Return to Homepage

On-line Book Review


Dimension: 21.5 x 14.8 x 1.9 cm
TITLE Hearing Bach's Passions by Daniel Melamed
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. vii+176p. Hard back. Price: £15,50.
ISBN 0-19-516933-6
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.
DESCRIPTION A monograph exploring what Bach's Passions mean to us today.
WORKS COVERED BWV 15, 23, 143, 150, 198, 232-6, 244-5, 246-248, 518, 565, 1080
READERSHIP Students, Bach lovers and Passion-enthusiasts.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION up-to-date discussion on how Bach performed his St John and St Matthew Passions; what are St Mark and St Luke Passions.

I n spite of the wealth of material brought to light through the recent debate on how Bach performed his vocal works, there has been no up-to-date literature on Bach’s Passions from this specific angle for the general readership in English.

With this book the author attempts to fill the gap by addressing how the people of Leipzig in Bach’s time would have heard his Passions through examining the liturgical conditions and practices of the time. He takes good care to explain the hotly-debated issues such as what concertists and repienists are, how Bach used them in his Passions, and what we learn from the Entwurff, Bach’s famous memorandum of 1730 in which he outlined what was necessary for the performance of the church music he was responsible for.


List of Tables


Part 1  Performing Forces and Their Significance

Chapter 1. Vocal Forces in Bach's Passions

Chapter 2. Singers and Roles in Bach's Passions

Part II   Passions in Performance

Chapter 3. The Double Chorus in the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244

Chapter 4.  Which St. John Passion BWV 245?

Chapter 5.  A St. Mark Passion Makes the Rounds

Part III  Phantom Passions

Chapter 6.  Parody and Reconstruction: The St. Mark Passion BWV 247

Chapter 7. Bach/Not Bach: The Anonymous St. Luke Passion BWV 246

Epilogue: Listening to Bach's Passions Today

Appendix: Tables

Suggestions for Further Reading and Listening


Hearing Bach's Passions by Daniel Melamed
Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. vii+176p.
Hard back. Price: £15,50.

Melamed’s writing is both revealing and assuring

Overall, Melamed’s writing is both revealing and assuring as he makes good inferences from the available evidence. On p.36, for instance, he deduces from source evidence that the principal tenor sung with ‘lightness and clarity’ which would have been demanded by the extended period of singing. Commenting on the visual side of performance, Melamed observes that ‘his [Bach’s] listeners were less likely to think of the tenor--whom most could not see, in any event, given the layout of the churches in which Bach’s passions were performed--as being the Evangelist in an operatic sense. Rather, if he was considered at all as an individual, it was more likely simply as a singer responsible for conveying certain words of the story and some of the chosen commentary on it’ (p.37).

When discussing Bach’s use of chorus, Melamed raises his tone, and his views come to the fore with an air of authority. He considers that the double-chorus disposition in the St Matthew Passion does not play as big a role as one might imagine, for he apparently does not see the choir as being fundamental to the work’s conception. He asserts that ‘the St Matthew Passion is not essentially a double-chorus composition and certainly not a symmetrical one.’ (p.52). Turning to the St John Passion, Melamed raises an interesting point regarding the use of ripienists, in that they are ‘indispensable to a performance of the work, contradicting the general principle that ripienists are optional reinforcers of concertists’ (p.53). Based on these observations, Melamed suggests that ‘Bach first tried out this disposition of forces in “Mein teurer Heiland” in the St John Passion, and that its success there played a role in the decision to score the St Matthew Passion as he did.’ (p.57).

The reader may have wanted to find out more about the musical issues concerning the reasons and ways in which Bach revised his own works. The St John Passion is known in four versions and, while acknowledging that we still do not know which changes Bach made for specific reasons, Melamed only broadly summarises them. Disappointingly, the two known versions of the St Matthew Passion (1727/29 and 1736) are not part of Melamed’s study, especially since early version BWV 244b was published by the NBA in 2004 (and the facsimile has been available since 1972).

But unlike other books dealing with the same subject matter, this book discusses more than just the two main Passions. Suggesting that the St. Mark Passion was composed by Reinhard Kaiser’s father Gottfried, Melamed makes an interesting case of a composition attached to a famous name and subsequently adapted by another composer to suit the practice of a particular locale. As for the St Luke, his discussion of research methods based on source evidence versus style analysis provides plenty of thought-provoking material for the readership.

The conception of the book is such that each chapter could be read on its own merit. When reading it from the beginning to the end in one sitting, one may be bothered by certain repetitions of arguments. However, the book is very generous in its explanation of the musicological jargon as well as the historical context, both of which can be intimidating to a lay reader. Hearing Bach's Passions is a welcome addition to the library of any Bach lover, especially the Passion-enthusiast.

Published online on 26 January 2008