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On-line Book Review



Dimension: 24 x 17 x 0.5 cm
TITLE Bach's Choral Ideal by Joshua Rifkin (=Dortmunder Bach-Forschungen Bd. 5)
PUBL. DETAILS Dortmund: Klangfarben Musikverlag, 2002. 66p. Paperback. Euro 22,-
ISBN 3-932676-10-6
TO ORDER Klangfarben Musikverlag. Gabelinckstr. 11, D-44309 Dortmund, Germany.
Tel: +49 231 200 84 10; Fax: +44 231 200 84 09
DESCRIPTION A latest essay on this hot topic initially ignited by the author in early 1980s.
WORKS COVERED BWV 21-4, 29, 31, 63, 69, 71, 75-6, 79, 82, 110, 120, 131, 172, 191, 195, 201, 215, 234, 245, Anh.11, 167
READERSHIP Musicologists and music lovers interested in Bach's vocal works.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Close re-examination of historical document Entwurff.


oshua Rifkin needs little introduction. He is the author of the controversial paper in which he suggested that Bach customarily performed his cantatas one to a part in Leipzig. Many would remember the stir that his beautifully-executed one-to-a-part performance of the B-minor Mass caused. Since then, several groups followed Rifkin’s example performing Bach’s vocal works in this manner. In effect, he kindled keen interests of musicologists and music lovers alike on many issues that had been largely ignored.

This slim book is not the reprint of the author’s controversial paper on Bach’s chorus that he originally presented in 1981 (which was published in Andrew Parrott’s The Essential Bach Choir), but the one which is based on the paper that he wrote subsequently to strengthen his original arguments. His main focus here is to revisit the so-called Entwurff --- Bach’s memorandum to the Town Council of Leipzig in August 1730 entitled ‘short but most necessary draft for a well-appointed church music’ (trans. by New Bach Reader) --- not just what it means but what Bach intended it to mean. Rifkin’s examination of the document is very detailed. Through a careful interpretation of each word in the document, he concludes that the number of choristers Bach refers in the document is not the number he actually used in the performance at a time but needed as ‘roster’ from which to draw the numbers Bach needed each time. Having read his previous arguments as well as various counter arguments by other scholars, I think Rifkin has stepped up the tone of his original claim, though it is disappointing to find that Rifkin was unable to find an appropriate answer to his ultimate question – Bach’s choral ideal.

Detailed examination of 'Entwurff'

To find an answer to the last question, I think we need not only to keep on being engaged in the discussion on how one should treat and interpret historical evidence that fortunately survived as well as those that are lost, but also to consider many other practical issues that we can learn from reconstructing performances in order to find out, for example, the number of singers participated in the performance, technical competence of singers, acoustics of the performance space and the positioning of performers therein, and so on. More scientific experiments may be needed, because the practical demonstrations of one-to-a-part performance in the past were often considered unconvincing for several reasons: (1) the acoustics of the venues are often radically different from that of Bach’s working environment; (2) the performances themselves were sometimes reported unattractive and not balanced well; (3) many CD recordings were electronically enhanced by the recording techniques used.

Having said that, I would urge everyone who are interested in Rifkin’s argument to read this book. It is important that we know what Entwurff really means, and what Rifkin thinks it means, the document of fundamental importance to Bach Studies.

Published on-line on 29 November 2004