9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Bach in the 21st Century—Re-evaluating him from the perspective of performance

John Butt

King's College, Cambridge, UK

The last major commemoration of the year of Bach’s death in 1950 occasioned two diametrically opposed opinions on Bach performance. On the one hand, the composer, performer and early-music specialist, Paul Hindemith advocated the wholesale restoration of the instruments and performing practices of Bach’s own age, on the other, Theodor Adorno poured scorn on historical reconstruction: only the ‘improved’ modern performance resources could reveal the full import of Bach’s music which stood head and shoulders above the pitiful concerns of its own age. The last 50 years have, of course, seen an incredible development in the restoration of historical performance—probably far beyond what Hindemith hoped for or what Adorno feared. Certainly, Adorno’s belief that this could lead to lifeless literalistic interpretations has been confirmed by some styles of performance in recent years, but he would surely have been impressed by some of the traditions and individuals who have been inspired by approaches they believe to have found in history.

While Hindemith clearly saw the correct style of performance as contributing to the value of the work, this is clearly an attitude that is both simplistic and highly problematic. Adorno clearly saw the performance as at the service of a timeless and authoritative work, good performance being an ‘x-ray’ of what may lie latent or hidden in the notes. Although most of us who work with Bach’s music must share something of Adorno’s view that this music possesses incomparable and timeless qualities, such an absolute view is increasingly difficult to hold for any composer within the increasingly broadening culture of music. We will have to allow that Bach cannot hold as central or crucial a position in western culture as he did 50 years ago, however much we may wish this were not the case. Nevertheless, the far more fluid and flexible ways of viewing and judging music today do allow us to replenish our appreciation of Bach in ways that were not perhaps so possible at the last anniversary. I have often suggested that if we are to understand Bach more as a human agent, working with materials and problems and opportunities faced him during the course of composition, his thought as a performer must be important; indeed we might see issues of performance as immanent in the way the music came to be written and notated in the first place. Bach was, after all, valued more highly as a performer than composer during his own lifetime and—short-sighted though that perspective may be from our point of view, it is unlikely that Bach ever composed entirely divorced from the consciousness of performance: the very educational background of rhetoric would suggest that he who had an invention must also have an idea of how to execute and realise it. In all, I maintain that the enormous expansion in our knowledge of performance in Bach’s time can be used not just to realise the music in performance—after all, it is the quality of the performers that really counts here—but to understand something of how the music cam to be written the way it was, how Bach interacted with what was available and possible in performance in an infinite number of ways. I have recently suggested how our knowledge of the vocal scoring in some of Bach’s church music may relate to how the music interpreted the text. Here I will include some further examples from the Matthew Passion where, by writing at the very limit of what was possible in the performance medium concerned Bach was able to evoke something of the spiritual struggle that the story was to stir in the flawed human being.

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Last updated on 26 April 2000 by Yo Tomita