Rens Bijma (University College Roosevelt) will defend his PhD thesis on 11 December in Utrecht University Hall. His study is devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach and his musicians in Leipzig’s two main churches, and to the question to which extent current opinions in musicology regarding historically-informed practice are actually correct.
The core of Bach’s first Sunday choir in Leipzig consisted of the eight best singers of the Thomasschule. Soprano and alto parts of the cantatas and passions were sung by schoolboys (elder boys using falsetto), but bass and tenor parts mostly by students and private pupils. Instrumentalists were city musicians and their Gesellen, university students and school pupils. Only the violin, viola, cello parts and sometimes the bassoon, traverso and recorder parts were played by multiple musicians. Town musicians apparently had their own part in general.
Arrangement of the musicians
The interior of both churches nowadays differs from Bach’s time, the churches had similar shapes, interiors and acoustics, with a shorter reverberation time. Bach conducted from the harpsichord in the Schülerchor, with the other continuo instruments around him. The singers were standing at music stands at the balustrade. The other instrumentalist were standing in high standing side galleries in the Thomaskirche, and in a vaulted recess in the Nikolaikirche, in which church more singers than eight during the performance of the Music was practically impossible.
All continuo instruments (harpsichord, organ, cello, violone and bassoon) played the continuo nearly in all movements. The large harpsichords in both churches were usually played by Bach himself from the scores, and in later years by a student. The large violones used by Bach in Leipzig still remain. Originally they were in all probability G-violones, played at 8'-pitch. Their sound must have been more ample in the lower regions than that of the cello. Nearly always, Bach had two cellos play along in all movements, and, if possible, a violone and a bassoon as well. Usually, Bach had these players perform along all movements, including recitatives and arias that were to be performed piano, so the bassoon never sounded without cello and violone.
The conclusions of this study show that the way in which Bach performed his cantates and passions in Leipzig sometimes differs from nowadays widely accepted insights, both in musicology and in historically-informed practice. Contemporary conductors and other musicians can and must make their own choices in the field of performing practice. If they want to respect Bach's wishes, they should be aware that these wishes are not always noted so clearly as one might hope or suppose. Often, clues are missing even completely. In such cases further research is required, of both music theoretical sources and based on analogies with other compositions. This study can be of help in doing so.