Minimal Bach

Something interesting happened in 1981 at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Boston.

A respected music professor, Joshua Rifkin, presented his claim that the size of the chorus used by Johann Sebastian Bach was seldom more than four soloists. The experts in the room nearly booed him off the stage.

They should not have done that. They knew he was an expert in the field of Baroque music. For example, six years earlier he had published the proof that the St Matthew Passion by Bach was first performed in 1727, not 1729. That's how good a researcher Professor Rifkin was.

Prior to 1981, music historians believed that Bach's chorus in Leipzig consisted of four parts (treble, alto, tenor, bass) with three singers on each part. This was partly based on letters from Bach to the city managers requesting money to pay 12 singers. But there is no evidence that the request was ever granted. And there is evidence that, due to illnesses, Bach often had to get by with less than half the chorus he wanted.

If Professor Rifkin is correct, then people who believe Bach music is supposed to be performed with a large choral sound are wrong. They only believe this because that is the sound they are accustomed to hearing.

Part of the problem is Mendelssohn's 1829 revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion with a choir of 158 voices. It has long been known that Bach did not do it that way. However, the experts were certain that Bach used three or four voices per part.

Three versus one, what's the big deal? Well, there are actually two big deals.

The first big deal is that musicologists who make their living at being authoritative about all things Bach would be embarrassed if they had to accept the new claim. After nearly 30 years, some of them have still not come around.

The second big deal is that it sounds different when performed with one soloist per part.

In 1983, Professor Rifkin conducted a recording of Bach's Mass in B minor using eight singers. One unyielding expert called it "an eccentric travesty". But the recording won prizes, including England's Gramophone award. The resurrected way of performing Bach provided a unique sound, with color and texture that revealed an intimate masterpiece.

So, thanks to Professor Rifkin, old things are new again, and they are still beautiful.


J. S. Bach