on 28 March 2005
The publication of the Wolff/ Koopman collection of essays nearly ten years ago(1996) marks the beginning of a burst of scholarship and musical activity surrounding this genre , which peaked in 2000 with the John Eliot Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. The competing and complementary recordings which have released the Cantatas from the neo-operatic renditions of the 1970's reveal an inner beauty in these most neglected treasures of the classical music canon .
Wolff concentrates in this volume , the only English translation out of the three planned , on the early productions (Bach usually says "Stucke" or "Oratorio", rarely "Kantate") in Arnstadt, Muhlhausen and Weimar, including works of an astounding spiritual depth for a young composer. Is this wholly unexplored territory? Koopman asserts as follows: "Strange as it may sound , in the history of Bach literature this is the first set of books to deal exclusively with Bach's cantatas." Not so. W. Gillies Whittaker brought out two volumes in 1959, Alec Robertson in 1972 a good book on this subject; in 1926 Terry wrote on the texts . So the British have long taken a deep interest in Bach , in part due to the choral tradition in England and Scotland.
The Wolff approach , combining the background to locations , texts and music rather than just taking a musicological approach - illuminates the brilliance of young Bach as, even in his first posts and before the age of 30, he excels in adapting the North German tradition while drawing from it for form and affekt , the depiction of sentiment by tone and tune-allusion , long prefiguring Wagner's leitmotifs. The Italianate influence is yet to come ;but already the use of dramatic harmony , fugue , passacaglia, chorale and tone painting to images as disparate as turtle doves , cedar trees in the wind , roses upon the grave , show forth the range of experimentation and dramatic affect whch mark the leap forward in Western music which begins even as the medieval world is living on in the ancient tones and the early chorales.
Wolff brings out Bach's drawing upon the wells of traditional music in his native Thuringia , and demonstrates his transforming power, in this attractively illustrated guide to early Bach.
The study of the cantatas is made pleasurable by the reference to the historical setting in all of the essays. The controversy which rages around Bach (Was there one voice per part ? ) receives full attention . Less so the question , which is the first Cantata? " Nach dir , Herr verlanget mich")? is accepted shorn of the long apparent doubt around it , i.e. the beautiful but unorthodox Cantata BWV 150.
Not discussed is the revelation which at least shows one of the Bachs wrote it . Bach leaves clues and allusions throughout his work; nearing death, the "Art of Fugue" ends unfinished with B-A-C-H in German musical notation . How many have spotted , however, that this first Cantata has as its last verse , four lines literally beginning in the acrostic :
Bach scholarship and discoveries are occurring at a remarkable rate for a composer so long ago gone to glory . The Wolff introduction helps musicologist and enthusiast alike and gives a very human and rounded view of the early life - that of bravery in adversity - of this central figure of Western music. Please buy it ; then maybe the rest will be translated!