In 1789 Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, where he heard the choir perform the double chorus motet, "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. After only a few measures, "Mozart sat up, startled [and then] called out, 'What is this?' And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: 'Now there is something one can learn from.'"1
The Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, summarizes today's critical opinion of Bach and his music by saying, "His genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful original inventiveness and intellectual control are perfectly balanced."2
From Mozart's time to our own Bach's legacy has grown from that of a forgotten local musician to perhaps the greatest musician and composer of all time. How this journey occurred is a fascinating story of musical aesthetics and general recognition of superior craftsmanship and creativity.
Johann Sebastian Bach belonged to a central German family that gave rise to many musicians including church organists and composers. He was the last of eight children in the family of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt and was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach Germany. He attended the Latin School in Eisenach as a child. By 1695 both of his parents had died and Sebastian went to live with his older brother, Johann Christoph, who was organist in the town of Ohrdruf. Here Sebastian studied until he was 15 in an extremely enlightened curriculum at the Lyceum and trained as an organist under his brother. During these years Sebastian seems to have begun to teach himself composition by copying works of older composers.
In 1700 Sebastian was sent north to the city of Lüneburg, where he entered the Michaelisschule, a school for commoners that belonged to the Michaeliskirche, one of the largest churches of Lüneburg. Here Sebastian studied what we would describe as a liberal arts curriculum, sang in the choir and served as an accompanist and string player. Most importantly, he came into contact with the organist, Georg Böhm (1661-1733). His ability as an organist and keyboardist grew significantly during this time and he is known to have travelled to Hamburg to hear the composer Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) and organist J. A. Reinchen (1623-1722), two of the leading musicians of the time in northern Germany. Reinchen's virtuosic style of playing seems to have influenced Bach strongly.
In 1703 Bach took his first position as a court musician in Weimar. This lasted only a few months until Bach was appointed organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. Bach was paid well and found time to compose. His organ works known to date from this time all are in the style of northern composers such as Reinchen, Buxtehude and Bruhns. During this time Bach made his well-documented trip to Lübeck Germany to hear and study with the famous organist of the Marienkirche, Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach remained in Lübeck for considerably longer than his contract allowed and was disciplined upon his return to Arnstadt. In 1707 he took another position as organist at St. Blasius Kirche in Mühlhausen, where he enjoyed success as both an organist and composer, despite difficult relations with important members of the congregation which were probably brought on by Bach's uncompromising standards and prickly personality.
In 1708 Bach moved on to become Court Organist and Konzertmeister of the Duke of Weimar's orchestra in Weimar. Two important achievements are attributed to these Weimar years: the composition of a great deal of his organ music and the birth of his and Maria Barbara's (his first wife) first six children. Bach also began to take on many students during these years, some of whom remained important supporters for the rest of his life, and met and befriended two of the leading composers of the period, Georg Phillip Telemann and Johann Georg Pisendel. In addition to his performance responsibilities Bach was expected to compose and direct regular cantatas for performance in the Duke's Chapel. By 1716, however, the Court was in disarray due to a feud between the Duke and his brother. Bach sought his leave and in December of that year moved his family to the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, where be became Kapellmeister. In 1720 Maria Barbara died, leaving him with four children to care for. By December 1721, though, he had met and married his second wife, Anna Magdelene. He was 36. She was 20. With order restored in his personal life Bach entered an extremely productive and creative period, producing a number of his most important keyboard pieces: the major portion of the Clavierbüchlein, at least the beginning of Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier and the Inventions and Sinfonias.
In April 1723 Bach auditioned for the Kantor post in Leipzig and was awarded the job after having composed two cantatas and played on the organ and conducted the choir and instrumental ensembles to the satisfaction of the Town Council. The Council, however, considered Bach to be only the best of a group of mediocre candidates. All refused to teach Latin in the Thomas School. In addition, Bach also refused to organize the city's church music as the Council wished and was considered arrogant. Nevertheless, he was clearly the best musician of the group. For Bach, although the Leipzig position was one of the most esteemed in German church music, he considered its title, Kantor, a step down from his position as Kapellmeister in Cöthen.
Bach never shied away from work and the Kantor's office in Leipzig offered him the best opportunity of his career to perform a demanding and wide variety of activities composing both secular and sacred music, playing organ, harpsichord and violin, directing a number of ensembles, organizing the music for all four principal churches in Leipzig, providing music for worship services at the University, teaching students both privately and in the School and to enjoy some measure of financial security. During the first few years of his tenure in Leipzig Bach approached his job with unprecedented enthusiasm. In the years 1723 and 1724 Bach composed a cycle of cantatas one for every Sunday and important Feast Days for each year. Between 1725 and 1727 he composed a third cycle, and in 1728 and 1729 a fourth (a fifth cycle seems to have been composed during the years 1730 to 1740, although the music is lost). But, constant disputes with the town Council, Thomas School administrators and church authorities marred Bach's working life. The unusually large number of grievances on both sides show Bach to be a staunch defender of his independence and his artistic prerogatives. In addition to the cycles of cantatas between 1723 and 1729 Bach composed a number of his most important works: the Passion According to St. John (1724), The Passion According to St. Matthew (1727), the first four of the six keyboard partitas (1727-1728), the Trauer Ode [Cantata 198] (1727) and the Easter Oratorio (1725).
In 1729 Bach assumed the additional duty of Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a post he held until 1737. Bach's friend, G. Ph. Telemann, founded the group in 1702. By 1729 it was a respected association of professional musicians and university students that gave weekly public concerts. Bach's motives in taking on these duties involved some additional income and the opportunity to work with a competent group of instrumentalists. This resulted in a diminished output of sacred works, but not the responsibility for regular performances in the churches (very few entirely original sacred cantatas seem to have been written after 1729). Bach's domestic life must have been harmonious, though filled with everyday joy and sorrow. From 1723 to 1742 Anna Magdelena gave birth to 13 children, only five of which survived childhood. Bach's major works from this period include the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor, a substantive series of secular cantatas, the six sections of the Christmas Oratorio, the second and third parts of the Clavier Übung and Book II of The Well Tempered Clavier. He also began to take on more private students. Also, during this time Bach continued to transcribe and study Latin polyphonic liturgical works, a repertory, style and technique that seems to have fascinated him his entire life.
Following a hiatus of about 15 months, Bach resumed the direction of the Collegium Musicum in October 1739. This signals the beginning of the last period of Bach's life. In 1741 Bach abandoned the Collegium Musicum when its sponsor and patron died (the group ceased performing entirely in 1744). Bach applied for several other positions during these years, but always in vain. Of the works he wrote in the 1740s the most notable are the completion and piecing together of the Mass in B Minor, the reworking of the Schübler Chorales, the canonic composition on Vom Himmel Hoch, the Goldberg Variations and The Art of the Fugue (incomplete). He became increasingly interested in organ building at this time, supervising the installation of several important instruments, and participated in the design and construction of Gottfried Silberman's new instrument, the pianoforte. One of the only significant biographical events in Bach's life also occurred in 1747 -- his visit to the Court of Frederich the Great. Frederich, an amateur musician and music lover, had heard of Bach's legendary skill in the "old style" from Bach's son, Carl Phillip Emanuel, who was a composer at Frederich's Court. Frederich, wanting to see this skill first hand devised a test for Bach. Bach was asked to improvise a piece on the piano, based on a theme given him by the King, give an organ recital and improvise a fugue on a theme he created himself (he improvised an extremely difficult six-part fugue). Frederich praised Bach, but after his curiosity was satisfied did not offer him a position at the Court. During 1749 Bach's health wavered. He suffered from cataracts in both eyes and could barely see. After an unsuccessful eye operation, Bach suffered a stroke and died on July 28, 1750.
Bach's creative work is unmatched in its comprehensiveness. It embraces every major musical type of the early and mid 18th Century except opera. Genres such as the harpsichord concerto, chamber music with obbligato keyboard parts and motets were significantly enlarged and improved upon by Bach. In every genre in which he worked, Bach created new dimensions of texture, form, musical quality and technical demands.
A list of Bach's most important extant works necessarily must include monumental compositions such as the Mass in B Minor, The Passion According to St. Matthew and the two Books of the Well Tempered Clavier. To these, though, the huge collections of pieces within single and related genres like the body of cantatas in the five Leipzig cycles, the organ preludes, toccatas and fugues from Weimar, the four sections of the Clavier Übung, and the instrumental sonatas and concertos from the Cöthen period all need to be considered. Such a list, then, would read:
Mass in B Minor
Passion According to St. John
Passion According to St. Matthew
The Christmas Oratorio
The Five Cycles of Church Cantatas
The body of independent Chorales
The Clavier Übung
Part I Chorale Preludes
Part II Partitas
Part III Concerto in the Italian Style, French Overture
Part IV The Goldberg Variations
The French Suites
The English Suites
The Keyboard Toccatas
The Chorale Preludes
The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D for Keyboard
The Clavier-Büchlein for W. F. Bach
Organ Preludes, Toccatas, Fantasies, Fugues and related pieces
The Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
The Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord
The Suites for Flute and Harpsichord
The Trio Sonatas
The Brandenburg Concertos
The Harpsichord Concertos
The Orchestral Suites
The Canonic Variations on Von Himmel Hoch
The Musical Offering
The Art of the Fugue
The list is immense. All of these works, though, share certain characteristics: They are rigorous and absolutely thorough in construction and execution of musical ideas. The attention paid to formal organization in the music is unsurpassed. They adhere to demanding performance standards that lead performers to consider them technical and intellectual challenges. The level of melodic and harmonic invention in the music is consistent and remarkably high. Within their genres they have been viewed for the past two centuries as the culmination of creative achievement.
To understand what these characteristics truly represent, let us look at one work, the Aria and 30 Variations known as the Goldberg Variations for solo harpsichord. Requiring about one hour for a keyboard player to perform, the Goldberg Variations are one of the most difficult and physically demanding pieces in the keyboard repertory. The basis of the work is a 32 measure ground bass (developed from a common bass pattern of the time, the first eight measures of which are identical to the theme of a piece by the master, G. F. Handel, Chaconne avec 62 variations, HWV 442, a piece Bach knew) that appears initially in the opening aria. The bass melody is disguised by being overlaid with a delicate, lovely melody that distracts the listener from focusing on the organizing method that underlies the piece. As the variations proceed the pattern is subjected to free and canonic elaborations in several different ways. Bach divides the 30 variations into ten groups of three variations, each with the same pattern: Free, prelude-like variation; Free contrapuntal variation; Strict canonic variation. There are nine canons that are ordered sequentially from a Canon at the unison (Variation 3), through Canon at the ninth (Variation 27), ascending to move climactically to a final Quodlibet (a musical piece that combines polyphonically two or more complimentary melodies that are usually well-known, Variation 30). The piece ends with a repetition of the initial Aria. In addition, the entire work divides in half with an Overture in the French style creating a sense of a restart at Variation 16.
There is no other Theme and Variation by any composer in which formal organization is so rigorously pursued. Yet, Bach masks the form with the lovely melody of the Aria, virtuosic keyboard figurations and challenging rhythms. The listener, thus, is left with a sense of participating in an experience whose surface elements are beguiling and filled with wonder, but whose underlying musical logic is absolutely solid and mathematically pure.
Bach As Genius
The question remains: How did Bach become thought of as one of, if not the greatest composer in the history of Western Music? During his lifetime Bach was known as a brilliant virtuoso harpsichordist and organist, a skilled violinist, a dedicated and beloved teacher of composition, a gifted though thorny choral conductor and orchestra leader and a creative and thorough composer. After his death public knowledge of his music waned, as was typical of the time. But, in Bach's case, the rejection was more complete than usual due to the shift towards galant style around the middle of the 18th Century and a general lack of patience with Bach's uncompromising artistic principles. Memories of Bach's virtuosity also naturally faded. However, a handful of supporters mostly former students passionately fought to keep their master's legacy alive. How they describe him and his music established the basis of critical opinion about Bach that persists today.
A colleague and student of Bach in Leipzig, Magister Johann Abraham Birnbaum, writes in defense of Bach (1739):
"It is certain that the voices in the works of this great master of music work wonderfully in and about one another, but without the slightest confusion. They move along together or in opposition, as necessary. Now when all this is performed as it should be, there is nothing more beautiful than this harmony. "3
Here Birnbaum points to Bach, the master of counterpoint and polyphony, as a musical artist whose ability to express feeling and perfect beauty through simply musical means stands above all others.
In 1754 in their funeral statement (Nachlass) for Bach, his son, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, and student Johann Friedrich Agricola, summarize the general opinion of Bach's skill and artistry that many who were familiar with his music held.
"No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces, such as ordinarily seem dry exercises in craftsmanship. If ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. If ever a musician employed the most hidden secrets of harmony with the most skilled artistry, it was certainly our Bach."4
But, it is near the end of the 18th Century when Mozart and others such as the composer and critic, Christian Friederich Daniel Schubart, and the Berlin Kapellmeister, Johann Friederich Reichart, begin to discuss the almost forgotten Bach in absolute terms:
"Johann Sebastian Bach was a genius of the highest degree; his spirit is so unique and individual, so immense that it will require centuries to really reach him. The original genius of Bach is readily recognizable. (Schubart, 1784-1785)."5
"the greatest harmonist of all times and nations. (Reichart, 1784)."6
These expressions of unbridled admiration for a figure from the past coincided with the advent of the Romantic Movement in Central Europe. While Bach himself showed respect and reverence for the past musical glories of such composers as Palestrina by quietly transcribing their polyphony and learning from them, Schubart, Reichart, Mozart and others reflect a new age by trumpeting the brilliance of the old master in god-like terms. Romantic minds sought absolute perfection from artists who preferably were distanced by time and/or place.
When Beethoven in 1805 calls Bach, "the progenitor of harmony,"7 and refers to the first printed edition of Bach's works for solo violin as "perhaps the greatest example in any art form of a master's ability to move with freedom and assurance, even in chains."8 and a year later an article in the Vienese Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung reports
"The name of Johann Sebastian Bach radiates supremely and sublimely above those of all German composers in the first half of the past century. He embraced with Newton's spirit everything that has hitherto been thought about harmony (composition) and that has been presented as examples there of, and he penetrated its depths so completely and felicitously that he must be justly regarded as the law maker of genuine harmony, which is valid up to the present day."9
the die was cast. Bach was inaugurated as a musical genius and a figure associated with greatness. Printed editions of Bach's works began to appear and performances followed. Remarkably, critical opinion of Bach's music has remained consistent since the early 19th Century.
We can understand Bach as an innovator and a synthesizer. Scholarship has demonstrated how Bach drew on techniques and styles of earlier generations as well as his own to forge works that exponentially expanded both the size and the expressiveness of his musical art. Bach's work is comprehensive. In listening to his music one is left with the impression that in whatever genre and style he worked, he explored the musical possibilities of a composition completely, leaving nothing further to be said. Bach employed a rigor in this composition that is exceeded by no one. His manipulation of canon, counterpoint, harmony and formal design is the standard by which we judge excellence in the handling of these musical elements. With these extraordinary tools Bach created musical designs, harmonic progressions and melodies of the greatest beauty that have allowed generation after generation of listeners to experience how the art of music can open the human mind and touch the soul.
"His later works, therefore, are all as if they were one cast: so gentle, soft, and even flows the inconceivably rich stream in them of the most diversified ideas blended together. This is the lofty summit of perfection in art which, in most intimate union of melody and harmony, nobody besides Johann Sebastian Bach has ever yet attained. (Forkel)"10
1. New Bach Reader, Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel and Christoph Wolff, New York: W. W. Norton, 1999, p. 488.
2. The New Grove Bach Family, Christoph Wolff, New York: W. W. Norton, 1980, p. 44.
3. NBR, No. 344.
4. NBR, No. 306.
5. NBR, No. 336.
6. NBR, No. 383.
7. Jenaische Allgemeine Literaturzeitung, p. 282 (November 1805), represented in Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff, New York: W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 471.
8. Ibid., p. 471.
9. Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung, 1802, col. 259, quoted in Wolff, ibid., p. 119.
10. Forkel, Biography, 1802, in NBR, pp. 474-476.
Nicola Porpora was one of the most famous and important opera composers of the Baroque Era. He was also the most renowned singing teacher of the first half of the 18th Century.
Porpora began his career as a composer and teacher in Naples in 1708. His first important position was as Maestro di Cappella to the Austrian Prince of Hessen-Darmstadt, who was the general of the Austrian army that occupied Naples at the time. By the early 1720s Porpora had risen to be the chief teacher of singing and composition at the Naples Conservatory. Two of the greatest castrati of the 18th Century, both of whom became legendary stars of Baroque Opera, Farinelli and Caffarelli, were his students as well as the composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, who became the leading German opera composer of the Baroque. In his own composition Porpora was one of the first composers to work with the poet who was to become the most famous librettist of the Baroque, Pietro Metastasio. During the 1720s and 1730s Porpora's fame spread to northern Italy and, then, to London, where in 1733 he was invited to establish an opera company, the Opera of the Nobility, to compete with George Fredric Handells well established Royal Academy opera. Despite bringing with him stars such as Farinelli, Cenesino and Cuzzoni, Porpora's Opera died after only three years, followed a year later by the death of Handel's company, as the London public turned away from Italian opera. During the later part of his career Porpora held important posts in Naples, Venice, Dresden and Vienna, where the young Franz Joseph Haydn worked as his valet and copyist.
Although Porpora wrote great quantities of sacred and secular cantatas, arias, oratorios, didactic vocal works and other types of vocal pieces, he is best known as a master of Italian Baroque Opera and one of the most prominent composers responsible for creating the style. Porpora's operas (and opera of the late Baroque in general) were dominated by melody, accompanied by simple chords played by strings in homophonic textures. Melodies were generally lyrical and lilting, and highly embellished. Indeed, the success of an opera depended on its melodies, particularly occasional extraordinary bravura arias and highly ornamented melodies sung by the soprano or castrato star. The stories of operas were taken from primarily Greek and Roman mythology and were organized in very static scenes that were grouped into acts. The opera itself was a parade of scenes, each one telling a small part of the story. Each scene featured at least a recitative through which the audience learned what was happening, followed by an aria that characterized the emotion felt by the character singing the aria (anger, grief, joy, etc.), which was usually designed to demonstrate the virtuosity of the singer. Porpora's operas were the ideal vehicle for this style, but as the style began to lose popularity across Europe in the second half of the 18th Century, Porpora and his music began to be forgotten.
Arianna in Nasso
Davide e Bersabea (Oratorio)
Dietrich Buxtehude was one of the most important composers of organ music and sacred vocal music primarily in the style of the early cantata before J. S. Bach.
Born ca. 1637 in Helsingbørg, Denmark, Buxtehude spent his life serving the Lutheran Church. In 1658 he earned his first position as organist at the Mariekirke in Helsingborg, where is father previously had held the post. In 1660 he became organist at the Mariekirke in Helsingor Denmark, where he remained until 1668, when he moved to the Marienkirche in Lübeck Germany. Following tradition, Buxtehude married his predecessors daughter there, Anna Margarethe Tunder (her father, Franz Tunder died in 1667) and became a citizen of Lübeck, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the late Seventeenth Century Lubeck was one of the most important city-states in a large network of towns involved in commerce and trade in northern Europe called the Hanseatic League. It was wealthy and the Marienkirche was the most important church in the city. Buxtehudes position was excellent. His duties included playing organ for a Vesper Service on Saturday and morning and afternoon services on Sundays and Feast Days as well as providing the musical selections (many of which he composed himself) for these services. He also functioned as Secretary, Treasurer and Business Manager of the church. Within a few years Buxtehudes musical fame spread throughout northern Europe, in large part due to a longstanding series of concerts he instituted at the church, the Abendmusicken. Buxtehudes reputation even brought the young J. S. Bach to Lubeck to learn from the master.
Buxtehude was a critical figure in the development of the Lutheran Church Cantata prior to Bach. Buxtehudes contribution to the form was to expand it and vary the sections within it. He did this by first combining biblical words and contemporary subjective poetry that commented on the biblical passages. Then, in the music he combined large scale concerto-like framing movements performed by instruments and chorus with arias for solo voices in the middle. This format was taken up by Bach in the 18th Century and further extended with the addition of recitatives and personalized madrigalesque poetry to make the Church Cantata that we recognize today.
As a composer of organ music Buxtehude was a brilliant counterpoint writer and the first composer to compose idiomatically for the organ. Composers before Buxtehude only used the pedal as a simple bass foundation for chords and passage work in upper registers. Buxtehude, however, recognized the organs capabilities and began to incorporate pedal melodies as equal melodic voices with lines played on the manuals. In doing so, he created majestic three and four part fugues that were the model for the masterpieces written in the next generation by Bach.
Baroque music tends to be listener centered in that it emphasizes the way the music will affect the audience. The goal of the composer is to evoke in the listener the same emotional state (affection) that he experienced when creating it. The ideal is that, if the composer knows his stuff and the performer is capable and sensitive, the listener will be moved to feel something in response to the music. Thus, it tends to be more about pathos than ethos.
A complete chronology of the years 1600-1750 is beyond the scope of this lecture. Suffice it to say that the first date represents the beginning of opera in Italy and the second the death of Bach in Germany. England and France also figure prominently into the scenario.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
The greatest composer of the 17th century is unquestionably Claudio Monteverdi, who excelled in all the important genres of his day: opera, madrigal, and sacred music. His first opera Orfeo is probably the first operatic masterpiece, and his last, The Coronation of Poppea is the earliest work still in the standard repertoire of modern opera companies.
This might be a good place to pause for a bit of terminology. Speaking etymologically, a sonata is music that is played, and a cantata music that is sung. Both these words are past participles of Italian verbs that mean, respectively, to play (suonare) and to sing (cantare). Although the terms take on more connotations at different times, they are fundamentally about instrumental and vocal music. A concerto is a composition that contrasts a solo instrument (or a group of soloists) with the full orchestra.
You have probably noticed that we are, for the first time, talking as much about instrumental music as vocal. Although opera is basically a vocal genre, it couldn't exist without the orchestra, so the coincidence of the appearance of the violin family and the operatic genre is more than just fortuitous. Beginning with the 18th century, the major composers excel at both vocal and instrumental composition. Compare that with the masters of the Renaissance, who composed mostly (or entirely) vocal music.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The high Baroque (first half of the 18th century) is represented by three major figures: Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. They are contemporaries, and all composed in a variety of vocal and instrumental genres. Ironically, the one who was least famous internationally in his day is now considered to be the greatest of the three is Bach.
Bach is the only one of the three who wrote no opera, which partially explains why he was less well known outside of Germany than his compatriot Handel. Handel was a German composer who made his name and fortune writing Italian opera for the English public; as such he became an international celebrity. Today his operas are recognized as masterpieces but less often performed than his oratorios. The subject of Handel opera is usually mythological or historical, such as Hercules or Julius Caesar.
Choral societies that perform Handel oratorios also perform the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. The word passion in this context refers to the suffering and death of Christ as recounted in the four gospels. Bach made a setting (in German) of the passion story according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but only two of them have survived. The St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion are two large Baroque masterpieces that rival any opera of the period in their musical and dramatic impact. But they are performed in concert halls or churches rather than in theaters. Music of the Baroque specializes in these works.
Although he is known primarily for his concerti, Vivaldi also wrote operas and sacred music. His modest but very appealing setting of the Gloria (in Latin) is a favorite of church and school choirs. His operas (in Italian) have been making a comeback, both in the opera house and on CD. His Montezuma is particularly interesting in its use of a New World subject.
Baroque opera often contains much beautiful music but presents certain performance problems. One of the reasons that these works fell out of production is that it is difficult to cast the leading male roles. The heroes of Handel's operas, for example, are almost always sopranos. In the early 18th century, they were typically sung by a now extinct species of opera singer known as the castrato.
That word means just what you imagine. The eunuchs who achieved celebrity status as leading men in the opera had undergone a surgical procedure during pubescence to prevent their voices from changing. The result was an adult male with the vocal range of a woman. Singers like Farinelli (about whom there was a movie some years back) were the darling of the English and Italian public. The French never went in for it and the practice was later outlawed by Napoleon.
Today, it is acceptable to have women take these roles. Even better is the casting of a countertenor, or male alto, when a suitable one can be found. Countertenors had been around since the Renaissance, flourishing in the Vatican choirs, where female singers were forbidden. Although most of the soprano parts were too high for countertenors, they could sing the opera roles written for mezzo-sopranos.
The 20th century revival of interest in early music described in the introduction to unit 2 included a rebirth of the countertenor; Alfred Deller was the first to achieve notoriety. Today there is a great countertenor named David Daniels who can even sing the soprano roles, and a whole new generation of countertenors has sprung up in Europe.
Bach's sacred output is inexorably bound to the Reformation and hence to Martin Luther. One must not suppose that Bach and Luther were contemporaries; they are separated by 200 years. Nevertheless, what Bach achieved as a church musician could not have happened outside the Protestant church in Germany, which he served as music director for the last and longest segment of his career. During those years, Bach composed service music for the Lutheran liturgy every week, producing hundreds of sacred works called cantatas with German text.
Bach's cantatas are based on Lutheran hymns, some actually written by Martin Luther himself, called chorales. They were performed by choirs of modest size but high attainment within the three-hour worship service on Sundays. The choir and soloists were accompanied by a small orchestra and organ. A typical cantata lasts between 15 and 30 minutes and is coordinated with the Gospel lesson of the day. There are usually three choruses, two or three arias (solo songs), and some links called recitatives. Recitatives are shorter vocal pieces designed to deliver the text efficiently, so the style is more speech-like than in the arias (songs), and the full orchestra is not used for the accompaniment. The cantata becomes an important sacred genre in the hands of J.S. Bach.
By stringing together a series of cantatas, Bach created his celebrated Christmas Oratorio. Like his Passions, this work is a major composition that would occupy a full afternoon or evening performance. Originally, Bach conceived it as six cantatas for six different services between Christmas Eve and New Years Day. Today it is usually performed as a whole oratorio and thus lasts three hours or more.
Bach's greatest work, and arguably one of the two or three greatest works of Western music is his Mass in B Minor. This is a large-scale setting of the Mass ordinary in Latin. Because of its length and the number of performers required, it is not practical to use it as service music. It is usually heard in the concert hall.