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On-line Book Review


TITLE A Conductor's Guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach by Jonathan D. Green.
PUBL. DETAILS Lanham, Md. & London: Scarecrow Press, Inc. (Feb. 2000), ix+622 p. Hardback. US$56
ISBN 0-8108-3733-1
TO ORDER Scarecrow Press, Inc. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 15200 NBN Way, Bldg. B, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214, USA
DESCRIPTION A reference book for ‘community’ conductors, providing all the information necessary for their considering if their groups can perform a particular choral-orchestral works by Bach.
WORKS COVERED BWV 1-249; the works no longer considered as Bach's original (i.e. BWV 15, 53, 141-2, 160 and 189) are not discussed, however.
READERSHIP Amateur conductors and concert organisers who are looking for a convenient guide to choose Bach’s works for their concert programmes; local community libraries should keep this book on their shelf.
Discussion of performance issues from a conductor's perspective is both unique and valuable

This is the third volume of his “Conductor’s guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works” series. His preceding volumes deal with the 20th century repertoire, and with this he effectively makes his début as a writer on J. S. Bach. In terms of volume, this contains twice as much information as either of these preceding volumes; obviously Green is not only an able writer on music but also a very committed artist.

From time to time, I find such phrases as “conductor’s guide to..” or “conductor’s analysis of ..” in the title of D.M.A. dissertations submitted to American universities; with this connotation in my mind, I first thought that this book was a serious study of Bach’s cantatas aimed at professional conductors like Ton Koopman, Andrew Parrott and Joshua Rifkin. My guess was wrong. It became apparent within a minute of browsing the book that Green sets his readership more widely: he seems to be thinking of someone like music teachers at secondary schools or college, or even highly committed music lovers who coach choirs and ensembles at their local community. For this particular audience in mind, Green discusses all the choral-orchestral works by Bach, telling his readers all the essential information so that they can decide which pieces to pick for their future concerts.

Even though some of his readers may be less well-informed about Bach’s life and works than he is, his brief introduction of “Bach’s life and family” (in five pages) leaves much to be desired. His straightforward manner of writing is clear enough; yet I cannot help thinking that he gathered information from various sources without due care, as many errors, however small, caught my eyes frequently: for instance, he writes that Bach was appointed in 1736 as ‘kapellmeister and composer’ to Friedrich August II; what I know is that Bach was Kapellmeister to Duke Christian of Saxe-Weißefels (1682-1736), and after the Duke’s death, he received the title of Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer; C. P. E. Bach was not ‘organist’ to the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin but ‘harpsichordist’; the BG edition is called Johann Sebastian Bach’s Werke, and not Johann Sebastian Bach: Werke, to name but a few. Also, it is just a matter of convention in recent Bach literatures in that the middle names of Bach’s families are quoted fully so as to avoid confusion: ‘Johann Gottfried’ should read ‘Johann Gottfried Bernhard’; likewise the so-called ‘Bückeburg Bach’ is generally known as ‘Johann Christoph Friedrich’, and not ‘Johann Christoph’.
Chapter 2 is the main body of this book, occupying from page 7 to page 532; this is the place where each work is discussed in the order of BWV from 1 to 249, effectively covering all the cantatas, motets, masses, passions and oratorios (excluding a few works no longer considered as Bach's original). 

Each work is systematically described under eleven headings, as follows: 

small but stout, measuring c.11x7 inches

Obviously, much of the information is widely available elsewhere (such as BWV and BC) except the section “Performance Issues” which is his major and original contribution: his readers should consider his view carefully before deciding whether or not their performing forces can cope with the technical demand of the piece. I find his comments very informative. By using only a very limited number of abbreviations, the readers should be able to comprehend Green’s discussion easily without referring to the introduction or glossaries.

The remainder of the book (i.e. page 533 to the end) is consumed by various indices—text sources, copyists, liturgical index, occasions, works by duration, type, solo voices, choral voices, instruments—as well as glossary of instruments, concordance of chorale tunes, chronology of first performances, and bibliography. Although his list of bibliography looks quite out of date, his targeted readership will be happy with the information he provided. Various indices he painstakingly compiled are all well conceived. No doubt they will be very useful.

In sum, it is an excellent reference book written for non-professional conductors who are eagerly looking for a piece by Bach suitable for their performing groups, even though the quality is slightly marred by the hastily assembled introduction.

Published online on 30 March 2000

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