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On-line Book Review


TITLE The Essential Bach Choir by Andrew Parrott.
PUBL. DETAILS The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 2000); xi, 223 pp; £15 / $24.95.
ISBN ISBN 0-85155-786-6
TO ORDER Boydell & Brewer Ltd, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF.
DESCRIPTION Detailed discussion of Bach’s choir from historical perspective—its size, character and effect in performance—attempting to prove that it was one singer per part, and not 3 per part.
WORKS COVERED BWV 8, 21-4, 29, 55-7, 59, 63, 69, 71, 75-6, 84, 95, 106, 109-10, 117, 169, 172, 182, 191, 195, 198, 201, 207-8, 211, 213, 232, 234, 243-5, 248-9, 1046-7, 1066
READERSHIP Scholars and dedicated lovers of Bach’s vocal works.
Critical re-examination of historical evidence, some widely known but not studied in depth.

Bach’s Choir is undoubtedly one the hottest topics for scholarly debate in recent years. Parrott is one of the key participants in this debate, whilst being a busy conductor of an international reputation. In it he expands his original thesis first published in an article ‘Bach’s chorus: a “brief yet highly necessary” appraisal’ (Early Music, 1996), which effectively revived heated arguments originated in 1981 by Joshua Rifkin.

It is not a summary of what has been debated so far; rather, it is a powerful representation of Rifkin’s thesis, attempting to dispel the scepticism that still surrounds Rifkin’s original theory, i.e. that nearly all of Bach’s concerted ‘chorus’ writing was designed to be performed with just one good singer in each part, and not three per part proposed by Arnold Schering in 1920. Parrott’s primary task is to disprove Schering’s theory, which still has strong support from some of the best known authorities, namely Ton Koopman and Christoph Wolff.
His argument is clear: by dividing it into eleven chapters (in addition to introduction, epilogue and seven appendices), he covers many controversial issues, such as Bach’s use of ripienists, the question of copy-sharing, and the interpretation of the Entwurff (Bach’s lengthy memorandum to the Town Council of Leipzig in August 1730). He discusses all this convincingly and with an air of authority. He supports his discussion with much supporting material—numerous facsimile reproductions for his iconographical evidence, well-laid out music examples, tables of historical records and other illuminating documents.  
full of illuminating illustrations and useful tables

Is he winning the battle? I think he is, although there are still many loose ends due to the lack of definitive evidence for Bach’s own performance (i.e. the evidence from contemporary musicians in other towns is not good enough) as well as the issue of stamina (i.e. whether or not a 17-year-old boy could cope with such a demand—a question which we can no longer answer).

There are also places in the book where I became frustrated and unconvinced. Perhaps the most irritating aspect is the way he handles source evidence too strictly. I would naturally suspect that there are many more possibilities than he listed. Index is another; it is particularly pity because it is difficult to find a specific argument in the book via index. It is fair to comment, however, that this is effectively compensated by ample cross-references, which make it very easy to follow when reading the book for the first time. The good collection of illustrations, informative tables and well-defined structuring of chapters all warrant it to be used also as a reference book on the subject. I would recommended this book highly for anyone interested in Bach’s vocal works.

Published online on 8 May 2000

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