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Alfred Mann, 1992

Bach and Handel:

Choral Performance

Original Performance Forces:

It is true that for his opera enterprise in London Handel
undertook extensive travels in order to secure the best
performers in the world, whereas the Leipzig Cantor
[Bach worked with] had to wrangle constantly with local
dignitaries about unsatisfactory conditions. Their
audiences and their respective demands differed greatly,
and a bewildering dichotomy arises from the fact that
Handel acted as a free agent of his work, whereas Bachs
professional status was that of an employeeYet Bach
and Handel faced similar limitations, and this applies, as
we shall see, more to the vocal than to the instrumental
Bachs Short but Most Necessary Draft for a WellAppointed Church Music, written in 1730, specifies the
need for four vocal soloists, though this number could be
doubled up to eight in a double chorus performance. The
soloists were also to form part of the choir, which was to
contain 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and 3 basses
thought preferably 4 of each.
The orchestra Bach calls for consists of 2 (preferably 3)
players for each Violin I and II, 2 first violas, 2 second
violas, 2 cellos, and a double bass. To this was added 2
(or 3) oboes, 1 (or 2) bassoons, 3 trumpets, and one
kettledrum player.

These forces represented only the minimum of what

Bach wished to have under normal circumstances, but it
didnt represent what he had.

Choristers and Soloists

o Whereas all of Bach singers were paid the
same, Handel had different rates for general
choral members, sections leaders, and soloists.
o The fact that womens voices were banned
from the church service by hallowed prejudice
raised their prima donna status in opera even
higher. Young boys often sang the soprano
lines furing this time, with a young adult men
sometimes contributing to the alto section.

Singers and Instrumentalists

o The number of players given in Bachs
minimum requirements slightly exceeds that
indicated for singers, resulting in the direct
opposite of a norm observed in modern
performance practice.
At the time, singers still claimed primary
professional status, with their services
coming at more of a premium. They often
received better training than
instrumentalists, who were often drawn
from the community, and thusly were
unsupervised in their efforts.
o Handels orchestral roster was about twice as
big as Bachs, and included servants, musick
porters, and a manager.

There is some debate about Bachs belief

in the word chorus meaning one singer
to a part, brought about by the research of
Joshua Rifkin.
o Social conditions of the period created a wide
range of singers and players.
One member was picked because he
shaved well, and hath an excellent hand
on the violin and all necessary languages.
Rehearsal and Performance Conditions
o We know of the Mozartean opera overture
whose ink was still fresh at performance time,
but it is not generally realized that this
represents a more or less prevailing schedule
situation in the 18th century.
Often little time left to study the work and
attend to details of performance.
Sometimes multiple copyists hands would
be scribbling away at one page of
manuscript paper in order to meet
Original performance parts usually
featured almost no markings of pencil
indicating areas in need of practice or
refinement; there just wasnt enough time.
Instrumentalists usually were in a position
of sight-reading, and the constant
inclusion of obvious errors, such as the
repeated omission of measures, makes his
work even more astounding. As Mann
mentions, his performances must have
been marked by a certain improvisational

Musicians of the time were well-trained

and highly-adaptable and receptive.
Handel, on the other hand, was put in
situations that were much more time-friendly.
He was able to recruit musicians to read
and help him edit his work. Even so,
Handel would become frustrated quickly if
his performers could not catch on to the
music quickly enough, speaking to the
expectations of performers in the Baroque.
(Threatened to throw celebrated soprano
Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window!)
As Handel moved from opera to oratorio, he
began to use local musicians instead of
internationally acclaimed ones, and the result
was an orchestra of significantly greater quality
that the choir.
There were actually 3 conductors for choral
and instrumental performance:
Composer as Principal Conductor and
conductor of solo numbers;
Concertmaster in charge of the orchestra;
Organist in charge of the choir.
Organist (choirmaster) supported the
choral texture only where it was
needed according to rehearsal
The harpsichord represented originally the
conductors instrument in operatic practice.
Church music in Bachs and Handels time
was not endowed with the opulence that
would have allowed for the 3-fold division
of responsibility.

Problems of Limitation

Limitations in the number and quality of available

Handel also struggled with the social prejudice against
the inclusion of orchestra in choral works; many of his
choral works require the services of that ensemble.
However, the concept of a piano-vocal score belongs to a
later age.
The choral singer rehearsed and performed from a book
containing the single given part, as opposed to the
current traditions of all parts being included.
Size of venue was often a limitation, with things such as
the famous request of men not bringing swords and
women not wearing hoops [dresses] resulting. In halls of
great size as opposed to the smaller venues, many of
the details of Bachs works would be lost in the void.
The stylistic orientation in Bachs and Handels choral
works had its roots in chamber music proportions.
Solutions in Handels Work
Upon entering the service of the Duke of Chandos,
Handel encountered new limtations; primarily, the
lack of an alto voice or viola.
o The result was the use of soprano, tenor, and
bass vocal groups along with 2 violins, cello
and bass..foreshadowing an important
ensemble of the classical period that was to

Eventually to this string ensemble was

added the bassoon an oboe, creating a
novel orchestral sonority.
It is a well-known fact of music history that
Handels quick reaction in recasting [his opera
Esther in to an oratorio after the Bishop of Londons
forbiddance of scenic presenation of a sacred
subject] must be seen as the origin of the eventual
turn in his life work.
On many occasions, Handel was forced to adjust his
instrumentation to more adequately use the
sometimes inadequate forces that were available to
him when traveling for performances abroad.
Perhaps the greatest limitation that befell Handel
was going blind late in his life. He still persevered
both as a composer and performer, even through
pain, and through sheer intellect and imagination
was able to captivate his audiences with his musical
brilliance performing organ concertos between acts.
o In fact, both Bach and Handel turned blind
toward the end of their lives. Ironically, the
same doctor was responsible for tending to
both of them as they struggled with their
blindness, John Taylor. To the end, both were
steadfast composers, ultimately dictating their
final works to personal copyists.
Problems and Solutions Today
Bach himself would frequently add or omit
instrumental support in performances of the same
work. Within reason, this same luxury should be
afforded to conductors looking to recreate the
o But one must be aware of the importance of
the continuo practice and must be sensitive to

the differences between the old a capella

tradition and its Romantic reinterpretation as
represented in the sonorities of a capella works
by Mendelssohn or Brahms.
o The orchestra was a much more flexible
concept in the time of Bach and Handel.
The challenges of the conductors sensitivity
supersede those of his physical resources in all
questions of performance practice.
o An unexpected wealth of wonderful, intimate
timbres has opened to the modern scene, but it
needs to be viewed with a keen eye for
inherent compromises.
When new facts are discovered and new
means of reconstruction are achieved, it is
rarely considered how easily they are
Sometimes Bach even included in his
manuscripts that other instruments may
be preferable for the best performance.
One might say that the most serious limitation to be
faced by the modern conductor is the notion that
there are no limitations.
The commitment of since performance must be to
perspective and integrity rather than assumed
authenticity; and it must be guided by the
realization that though he search for faithful spirit
and execution of performance will never end, it has
its natural limitations.
Problems of Interpretation
The mood or character of a piece is, as a rule,
indicated initially with what we are used to
understanding as a tempo indication, but what is in
reality something more comprehensive.

o The composers were conversant in Italian and

with shades in the currency of words which we
are apt to miss. Thus, they stood for basic
expression as much as tempo.
Allegro does not mean fast so much as
bright and lively.
Adagio was often used towards the end
of a piece, abbreviated ad., to include a
Often, significant modification within a single
movement was implied by a change in rhythmic
pulse, or by the occasional addition of markings
such as alla breve.
Instrumental parts often featured specific dynamic
instructions, whereas vocal parts, with very few
exceptions, had none.
o The reason for this was the singers had verbal
text, and it was taken for granted that they
understood it and rendered it accordingly.
It was the text that determined the
interpretation of the performer. It is
therefore natural that a proper perception
of the text must be the foremost guide to
Text and Translation
Immediately we are faced with the complex task of
working in two different languages when
considering the works of Handel and Bach.
Supremacy of text, even in the most grand of
musical moments.
Isolated peculiarities will have to be treated with
some caution.
o i.e., Surely being made in to a 3-syllable word
in the Messiah chorus that begins with this

word), a 2-syllable setting of the word were,

o Elision of glory of in to two quarter notes:
glor (y)of.
Problems of the English language fade when
considering Bachs music, but only slightly; the
principles are in essence the same in both
o The crucial point remains: English-speaking
performers and conductors, while dealing with
a foreign language, may take sad comfort in
the fact that their colleagues from across the
Channel or the ocean have sinned just as much
against from the spirit of texts as their own
Arthur Mendels famous advice on translating Bach
texts: Dont.
o Two types of translation: Reading translation or
performance translation.
If our central concern should be an appropriate
understanding of the text, how are we to deal with a
language barrier that threatens to alienate
performer and audience to begin with?
o Faced with the necessity of using a translation,
however, the conductor should not hesitate to
change it in spots where preferable diction or
more felicitous wording might be achieved.
The other basic consideration is that the original
association of word and music must be regarded as
an integral component of composition.
o A change in the translators text is always
preferable to a change in the composers
prosodyoften as unfortunate a consequence
of translation as the forced misplacement of
key words or syllables.

The aid of a specialist in the foreign language might

guide the performers and conductors preparation
in rehearsal.
There is an aspect of Bachs art, ranging from the
obvious to the mysterious, by which the interpreter
is often unnecessarily intimidated.
Designated by the catch-word symbolism , it
refers to gestures, woven into the music, by which
the composer penetrated the meaning of the text.
o In its simplest form it is the device of text- or
word-painting that illustrates the meaning of
words in music.
Simple only in that the composers
expression abounds in images as the
poets is rich in metaphors.
Rarely, composers are able to achieve realization of
images as profound as a Cross, as seen in many
works of Bach. Depicting the Cross was a very
popular aspect of Baroque art.
The matter of text became an overriding concern in
Handels work when he turned from opera to
oratorio, so much so that it fundamentally changed
the criteria by which he chose his soloists, much to
the praise of the audience.
o Once chose a famed actress over trained
singers, and the expression she was able to
achieve was well-received by her audience,
though they even conceded she was not the
finest singer.
Tempo and Dynamics
Tempo and dynamics are to be considered as
generally determined by the text in Bachs and
Handels choral music.

o The rule with regard to tempothat the

speed of sung narrative corresponded to the
natural speed of speech for the given text and
moodapplied so widely that in Bachs scores
specific markings are almost entirely absent.
Only where Bach intended a change in
tempo within a movement or single
section of a work are we apt to find an
occasional indication.
In the works of Handel, these instructions
are more frequent, but just as vague,
using markings like a tempo ordinario.
This tells the conductor that he has
leeway with regard to tempo, but
should avoid extremes.
The scholar Larsen, having extensively studied and
recorded the metronome markings of various
conductors, believed that the greatest fault of past
misinterpretations is the amplification of tempo
Baroque composers thought in terms of terraced
dynamicslevels of sound more or less
categorically defined be reduced or increased
groups of instruments and voices or the whole
ensemblebut not in terms of sudden dynamic
changes within a given group.
o Changes in dynamics were applied in a
generally structural rather than a purely
expressive sense, as they were by registrations
on the organ or harpsichord. Also due to this,
the norm was to have the same dynamic
throughout a phrase.
o Accentuated dynamic contrast is as foreign to
Bachs and Handels choral works as the
accentuated contrast of tempi. Non-vibrato as

Baroque practice did as yet not have a codified set

of markings for the increase and decrease of
Rhythm and Articulation
Occasionally even autographed manuscripts are not
totally reliable.
o One cannot expect definitive answers where
only educated guesses remain.
Baroque composers were in the habit of leaving
some detail of rhythmic notation imprecise.
o This was partly a matter of haste or
convenience, but partly also a matter of
deficiencies in current manners of notation.
Because of the non-existence of a form for
the notation of triplets, a dottedeighth/sixteenth could sometimes be
implied to carry that meaning, as seen in
gigues of the period.
Typically French is the articulate emphasis arising
from the Rule of the Down Bow to be applied to
the strong beats of the measure, and pronounced
examples often appear in Handels works.
As far as particular bowings:
o changes in direction should not be perceived as
o Remember that the bow is the same length
whether an up- or down-bow.
o Conductors should always confer with
concertmasters to come to a consensus about
the appropriate bowings for every piece.
A particular problem of articulation arises from the
appearance of fermatas at the phrase endings of

o In order to interpret the symbol correctly, it is

necessary to realize that it did not have the
primary connotation of a hold in Bachs and
Handels time; it acquired this in later periods.
It was meant only as a sign of orientation,
and in either case it was not a lengthening
of the note in question but this notes
(relative) finality that was implied.
Proper choral articulation, too, is guided by the text
and its meaning.