Reconstruction of a baroque masterwork, the Bach Concerto in G major for Violin, Viola and String Orchestra.
By Robert Bridges
In the 21st century, the business of restoring a lost work by J.S. Bach is a fraustrating affair, due to the paucity of historical sources; it is rather like knitting a sweater out of cobwebs. Long gone are the days when a fastidious housewife in Leipzig could open a cabinet for spring cleaning and call out to her husband, "Ach du lieber, come look Dieter! I’ve found another Bach manuscript hidden underneath Grandmama‘s good china!" The truth of the matter is that after two centuries of exhaustive searching, all the autograph Bach manuscripts that have not been destroyed have already been discovered. (The same can safely be said about the works of Bach copied out by his wives, children and students.)
In light of this discouraging fact, why do contemporary scholars and musicians continue to try to piece together the works of Bach that are generally considered irretrievably lost to posterity? A look at the catalogue of Bach’s output reveals part of the motivation.
J.S. Bach was one of the most prolific composers in history, leaving over 1,000 works still in print today. However, according to the esteemed Bach scholar, Friedrich Smend, over 40% of Bach’s total output remains lost; an astounding 400 works. We know of the existence of the lost works by reference only; from personal letters, printed programs, newspaper accounts and the like. The imagination is tantalized. How many masterworks lay just out of reach, shrouded in the mists of history? Therein lies the heart of the temptation; who can resist the urge to recreate one of the 400 lost works penned by this genius?
How is it possible to reconstruct these lost works? There are three basic methods employed by musicologists. The first is used when there are actual manuscript fragments available for study. If the fragments contain enough information, it is possible to "fill in the blanks" and guess what the rest of the composition might have sounded like. This method is rare, since there are so few fragments left.
The second method is used for the vocal works of Bach. It is known as reconstruction by "parody". To give an example: Bach’s patron, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen died in 1728. Bach was called upon to compose music for the funeral. He had little time in which to compose a complete new work for the occasion. He decided to borrow several arias from his St. Matthew Passion and simply substitute new words to celebrate the memory of his patron. However, all that exists today is the text, because the score and parts of the funeral music have been lost. Since we know that the music came from the St. Matthew Passion, all one has to do is compare the words from the original arias with the text from the new arias, and you can match the music with the words. Thus, the aria "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion matches with the aria "Erhalte mich" of the funeral music for the Prince. (This "parody" method was used by the renowned Dutch scholar, Ton Koopman, to reconstruct the entire St. Mark Passion a few years ago.)
The third method of reconstruction brings to light one of Bach’s favorite compositional techniques; that is, his frequent habit of "stealing" his own music! Perhaps the term, "stealing" is a bit unfair. It was quite a common practice in the early 18th century for composers to borrow music, either from their own works or from colleagues they admired. Bach was under enormous pressure to write new music every week. His workload in Leipzig (the last 30 years of his life 1721-1750) was staggering. Bach taught at the Thomasschule, and was director of music at the Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, Petrikirche, and the Neuekirche. Altogether, the Leipzig churches required 58 cantatas each year, in addition to Passion music for Good Friday, Magnificats at Vespers for three festivals, an annual cantata for the installation of the City Council, and occasional music such as funeral motets and wedding cantatas. In addition to writing music for the churches of Leipzig, he was director of the Collegium Musicum from 1729-1740, which performed every Friday evening at Gottfried Zimmerman’s coffeehouse. I’m sure that on many occasions, there just wasn’t enough time to write a new piece from scratch. A little judicious "borrowing" was called for in order to fill last-minute commissions.
Many treatises have been written regarding Bach’s habit of borrowing from his own music. Frank Macomber of Syracuse University wrote an analysis of no less than 130 works in which Bach transcribed his own previously written material. These are only the main transcriptions which are clearly and easily identifiable as transcriptions of complete works or at least complete movements. (This does not include cases in which two works are similar and obviously derive from a single earlier source. It also does not include works which borrow themes or fugue subjects to be refashioned into another piece.)
Some of these "copycat" pieces are quite familiar to audiences today. The prelude from the E-major solo violin partita (BWV 1006) was given a full orchestra setting as the sinfonia of Cantata No. 29; the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto, with two horns and three oboes added to the orchestra, became the sinfonia of Cantata No 174; no fewer than five movements from the solo clavier concertos are found in cantatas; the opening chorus of Cantata No. 110 is based on the first movement of the orchestral Suite in D major (BWV 1069). The sonata for viola da gamba in G major (BWV 1027) is in essence the same piece as the trio sonata for two flutes and continuo (BWV 1039).
Bach’s technique of reusing his own music gives credence to the third method of recreating lost works. When the clues are warranted, an existing work can be recast for a new medium. It is this method which I employed to restore the double concerto for violin, viola and strings. The three movements of the concerto were drawn from three arias in the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1727). An interesting confluence of seemingly unrelated clues, judged in the light of Bach’s own personal life circumstances circa 1731, led me to deduce that these three arias were intended by Bach to be used to create a new concerto.
The St. Matthew Passion is a popular work for scholars to study, since there is a certain amount of mystery surrounding its creation and premiere. For a long time, it was assumed that the premiere took place on Good Friday, 1729. It has recently been proven that the premiere was actually on Good Friday, 1727. The original manuscript from 1727 is lost. There were probably several revisions between 1727 and 1736, all of which are lost. We do have Bach‘s own final revision dating from 1736, which is the accepted version used today. There are also two other complete copies made by his pupils. One by Joseph Christoph Altnickol, who later became Bach‘s son-in-law. The copy was written out between 1741-1748. Oddly, It is not a copy of the 1736 revision written by Bach; rather, it is a copy of an older version, date unknown. The simple chorales and liturgical text are missing from this copy. The other complete copy was written out by Johann Friedrich Agricola (another student of Bach). He may have copied Altnickol’s copy, rather than an original Bach manuscript.
Several years ago, I found an odd reference to an incomplete fragment from the St. Matthew Passion (M. Schneider, Ed., Bach-Urkunden [Bach documents] volume II. Leipzig, 1918). The reference translates as follows: "…There is also a fragment from the St. Matthew Passion. It consists of three arias; ‘Ich will dir mein herze schenken‘, ‘Erbarme dich‘, and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder‘. The text is missing, and there are some alterations to the voicing. It is not known who wrote out the copy; most likely one of Bach’s pupils. It is probably from an abandoned revision of the St. Matthew Passion, and thus of little significance. The fragment is housed at the Neuekirche, in Leipzig." (I later discovered to my chagrin that it is not possible to study the fragment directly; the Neuekirche and all its contents was completely destroyed in World War II.)
I started to wonder about the possibilities for this elusive fragment. After all, Bach had used parts of the St. Matthew Passion to make other new works. Perhaps this was another project along those lines. When the three arias are studied in juxtaposition, the answer seems obvious. The two arias "Ich will dir mein herze schenken" and "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder" are both allegro, in G major. "Erbarme dich" is adagio, in B minor. The tempo and key relations are standard concerto format! Bach could easily have whipped up a concerto from these three arias in a single afternoon. If Bach had done so, then why would there be no other record of such a work having been written? A possible answer comes from Bach’s involvement with the Collegium Musicum at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse.
Around 1730, Bach’s liturgical writing for the churches of Leipzig ran out of steam. He was tired of the constant battle with the church elders regarding programming and other matters. Also, his new works for the church were not as well received by the parishioners as they once were. (The St Mark Passion of 1731 was a flop). Bach threw himself into the carefree atmosphere of the Collegium Musicum for his main creative outlet. The Collegium Musicum was an ad-hoc group of talented students, professionals and visiting musicians passing through Leipzig. It was unthinkable for any musician of note traveling through Leipzig to fail to pay a visit to Bach and play an evening of music with him, if possible. These concerts were generally put together at the last minute. They were rarely advertised, and usually there were no printed programs. Everyone in town simply knew that on Friday evenings, all you had to do was show up at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse, and there would be a concert by Bach and his associates. (Many of the instrumental concertos previously assumed to have been written when Bach lived in Cothen, are now thought to have been composed for the Collegium Musicum concerts in Leipzig.) Bach never imagined that the works written for these impromptu occasions would have any value to future generations, so the manuscripts were rarely saved. The mind reels at the thought of how many fascinating works ended up being swept into the trash by Zimmerman at closing time!
A likely scenario then began to form in my mind: One fine Spring afternoon, Bach is called upon at his home in Leipzig by one of his violinist pals from the Court of Cothen. (Bach was known to have kept in close contact with the musicians he worked with during his employment at Cothen previous to his move to Leipzig.) Bach, delighted to see an old friend, asks him to play a concert that Friday at the Zimmerman Coffeehouse. Bach then writes some instructions for his favourite pupil at the time, Johan Krebs, to write out the parts for a new concerto, using three arias from the St. Matthew Passion as a basis. The musicians get together for a brief rehearsal to iron out any small changes needed. The concert proceeds at Zimmerman’s, followed by a hearty meal and much story-telling. The next day, Krebs stashes the rough draft and the left-over parts in some out-of-the-way corner at the Neuekirche, thinking they might come in handy for a future school assignment. The memory of a wonderful evening of music soon fades with time, and all that is left is a few crumpled pages of manuscript which moulder away in a dusty drawer at the Neuekirche.
Having satisfied myself that a concerto fashioned from these three arias was musically as well as historically possible (even probable), I set about the nuts and bolts of actually reconstructing such a work.
I took as a basic assumption that Bach's resetting of the tutti ensemble would most likely have been close to the original versions of the arias; harpsichord, cello, a few violins and violas, and two solo instruments. The difficult part was deciding what the two solo instruments might have been. The arias constituting the second and third movements, "Erbarme Dich" and "Gebt mir meinen Jesum Wieder" were originally scored for solo violin and solo voice, so it seemed clear that one of the solo instruments would have been the violin. "Ich will dir mein herze schenken", the aria for the first movement, calls for solo soprano voice, also making the choice of violin seem likely to replace the soprano.
The choice of the second solo instrument was more problematic. The first aria calls for oboe d’amore to be paired with the soprano voice, suggesting a mezzo-soprano or alto-voiced instrument. The second aria calls for alto voice to be paired with the solo violin. So far, so good; an alto instrument seems called for. However, the third aria calls for bass voice to be paired with the solo violin. Thus, the total range needed to cover the second solo instrument line would be an "A" one octave and one third below middle "C", up to the "G" one octave and one fourth above middle "C"; nearly three octaves!. It made musical sense to have the second solo voice be a stringed instrument, since virtually all of Bach’s concertos for multiple instruments are written for instruments of the same family. (For example, the double concerto for two violins, the sixth Brandenburg concerto for two violas, the concertos for multiple harpsichords, etc.) The only instrument that could cover this wide of a range would be the cello, but that seemed unwise. About two-thirds of the concerto would then have the cello playing in the extreme upper register, which would be very uncharacteristic of instrumental writing of the time. The only other alternative would be to choose the viola. The voicing would fall nicely into the middle register of the viola, with only three measures needing to be transposed, since they went a minor third below the range of the viola. Being a violist myself, I was easily persuaded that this was the more natural solution!
The rest of the work on this restoration went rather quickly. I simply kept as close to the original voicing as possible. When changes were needed, I used as my model the Bach double concerto for two violins and the Brandenburg sixth concerto for matters relating to divisions of the solo material, and balance between the soloists and tutti ensemble.
The resulting concerto is, I think, an attractive addition to the repertoire. Whether it will be considered a work of musical scholarship or a flight of artistic license remains for the listener to decide. No doubt some musicologists will a cast a doubtful eye on my efforts, but I am satisfied to have another vehicle by which to enjoy the splendour of Bach’s gifts!
The world premiere of the Bach Concerto for Violin, Viola and Strings in G major took place in Houston, September 6, 2002. The soloists were Jonathan Godfrey, violin, of the Mercury Baroque Ensemble, and the author Robert Bridges, on viola.Sources/suggested reading: Donald Gout, "A History of Western Music", Third Edition, pg. 426-427, 429; Friedrich Smend, "Bach in Kothen", pub. 1951, pg. 93, 96, 106, 183, 205; Frank Macomber, "Bach’s reuse of his own music: A study in transcription", pub. 1967; Hans David, Arthur Mendel, "The New Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Letters and Documents" pg 457, (expanded edition revised by Christoph Wolff), pub. W.W. Norton, 1998; Christoph Wolff, "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician", pub. W. W. Norton, 2001; M. Schneider, Ed., "Bach-Urkunden" volume II, Leipzig, pub. 1918.
From Webpage -