Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reuse, Recycle, Rehearse: Bach and the Practical Art of Parody

Yesterday, I wrote about how Bach, the quintessential German Lutheran church composer, came to write several Latin-language Masses. (You can read that post HERE.) I’ll be singing one of these so-called “Lutheran Masses” (the one in G minor, BWV 235) with CONCORA on Sunday, March 22. (Details are at the end of this post.) Though these Masses are rarely performed (CONCORA’s performance just might be the first-ever in New England), some of the music they contain might be familiar to Bach aficianados. Why?

In preparing his Latin-language Masses, Bach re-used much of his own music, often re-working entire cantata movements to compile “new” works. This practice, called “parody,” was common among composers of the time. For composers like Bach, who was expected to provide a steady stream of music for weekly services and other performances, it made sense to use existing music, making revisions, reinterpretations, and embellishments as appropriate for new texts or new occasions. Bach’s re-use of earlier material was not necessarily a capitulation to lack of time or energy to compose fresh material, and no stigma should be attached to this practical adaptation of existing material. In fact, the material he selected for re-use was chosen as much for its intrinsic musical value as for the convenience of its use. Often, too, he chose music that had been first used to set words which reflected the same theological ideas that would be conveyed in the new movement.

Each of the six movements of the Mass in G Minor is derived from earlier cantatas. The Kyrie and first movement of the five-movement Gloria are based on the first movements of Cantatas 102 and 72, respectively; the remaining parts of the Gloria are based on movements from Cantata 187.

While the use of parody was long held in contempt, more recent scholarship, and the perspective of time, have supported a renewed appreciation for this technique and the skill required to use it masterfully. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff offers this comment on Bach’s re-use of material in the Short Masses: “For the five Mass compositions of the 1730s Bach reworked a great number of vocal pieces of various kinds and of exceptional quality, suitable and worthy of further elaboration. They include some of the finest concerto choruses, choral fugues, arias, and duets taken mainly from regular Sunday and feast-day cantatas, in a few instances also from secular cantatas. Bach provided a new context for these highly select pieces written for specific occasions. What happens here, is, in fact nothing less that an elevation of several compositions from the liturgical (and ‘secular,’ respectively) Proper to the more universal level of the Ordinary.” (Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music, Harvard University Press, 1991)

Don’t miss this rare performance of Bach's Mass in G Minor! The concert will take place on Sunday, March 22, at 4:00 p.m., at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington). Plenty of free parking is available.

This concert often sells out quickly, so purchase your tickets soon! Group discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:
Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

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