role such as Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and so on, and a narrator (called Evangelist) sang the rest of the story. The chorus represented the crowd.

That’s simple enough. But by Bach’s time the Passions were not limited to the words of the scriptures. Contemporary poetry was added to comment upon the Biblical story, to reflect, to react. These were usually sung by soloists. And congregational hymns (which the Germans call chorales) were added as well. Thus an entire libretto had to be devised to incorporate all of these elements.

There were also Passions that were all contemporary poetry combined with contemporary paraphrasing of the scriptures, such as Handel’s Brockes Passion, but Bach always had as his basis the literal words of the Bible, in Martin Luther’s German translation.

The “performance” of these Passions took place during a lengthy church service on Passion Sunday or Good Friday (usually), which also contained other music, readings, and hymns. A sermon was delivered between the two parts of the Passion.

The point of all this was that the Passion of Bach’s time was not just a retelling of the Biblical story, but was a comment upon that story with points to be made and lessons to be learned. Like his weekly cantatas, these Passions were musical sermons. They told Bach’s congregation how to react and how to feel about the events, just as the minister would do in his non-musical sermon.

These librettos must have been quite an undertaking. They had to have a point of view, and choosing texts from religious poetry and choosing hymns had to be done carefully. (Bach, or his librettist, sometimes chose the 10th or 16th or 40th verse of a hymn in order to find the right text.) And then Bach had to set it all to music.


What is the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra?


I don’t know how much all of this “conductor’s role” is a mystery to non-performers and how much is pretty clear, but I remember an uncle once asking, What does a conductor do? Isn’t it all written down? I explained that someone had to stop and start them, and he seemed perfectly satisfied with that.

Working with an orchestra is different from working with a chorus, mainly because you get 5-10 weeks with a chorus and two rehearsals with an orchestra (if you are lucky enough to get two). And orchestras are trained differently. For instance, they spend years playing scales to get to this level, most of them are making their living at this, and their violins never catch cold or are susceptible to allergy season. And any two violins you pick up will sound more similar than any two sopranos.

There’s a certain old school of thought that it’s the conductor vs. the orchestra, and it comes from the time when conductors were all-powerful dictators on the podium. (I’ve never known that time.) But in truth, the best conductors are collaborators with their performers—orchestral or choral or solo. Ultimately decisions are made by the conductor, but not without input. And we get input in a lot of ways, usually not verbal. I might have in mind a solo sung a particular way, and then the soloist shows up and sings it absolutely beautifully and committed and expressive another way, and I probably will gladly accept it. The same is true with the orchestra: I might have had something else in mind but then I like what I am hearing at rehearsal and so I leave it. Or I might change it. Certainly I’ll try to unify it.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most here in the Capital Region is that orchestral players do not fit the (old) stereotype of professionals just interested in earning their paycheck, not respecting choruses, and feeling the conductor is their opponent. The stereotype goes even further: instrumentalists don’t want to know about the pieces, the texts, etc; they just want to know if they should play louder or softer, faster or slower, on or off the string.

In fact, players here want to know a lot about the pieces they are playing and they are genuinely interested not only in sounding as good as possible but in understanding how they fit in to the overall expression of the music. And the ones who know me feel free to offer suggestions in rehearsal that might make something better, clearer, more expressive. They know it’s as collaborative as time allows.

And you can only be dictator if you are as good as Toscanini.


Why are tenors so scarce?


First, it’s important to note that there are really three voice “parts” or ranges for each gender, not two:

Soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto; and tenor, baritone, bass.

Most people fit into the middle one: There are more baritones than tenors or (low) basses, more mezzos than high sopranos or true contraltos (low altos), though there seem to be more high women (sopranos) than there are high men (tenors), which I cannot explain. So to this point the answer is that it’s physiological, with most of us being average.

The paucity of tenors is due, I think, to the ranges in most choral music! It’s the music that has created the scarcity.

Consider the standard alto part in choral music, mostly hanging between middle C and the C an octave above, and often staying forever at the lower half of that range. This doesn’t mean that altos can’t sing higher, but any lower and they cross into tenor territory, and any higher and they bump up the sopranos. So they get stuck in a kind of middle area. Mezzo sopranos often don’t know what to sing, because the tessitura (the area where most of the notes are) in choral music tends to hang too low in the alto part and too high in the soprano part to be consistently comfortable. In solo music there’s no difficulty, because the tune can extend both high and low, but in choral music you bump into another part.

The same is true of the men. Since most men are baritones and feel most comfortable in the range of middle C to an octave lower, their tessituras tend to remain in that octave for the most part. The low basses get some low notes (which the baritones find uncomfortable), and the tenor part gets pushed up to be constantly at middle C and above, which gets consistently too high for baritones. For some reason we’ve grouped baritones and basses into one group (probably because they now share a clef), where they should really be two.

In the old days when everyone had their own clef (yes, baritone clef, mezzo soprano clef, etc – violas play from “alto” clef) all this was more clear. But now, with only four parts in most choral music, mezzos have to choose, sometimes from piece to piece, whether they are altos or sopranos, and baritones mostly choose the bass part (except when their conductors ask them to sing tenor because there aren’t enough!).

The ideal choral music, then, from the singers’ point of view, would be SSATBB. But more than four parts tend to make the musical texture muddy, which is why most choral music is four-part, and string quartets are more common than quintets or sextets.