The Essential Bach Choir

Posted: 26th January 2017

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book by Andrew Parrott called "The Essential Bach Choir". Andrew Parrott is Musical Director of the Tavener Choir, Consort and Players and has been a 21st century champion of 'one-to-a-part' recordings - many of which have rated highly on BBC Radio 3's 'Building a Libary'. It is not a new book (2000) but it came to my attention after speaking with Jonathan Peter Kenny after our workshop last November. It is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the size and ability of choir that J. S. Bach had available to him when he held the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1723 - 1750.

Parrott's research builds on the work by Joshua Rifkin (1981) and concludes that 'one-to-a-part' Bach is the way forward. This preconception that a 'Bach choir' should be at least 16 singers strong is deeply misguided. The thinking behind this is that the vocal writing is extremely virtuosic and therefore the fewer people singing it, the cleaner the overall ensemble is. Scientific research has proved that this makes up for the fact that you may have up to 4x fewer singers as the dynamic level doesn't change materially between 4 or 16 singers because the smaller ensemble enhances cohesion and therefore projection. (NB: If you have ever been to a concert by 'The King's Singers' you will understand this point and how they manage to create a huge sound with just 6 pure voices).

However, whilst his argument is very convincing and is all well and good in the professional choral world, my personal belief is that in the amateur world of choral societies and chamber choirs, as many people as possible should sing the choral music of J. S. Bach. This is because in order to inspire a new generation, amateur singers must be able to experience the singing of his music to sustain the passion that we all have for Bach's music. The worst thing possible would be for Bach's music to become the preserve of professional musicans.

Indeed, without amateur singers enjoying the challenges of the B Minor Mass, for example, would the demand for professional choral music concerts of Bach's music reduce? I believe it would, and therefore surely whilst the zeitgeist in the professional world may now be changing towards 'one-to-a-part' Bach, we must maintain an amateur tradition of singing his music and if that means with large forces then so be it. Without this, it is likely to die as only a very small select group of the population would be singing it and in my opinion, the way to sustain passion for classical music is for amateurs - who make up the majority of music makers around the world - to live it, sing it and breathe it.

If we were to take Parrott (and Rifkin's) conclusions as law, that Bach would only have wanted his choral music to be sung by 4 or at the most 8 singers into the amateur world, we would surely have to close down numerous amateur 'Bach choirs' including this one where membership is thriving and has just exceeded 70 members. Furthermore, restricting the number of singers is unlikely to have been an issue in the 1700's with the art of classical music well respected across Europe. In the world we live in today (certainly in the U.K), I don't think we can afford to exclude large amateur groups from singing Bach's music just because it may not have been what Bach intended. If the choice was between his music not being performed by the correct forces or his music not being performed at all, surely J. S. Bach would choose the former.

Therefore, whilst I absolutely agree with Parrot's conclusions from the point of the professional ensemble, I think it is vitally important to celebrate the work of many amateur groups who often perform Bach with forces up to 100 people (20-25 people per part!). Without their passion, surely us professionals wouldn't have an audience to perform 'one-to-a-part' Bach to in the first place...

Musical Director

Jonathan Lucas Wood

Jonathan was speaking about a book by Andrew Parrott called "The Essential Bach Choir". It is a fascinating read and can be purchased here.