Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Stephen A. Crist (Emory University, USA)

When is an aria not an aria? Terminological and generic distinctions among the solos in Bach’s vocal works

In the scholarly literature on Johann Sebastian Bach, including standard reference works such as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis and the Bach Compendium, as well as in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe and other critical editions of his music, the heading “aria” appears above a startlingly diverse array of movements.  The majority of these pieces have ordinary poetic texts.  But Bach’s vocal works also include many solo settings of Biblical passages and chorale stanzas.  Are these the same as arias?  With regard to performing forces, most movements that have been called arias are scored for a single vocal soloist with instrumental ensembles of varying sizes.  Duets can without difficulty be understood as an extension of the aria genre.  But what about movements with three or more soloists?  At what point does an “aria” become a “chorus”?  As to musical form, Bach’s arias typically begin and end with a ritornello.  Should solo vocal movements that lack a ritornello (other than recitatives) be considered arias?

In the present paper, these and other thorny issues are considered from the vantage point of a systematic examination of the headings in the autograph scores of Bach’s vocal works.  This data is supplemented by evidence from the original performance parts (copied out largely by Bach’s students), early prints of the texts, and contemporary treatises on music and poetry (such as Christian Gottfried Krause’s Von der musikalischen Poesie [Berlin, 1753], an illuminating work that has received relatively little attention in Bach scholarship).

Specific observations include the following:

(1) Solo settings of Biblical texts generally do not have the heading “aria” in Bach’s autograph scores, no matter how aria-like they may seem.

(2) Solo settings of chorale stanzas occasionally have the heading “aria,” but only when no chorale tune is present.  If, on the other hand, a movement contains the melody as well as the text of a chorale, the heading “aria” is not used.

(3) Although the vast majority of movements with the heading “aria” have a single vocal soloist, Bach occasionally used the term for movements in which all four voices participate (e.g., “Friede sei mit euch,” BWV 67/6).

These investigations suggest that Bach may have been more precise in his use of the term “aria” than is normally the case today.  At the same time, they highlight the diversity of compositional approaches among Bach’s vocal solos and the difficulty of establishing a taxonomy of these movements.

Last updated on 10 May 2004