Reprinted by permission from the January 2, 2000 New York Times; revised for this Web site, including a new title.


Simulating Mr. Bach's Sunday Morning Service

Bernard D. Sherman is the author of "Inside Early Music: Conversations With Performers."

UPDATE, 2013: People really liked this when I published it, but I see one obvious weakness. Nowhere do I talk about the experience of just listening to the CDs. I listened again a few months ago, and I have to say, it's special. The actual Bach playing please me far more than do McCreeshs's driven St. Matthew and Magnificat recordings - these are truly lovely performances. And the "reconstruction" does have a sort of golden glow that - as noted below - surely means something way different to me than it did to Bach and his audience, but what do you expect? Anyway, I yield the floor to my earlier self:

Bach devotees fantasize about taking a time machine to a certain 18th-century church, to hear the cantor himself lead his music. A new recording from Deutsche Grammophon tries to simulate what they would be after. Titled "J. S. Bach: Epiphany Mass," and featuring Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players, it is a "liturgical reconstruction": a performance that tries to put sacred pieces into something like their original church context.

In this case, the original setting was an orthodox Lutheran service, consisting of four hours of readings, prayers, sermons and singing - and a cantata or two. Mr. McCreesh, aided by the liturgical scholar Robin A. Leaver, tries to create an aural facsimile of what he says "might have been celebrated" in Bach's church in Leipzig, the Thomaskirche, on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6 circa 1740.

An engraving of the Thomaskirche, Bach's main church in Leipzig

The Bach works included (the Cantatas Nos. 65 and 180, the Mass in F, the Sanctus in D and various organ works) have all been recorded before out of context, and nothing seemed to be missing. That's one reason why many of us look suspiciously at Mr. McCreesh's project, seeing it as a sort of Civil War re-enactment - interesting as history, but not meaningful as art. Still, when applied specifically to the cantatas, a case can be made for his approach. For many years, critics have pointed to features that make the cantatas seem out of place in a concert hall. For one thing, a cantata from Bach's Leipzig period typically has a front-heavy shape. It opens with a substantial chorus, which the composer Donald Tovey compared to a locomotive; that is followed by a "train" of movements for soloists with a caboose of a final chorale. Bach, the argument continues, would have structured the cantatas differently for concert use, maybe building the piece to a climax. As written, the cantatas make more sense in their original setting, like an altarpiece in the church it was designed for.

Then there are the texts. Bach wrote cantatas as he did partly because his job in writing them was to preach. By design, the cantatas function like sermons, interpreting the biblical message of that day in the church year and applying it to the worshiper.

This recording (Archiv 457 631-2; two CD's) shows the process at work. After we listen to a reading of the Bible text of the day, telling the story of the three wise men bearing gifts to the newborn baby, we hear the text sung in the richly colored opening chorus of Cantata No. 65, "Sie Werden aus Saba Alle Kommen" ("From Sheba Will They All Arrive"). Then, in recitatives and arias, we hear a moral message drawn from the Bible text. "Gold of Ophir is too plain," the bass soloist exhorts (in 18th-century German verse). "Away with these empty gifts dug from the earth!/ What Jesus desires is thy heart./ Present it to Jesus, thou Christian throng, as a New Year's gift." Such imagery has made Bach lovers cringe since the early days of the Bach revival in the 19th century; but this recording helps us conceive of a milieu in which such verse seemed urgent. The final chorale seems not a caboose here but - as the Bach scholar Michael Marissen puts it - a prism that focuses the theological message.

Even with this context provided, we can barely imagine how eagerly Bach's listeners sought to be preached to. Many of them wandered in late to church, but they all tried to be on time for the sermon. Some worshippers attended two or three services on Sunday so they could hear more sermons. Few Bach devotees today would use up their time-travel hours to hear any more preaching than absolutely required, and Mr. McCreesh shares our interests. In Bach's day, sermons typically lasted an hour or more; the one on this CD lasts six minutes.

It is an excerpt from a sermon by Martin Luther, published in 1545. For authenticity's sake Mr. McCreesh could have picked a sermon from Bach's era, since these are abundantly available in print, though none are from his church in Leipzig. Bach's contemporaries might have used one by Luther in a pinch but Mr. McCreesh does so for a different reason. Luther's prominence in Western history gives his sermon at least a chance of being interesting to us, no matter how un-Lutheran we may be. Bach owned two complete sets of Luther's publications but also more than a dozen books of published sermons by his own contemporaries. His interest in them was not unusual for his era, but even one full-length sermon would be too many for most of us.

Listeners might be grateful not only for that saving of CD space but also for other accommodations to the present. For one thing, Mr. McCreesh has chosen a gentle, positive liturgical theme, the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi. By contrast, the music Bach wrote for church often explores not beauty but the ugliness of the human condition. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out in these pages, a typical liturgical experience from 18th-century Leipzig would have featured a cantata like No. 26, "Ach Wie Flüchtig, Ach Wie Nichtig" ("Ah How Fleeting, Ah How Trivial"). The title refers to human life on earth. That cantata, according to Leipzig hymn schedules, was to appear in services filled with hymns concerning death and dying. By contrast, Mr. McCreesh presents major-key cantatas, accompanied by hymns expressing wonder. If the recording doesn't truly transport us to Leipzig in 1740, it does transport us.

Indeed, this release might have broader appeal than most Bach cantata recordings - notably among the listeners who made best-sellers of Hildegard of Bingen and Gregorian chant, for it creates a golden, celestial aura that most Bach choral music doesn't seek. (It is hard, for example, to imagine a New Age following for the "St. Matthew Passion," with its ruminations on guilt and remorse.) Would this CD function, then, as background? Not as well as out-of-context plainchant. But if a typical modern performance turns a Bach cantata from a primarily religious utterance into a purely aesthetic one, this reconstruction goes further - it turns the entire church service into an aesthetic object. The recording medium is fundamentally unlike a church service; we sample our CDs alone, listening passively and when we choose, rather than participating actively with a congregation of neighbors from start to finish.

How many neighbors? The pews of Bach's church held about 2,500 people, with another 500 of their poorer brethren using the standing room at the back. As Tanya Kevorkian writes in her excellent article, "The Reception of the Cantata During Leipzig Church Services, 1700-1750," the seating was "mapped socially" among the burghers of Leipzig, "with status hierarchies reflected in the type of pew held and the location of that pew." People became intensely territorial about their pews. They also "observed one another and greeted their neighbors as they arrived. From their balcony pews, men, including students (who had their own balcony) could observe the women below [women tended to get first-floor seats]. They also courted young unmarried women by visiting them in their pews." The McCreesh CD spares us a lot of the real experience, including the fact that the church was unheated during winter.

For us, though, this recording manages to feel like a church service. The sense of transport comes not only from the music but also, to a large degree, from liturgical details Mr. McCreesh re-enacts: the bells, the congregational hymns and the general sense of shared purpose. Even for those who already know that in orthodox Lutheran services the German Bible texts and many prayers were chanted in quasi-Gregorian style, there is something about actually hearing such "heightened" speech that calls up our associations with a sense of mystery.

On the other hand, we discover that elements of the Lutheran service translate poorly to home listening. One of Luther's innovations was to let some of the singing be done by the congregation, whereas the Roman Catholic rite had reserved virtually all of the singing for the priests and choir. Whatever worshippers may have thought of this change, for record-listeners the Roman approach has advantages. You might agree after hearing Lutheran hymns that repeat the same music verse after verse - one example here goes on for more than 10 minutes. As Mr. Marissen points out, if you were singing the music yourself in a church service the repetitions might be involving. And Bach's congregation knew these Lutheran hymns well, as can happen in churches today. To sing along was not unlike a modern folk singer getting the crowd to join in on "Blowing in the Wind." For modern listeners, however, the skip button will come in handy.

But it is the elements least congenial to home listening, like these hymns, that contribute most to the illusion of eavesdropping on a Leipzig service. How historical is the service here? We can't know absolutely. The conclusion applies most sharply to the Bach performances themselves, as readers familiar with early music might expect. The use of a female soprano, Ann Monoyios, is an obvious compromise with modern realities. (Bach used boy sopranos or adult male falsettists.) But her singing is first-rate. Other choices held to be more historical are just as palatable to the ear. Using only one voice per part in some choruses produces beguiling results. And Mr. McCreesh argues that Bach would have used a large cathedral organ to accompany the group, instead of the chamber organs typical in early-music performances; the added color and weight of the large instrument could set a trend.

Mr. McCreesh's colleagues will argue about these choices and more (a couple of speedy tempos, for example). More than that, the whole enterprise shows that even a real time machine would not give us the real 1740 experience. Our temporal baggage - cultural and intellectual - differs too much from that of the Leipzig congregants. To begin, the impact of one of Luther's biggest innovations - using the everyday language rather than Latin - is lost on us. For most of us, the period German sounds even more foreign than the Roman church's Latin did to Bach's parishioners, who heard a bit of Latin in their services every week. Even modern Germans find the language archaic.

Besides, we are not listening in order to worship. And if we were, modern Lutheran worshipers do not share the kind of belief that gripped Bach and his audience. Bach believed in the divine ordination of kings and aristocrats. He and his listeners worried about the Devil and damnation far more literally than most Lutherans do today. To Bach's listeners, the cantata texts did not seem archaic. But then, neither did Luther's denunciations of Jews and Catholics. We can't really join Bach's congregation and few of us would want to.

Even a time machine couldn't make us any more than tourists. But Bach's cantatas, taken out of context, will continue to move us. And the only reason most of us want to hear a historical Lutheran service re-enacted is Bach's music, which stands out from its original context, as this CD demonstrates. Still, by forcing us to think about Bach and his purposes anew, this reconstruction does something that no other Bach cantata recording manages.


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Followup: See the excellent post on John Eliot Gardiner's cantata series by Greg Sandow

For a detailed discussion of the Bach service, see Tanya Kevorkian, "The Reception of the Cantata during Leipzig's Church Services, 1700-1750," in Early Music 30:1 February 200,.


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