Behind/beyond the B minor score

A first glance at a good Bach edition reveals time signatures, clefs, and a lot of notes—little else.  No color words; no tempo indications; no dynamic markings; no crescendos, decrescendos, ritardandos, accelerandos; very little to delineate phrase, articulation, emotional content; almost no ornamentation. Bach, like his contemporaries, depended upon training, convention, habit, shared tradition, to fill in these aspects of performance practice; he neither composed, nor copied out his scores, with the thought that musicians 250 years later would wonder about his intentions.  Modern musicians, if they wish to perform Bach’s music artfully and accurately, have to rely upon a kind of musical archaeology to build a backstory, upon which to base a convincing interpretation.

As a case in point, let us consider the Et resurrexit movement, #6 of the Symbolum Nicenum section of the Mass in B minor.  We see a ¾ time signature, which implies three quarter notes (six eighth notes) per bar [1 & 2 & 3 &]; we see tutti orchestra, including three trumpets and timpani, implying a forte dynamic; we see the “Et resurrexit” text, which in the context is likely to imply a brisk, upbeat tempo and mood; and the instruments have staccato marks in bar 2 (only), suggesting a light articulation (the singers have no marks). Beyond this, we make sense of Bach’s difficult, complicated music on our own.   And I have experienced, myself, performances in which players, singers, and conductors simply do their best to get through what they see on the page, heave a sigh of relief when they reach the end, and hope it is followed by something a little slower and simpler.

Singers have information instrumentalists don’t have:  they have words.  And it has been through my own attempt to sing these words with accurate accentuation, that I have come to question the interpretation, or non–interpretation, I describe above.   Two text phrases in particular have long intrigued me:  “Et resurrexit” itself, and “cujus regni non erit finis.”  Both first occur at identical, expository points in the music, with identical rhythmic placement , i.e. [1/&/2/cu/-u/jus // re/-e/gni/non/e/rit //fin/-i/ni/-is/3/&].  This always bothered me-- the natural word accents would fit much better if these identical 3-bar passages were performed in a 6/8 meter [1 & &/cu/-u/jus // re/-e/gni/non/e/rit // fi/-i/ni/-is/&/&].  Looks complicated here—sorry I don’t have the technology to diagram this more clearly; the patterns sound straightforward enough when spoken or sung.  A background in singing late renaissance and early baroque secular music leads me, through the inherent accentuation of the words, to expect, and look for, some alternation of the two meters, 3/4 and 6/8—and sure enough, the score abounds in instances of this.  One recognizes the characteristic rhythmic pattern of the Courante, a popular courtly dance of the period, and one which figures prominently in secular suites, by Bach and others.

An hour with Google yields the following:

Courante was a court dance popular in Europe from about 1600 to 1800. In a stylized form, its music was usually the second movement of the Baroque suite. It was danced by couples using small springing or gliding steps. The musical form had two types: the Italian corrente was in fast triple metre, with quick running figures in a texture of accompanied melody; the slower French courante was conrtrapuntal in style, with shifts between 3|2 and 6|4 metre.”  (Word

“The “Et resurrexit” displays some of the characteristics of the Courante with its triple meter often bisected by a division of the bar into two groups of three quavers.  …probably began life in the context of secular cantatas, in which dance forms are particularly idiomatic.

“Bach used all the most basic devices of his age—the dance form, the ritornello form, tonal development, voice-leading—but combined them in such a fashion that it is often impossible to decide which has precedence at any one point.  There is clearly the overriding flavour of a dance, but at no point is a single dance form heard in its entirety. “  (John Butt, Bach: Mass in B Minor)

And much, much more.  Google is great.

These comments, and many more, reflect a constantly evolving tradition regarding the sources, and performance practice, of Bach’s works.   Performers, facing the score with which Bach himself provides us, cannot afford to neglect this tradition, and simply trust that the innate power of the music, as well as our own imagination and energy, will carry us along.  Countless listeners, musicians, scholars, hover about us, a cloud of witnesses to our particular attempts to bring this score to life.    We have to make choices, impose our own preferences, to produce coherent interpretations;  but we owe it to this tradition, to make informed choices.