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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 20.2 x 13.5 x 0.4 cm
TITLE The Sacred Choral Music of J. S. Bach, edited by John Butt.
PUBL. DETAILS Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 1997. 66p. Paperback. Price: US$ 11.95
ISBN 1-55725-197-5
TO ORDER Paraclete Press, P. O. Box 1568, Orleans, MA 02653, USA. Tel: (508) 255-4685; Fax (508) 255-5705; Email:
DESCRIPTION a collection of short essays dealing with the issues relating to performing Bach's sacred vocal works.
WORKS COVERED BWV 244 (only briefly)
READERSHIP conductor, singers and organists who are unfamiliar with the issues of 'historically-informed' performance.
approach to performance in English language; vocal training methods

It is often felt that for less experienced singers Bach’s choral works are the tough nuts to crack. They expect from the performers not only an enormous technical demand but also the sound understanding of profound theological expression that are not immediately apparent to us without undertaking serious musicological pursuit. This is the background of this book reviewed here. It is a collection of short essays by the members of Gloriae Dei Cantores, each dealing with a specific aspect of performing Bach’s sacred vocal works with the aim that the performers will be able to find ways to equip themselves both performing techniques and historical knowledge to cope with the enormous demand they are posed. It is a practical booklet for enthusiastic amateurs written by the people who went through the same process of learning themselves.

The centre piece is Timberlake’s energetic contribution: it may be of interest to a conductor who is not only eagerly seeking advice on how to build a choir that is capable of singing Bach’s vocal works, but also has little ideas about ‘historically informed’ performance of Bach’s music. By dividing his discussion into many small sections, namely ‘Training the Bach Singer’, ‘International Phonetic Alphabet’, ‘Voice Teaching in the Choral Context’, ‘Pedagogical Resources’, ‘Bach’s Recitativo’, ‘Bel Canto: what did Bach know and when did he know it?’, and ‘Appoggio: traditional Italian singing technique’, he tells his readers his personal experience with these subjects.

Jordan’s contribution on ‘Lutheran Chorale’ basically focuses on St Matthew Passion. It is very short (5 pp), and he takes references from a few basic literatures such as Schweitzer and the Bach Reader (1966). Many of the points he makes are practically orientated, and for this reason, there are other points which do not come across very well; other classes of readers would surely find this article too simplistic to do justice to this important subject.

For readers who are unfamiliar to the religious side of Bach’s creative activities, Shannon’s engaged narrative style will be a pleasant reading. However small, an error has to be pointed out: Bach as ‘guest Capellmeister to the court of Frederick August II of Poland and Lithuania (1736-1750)’ is an inaccurate description.

Contents in brief
"Historical Perspective & Introduction" by John Butt
"Some Observations on Singing Bach" by Craig Timberlake
"The Lutheran Chorale" by James Jordan
"Soli Deo Gloria" by Martin Shannon
"Ornamentation" by John Butt
"Thoughts on English Translations in Bach's Vocal Works" by David Chalmers
"An Annotated Bibliography of Sources on J. S. Bach" by David Chalmers
"Library Resource Listings"
 quite intimate in style
Two short articles by John Butt are by far the most informative and useful portions of the book; although they are also short, they respectively summarize the current state of research beautifully.
This will be the book to read if you are a conductor, who has little clues as to how to approach Bach’s sacred works, and do not have time to read more substantial discussions on the topic.
Published on-line on 10 December 2000

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