The Church Cantatas of J. S. Bach by Alec Robertson (Cassell £5)
00SELY allied to opera and oratorio, the cantata found its earliest expressions at the beginning of the seventeenth century. As a vehicle for musical creativity, as with purely instrumental writing. cantata composition passed through several Italian hands Europe in general. and in until it settled in Northern Germany in particular.
The highest forms of this choral structure appeared at the hands of Schutz, Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach. The deep religious convictions of Bach are too well known to be underlined here, and the compositions with which this book deals so well represent the peak of this particular choral form.
This book is not the first exhaustive treatise on the church cantatas, indeed in his introduction Alec Robertson pays tribute to C. S. Terry's monumental work of the twenties which translated all the cantatas into English, and speaks of his now fulfilled ambition of contributing a companion volume.
Bach wrote approximately 300 church cantatas. Rather fewer than 200 have survived. and these cover the liturgical cycle. The book concerns itself with 173 of these works, omitting, for reasons of space, those which are not connected to a particular Sunday, are incomplete, or are solely for special occasions.
Unlike the books by Whittaker and Professor Westrup the layout is expectedly liturgical. Starting with the first Advent Sunday we follow the Church's year through to the 27th Sunday after Trinity with the major feasts interpolated.
As the Gospel of the day provided the focal point for the main Lutheran Sunday service, the particulars of this and the Epistle are quoted at the outset. What follows is a carefully prepared and well detailed survey of each number in the cantata.
Nowadays, works such as these do not find a religious place, per se. The musician, therefore, is interested principally in the performance pos sibilities, with of course, liturgical leanings to the main seasons, and also to the strength, nature and availability of his own resources.
The surveys I mention are therefore of inestimable value, showing a well-balanced cornpanionship of both musical and liturgical information. The librettist is given mention, and the scoring of each number is categorised. A short introductory glossary explains the abbreviations, many of which refer to the now obsolete instruments which abound in Bach's scores.
The author finds space to comment on aspects of structure, pictorial writing, the musical realisation of religious feeling, notable points of instrumentation, items of historical interest. Indeed, it would appear that no information likely to be of value either in performance or appreciation is withheld.
Such scrutinies, characterised as they are by their perspicacity as well as their brevity, are undoubtedly the result of the author's lifelong study of these works and his sincere desire to make his thoughts available to the community.