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1 June 2012  |  Books   |  Article

Composing to a Deadline

Thomas VenningThomas Venning, Director and Senior Specialist in the London Books & Manuscripts department, marvels at a Bach manuscript for sale in the Valuable Printed Books and Manuscripts auction. 

One of the most appealing things about the original manuscripts of artistic works is the way in which they connect the timeless sphere of the work of art to the physical realities of our own temporal world, with such everyday verities as deadlines, contracts, late nights, the scratch of pen on paper.

The manuscript 'taille' or tenor oboe part for Bach's cantata 'Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte' is an attractive reminder of this contrast. Bach's contract as director of music at the principal churches in Leipzig bound him to produce an appropriate cantata for each Sunday and major feast day in the ecclesiastical year (with the exception of Lent). In Bach's interpretation, this involved him choosing a text, composing the music, copying the parts, and organising, conducting and participating in the performance himself -- effectively acting as composer, publisher, impresario, conductor and performer, sixty or more times a year. This was in addition to his duties as music master at his school, the Thomasschule.

Whit Monday must have been a particular challenge: a major feast, it required a cantata, but follows immediately from Whit Sunday (Pentecost), one of the great feasts of the church year, whose own demands in terms of composing and performing -- and his duties required him to supply music for each of the major city churches -- would scarcely have left Bach a free moment until the day was already far advanced.

It is noticeable therefore that Bach's cantatas for Whit Monday very often include some music recycled from an earlier work, as a sort of compositional short cut: and this is the case with 'Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte', which Bach composed for 6 June 1729. But what a short cut it is: the cantata is endowed with an introductory symphony drawn from one of his greatest compositions, the 1st movement of the Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G, reworked with the addition of two horns and a ripieno choir of strings and oboes -- including the 'taille', a tenor oboe in F, whose manuscript part appears in our King Street sale on 13 June.

The heroic scale of the introductory movement lessened the demands of the remainder of the cantata, which takes the abbreviated form of an aria, a recitative, a second aria and the closing chorale, for which the taille returns.

The compositional work completed, it still remained for Bach to accomplish the transcription of the 23 vocal and instrumental parts for the performance itself, and here he enlisted help: notably his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, and three of his regular copyists (probably all pupils at the Thomasschule), as well as -- and here the time-pressure must have been starting to tell -- no fewer than three other copyists whom as far as we can tell he never otherwise worked with, either earlier or subsequently. One imagines him roping in friends, congregation members, lunch guests. One of them was so bad that Bach had to go over the whole of his part again, just to make it legible. The transcriber of the alto part noted (perhaps with a sigh of relief) that he had completed the task on 5 June, the day before the first performance, and the Bach scholar Arthur Mendel considers that the whole composition and copying must have taken place ‘in the greatest haste immediately before 6 June’.

The taille part itself is mostly transcribed by one of the composer’s best amanuenses, his pupil Samuel Gottlieb Heder; but in the last four lines, a change comes over the script, and we witness the effortlessly light, dancing hand of Johann Sebastian Bach himself. This is the chorale, which, as usual in Bach’s cantatas, concluded the work with a setting of a traditional melody, in this case one drawn from the Orgeltabulatur-Buch (Strassburg, 1577). We know that this one was a particular favourite of Bach's, as he used it again in two other cantatas, as well as at the conclusion of his St John Passion: here the taille shadows the alto line, lending its rich timbre to this concluding chorus.  

Related Sale
Sale 5334
Valuable Printed Books and Manuscripts
13 Jun 2012
London, King Street

Related Departments
Books & Manuscripts

Books & Manuscripts
18th Century

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