Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Fred Fehleisen (Mannes College and Juilliard School, USA)

BWV 245/12b: a practical issue with compositional implications

The opening measures of the chorus, “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?” (No. 12b) in Bach’s Johannes Passion, pose a problem for performers: if one doesn’t carefully count each of the half-bar pulses, one can easily lose one’s place. Having experienced this problem first-hand as a violinist on more than one occasion, I decided to study the score in detail and began to notice that there was something odd about the fact that Bach set “Bist du nicht?” in an even meter (2/2, indicated as common time). In that Bach’s treatment of the text and his choice of musical figures (figurae cortae) suggested that the piece might be more easily understood if it was in triple meter (3/2), it seemed reasonable to conduct an experiment and write out the music in triple time.

Bach’s written notation results in a piece that is seventeen measures in length. Recasting it in triple meter yields one that lasts for twelve.. In triple meter, the asymmetries of the opening measures virtually disappear, and along with them, the practical problems of “counting.” At the same time, scanning “Bist du nicht?” in triple meter robs the music of some of its “turba” qualities. It is as if the piece had two distinct natures: one duple, the other triple.

A triple meter reading of “Bist du nichts?” reveals not only a twelve-bar design, but a possible set of musical and textual relationships between it and other movements in the Johannes Passion. As I hope to show, “Bist du nicht?” is not only linked thematically to surrounding pieces, as has already been noted by Eric Chafe in his illuminating study of the work, but also in terms of Bach’s allegorical use of “imitation” and “dance.” Taken together, these elements work in ways that seem to add layers of meaning to the piece itself, and raise further questions about Bach’s purpose and intent as well.

Last updated on 10 May 2004