Students Encounter Bach at LPA
I am always excited when I get a chance to host a class in the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This year, my colleague and friend Fred Fehleisen (faculty member of Mannes College The New School for Music) was teaching a class on Johann Sebastian Bach, focusing on his cantatas. He arranged with me to have a session meet in the Research Division (3rd floor) where I could highlight various topics covered in class by bringing rare books and scores which they might not ordinarily encounter.
Having a class meet in the Library affords the students the special experience to observe history first hand. It is typical that a whole host of insights can be gained by observing, holding, and examing actual artifacts and seeing what additional information they reveal that history books may gloss over.
As a Lutheran, Bach was well-acquainted with many of the tunes composed by Martin Luther. I thought a good place to start was with Luther's Geystliche Lieder. The Music Division has a copy published during Luther's lifetime, in 1545. As the students held, opened and paged through it, they were struck by the combination of text, images and music. It served to underscore how mutlimedia presentations existed centuries before the computer, bringing together a variety of arts in order to appeal to multiple senses.Another important source of Lutheran music is Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen’s Geistreiches Gesang-Buch [Spiritual Song Book]. Although he was probably familiar with the Gesang-Buch, Bach’s connection to it is through a third publication, Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesang-Buch [Musical Songbook] of 1736, which brought together music by both Freylinghausen and Bach.We have 2 different editions of the Freylinghausen publication: 1708 and 1727 — as well as a second volume from 1726. All three are bound in distinctive red leather which highlights its unusual shape (6.5 inches high x 3 inches across x 2 inches wide). The music uses block-type (where each note is mounted on a piece of type), which was undoubtedly cheaper for a work of over 1,000 pages. (As with most of our published music acquired before 1971, it is not in the online catalog.)
Johann Friedrich Doles (1715-1797) is not a major figure in German classical music, but he receives attention because he was a student of Bach’s and succeeded Bach at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. I was able to show students Doles’s publication Geistlichen Oden und Liedern [the full title is Spiritual Odes and Songs set to texts by the poet Christian Fürchtegott Gellert] of 1758. Students immediately took note that for a student of Johann Sebastian Bach, the music was rather homophonic, but that might have signaled the transitional period between baroque and classical music.
Before getting to the highlight of the class, I wanted to show them an example of keyboard music printed at an earlier time.
Despite the publication date of 1801, this is the first edition of Bach's Sinfonias (also known as 3-part Inventions), appearing in print more than 50 years after Bach’s death. Many accounts of Bach’s reception describes his work as receding from view after his death in 1750 until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy led a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and ushered in a new appreciation for Bach. But we know that composers such as Mozart and Beethoven knew of Bach’s music, and there were probably many others. That a publisher would bring out an edition of Bach’s music in 1801 attests to a continuing interest in Bach’s music. (I also showed them the crude but respectful portrait of Bach on the title page for the first issue of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of 1798, a very influential musical magazine during the first half of the 19th century.)
The musical notes may be the same in today’s publications, but what I find fascinating is the physical layout: it is printed in an oblong format. Today, the only keyboard music one regularly sees in oblong format is 4-hand music (music written for two pianists sitting at one keyboard). The broader layout allows each player to view their respective pages comfortably. At the turn of the 19th century, the oblong format was the usual way piano music (and music vocal music) was printed. Not only are there fewer page turns (as there is more music on each page), but the format creates a different visual impression of the music. Most musicians know to expect a page of music by Bach will be fairly dense with lots of notes; the oblong format facilitates one’s visual impression of the music as the spacing is more generous.
All the items I brought out for the class were leading up to my final item: Bach’s manuscript for his Cantata no. 97, In allen meinen Taten.
Why is viewing a manuscript important? Manuscripts can teach us many things. One can observe information about compositional process by observing the various cross-outs, corrections and other emendations. Sometimes one can also surmise information based on the the way the music is laid out on the page such as the shape of staves and notes, the color and density of the inks used. Other markings in the source can also have meaning.
Even with a manuscript of words that has absolutely no mistakes, special information can be gained by looking and examining the work. How much more true is that of music, where information is not just conveyed by the notes, but by the manner in which the notation is laid out on the page.
It is not known for what occasion Bach composed this cantata. The assumption that it was intended for a wedding is based on the inscription found on page 7: Nach der Trauung [After the wedding].Although Bach was generally meticulously accurate in his notation, the writing tool he used for this cantata tended to let the ink run. In several spots, Bach’s ink ran so much that he added letters to indicate which notes were intended. There is something special about seeing a music manuscript by a famous composer, and the class from Mannes was dumbstruck at seeing a manuscript in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is a gratifying experience when students or a group visit the library to hold a class. I get a thrill watching students seeing things they had not expected to see and learning new things from the materials they observe. The insights they learn from observing and handling the material can not necessarily be obtained by looking online at a digital surrogate. It makes me glad when people recognize the unique experience they can have at a library.