Before I get to anything else, here’s the answer to the “what’s up, Bach” question from last week. (Sorry for the pun; expect more, since I’m with my dad for a week…) I can’t find my source, so now I’m wondering if I made this up, but somewhere I read that the last third of the soprano-baritone duet in the E-flat Magnificat (Virga Jesse floruit) was completed by a student of Bach’s, from J.S.’s sketches. (Meaning, he wrote a sort of “outline” for the music and the student filled it in.) Stephen Stubbs seemed to know about it, too, so maybe I’m not totally off base. But regardless, the last two pages seem to be written in a different musical “language,” so much so that I had a hard time learning the notes!
I’ve gotten to the point with Bach where I can look at a melisma (long run of notes) and say, “Ok, this is that kind of Bach run; got it.” I know Bach’s language, and don’t have to think too much as I’m learning a new piece. Just like verbal language, musical languages have characteristics and qualities that are unique to individual composers. Mozart, Britten, Reich, Weill. These composers all have languages that are their own, easily recognizable and, once you’ve mastered them, easily read.
But this?! I was lost. I had to learn the final melisma note by note, analyzing the harmonic structure, playing around with the phrasing, trying anything to get the notes to stick. So strange! As Stephen put it, when he heard it for the first time, “Hmm, I’m not sure Bach would have done that.”
Can anyone verify that there’s some truth to this? I know that the E-flat Magnificat was written first (Bach later took out the more specific Nativity movements to make it less seasonal and transposed it down to D Major to create the version most often performed today); why would someone else have finished a movement at that point in Bach’s life? Of course, I know modern composers who have asked students/collaborators to finish compositions, so maybe this is more common practice than we think. Ideas?
Other Messiah blurbs:
In “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” there is a phrase that gets passed back and forth between the trumpet and the violins. I noticed at the dress rehearsal that the violins copied BB’s ornaments, and I thought they’d rehearsed and marked in what he was going to play. But then in the first performance, he played something different – and so did they! He mixed it up every night, and they were all right there with him, literally “playing” along. It was a moment I looked forward to every night: Stump the Violins, if you will!
I had one of those moments every singer dreads: I got lost! It was during the first full Messiah performance, and, of course, during “If God be for us,” the aria I know the least. I started to sing the end to the second melisma when I was in the middle of the first. I had about four measures of complete floundering! Ack!! I made eye contact with Stephen, as if to say “Help!” but what could he do? We had to keep going… I had to laugh, though, when I got to the end of the phrase and looked ahead to see what was next. The text? “Who is he that condemneth?” Ha! I sang that line a bit tongue in cheek, and I could have sworn I heard a small chuckle in the audience, too!
Ah, the joys of live performance…