11 December 2017 from 12:15 to 13:30

PhD thesis defence Rens Bijma on Johann Sebastian Bach and his musicians in Leipzig

Beeld van Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) voor de Thomaskirche in Leipzig © iStockphoto.com/claudiodivizia
Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in front of the Thomaskirch, Leipzig. © iStockphoto.com/claudiodivizia

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.

Bach's musicians

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.

Continuo instruments

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.

Start date and time
11 December 2017 12:15
End date and time
11 December 2017 13:30
PhD candidate
Rens Bijma
Johann Sebastian Bach en zijn musici in de beide hoofdkerken te Leipzig. Een onderzoek naar hun rol, inzet en opstelling in het algemeen en naar de continuogroep en de daarin participerende instrumenten in het bijzonder
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. dr. Albert Clement
Entrance fee
Free of charge
More information
Full thesis Rens Bijma