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Discreet Instrumentation: J .S. Bach: The Six Motets, S. 225-230

The MHS Review 411, VOL. 12, NO.15• 1988

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David M. Greene


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So, class, who could tell me what it is a motet? No, Rollo, is not a vocal group from Detroit! Better maybe, I should ask: Why is a motet. So, all right, I tell you.

Let us go then, you and I, back to roughly 192 years before Colombo set sail for Guanahani. Polyphony--the simultaneous use of two or more melodic lines--had, apparently, recently been in­vented. Now, in church chant, there were lines given over to long notes or to florid vocalization of single syllables. Someone got the notion of placing above such passages settings of related texts in short notes, one note to a syllable. Such pairings (later triplings, quadruplings, etc.) were called motets, from mot, the French word for ''word,'' the texts being considered at least as important as the music.

Later, becoming primarily secular com­positions, motets went through many changes. At last in the Renaissance, the term came to describe sacred polyphonic compositions in which the voices, still dependent on a cantus firmus, each ex­pressed a free setting (bound by the rules of polyphony) of a single given text, usual­ly in Latin. By Bach's time, however, the term may be said to have indicated simply a polyphonic piece of church music.

In fact, by the time Bach took over his final post, in Leipzig, the motet was well on its way out. Why, then, did he see fit to write at least a half-dozen such old­-fashioned pieces? Well, in the first place it was his nature: mod-oriented Leipzigers considered him a fuddy-duddy who didn't keep up with the Top 40. But Bach, in fact, liked to test his mettle against the complex­ities of the old forms. (Why else would a fervent Lutheran produce the most monumental Roman Catholic Mass of all time?) Moreover, the performance re­quirements made them suitable for such solemn occasions as funerals, for which at least four of Bach's were designed. (It is said that the length of each reflects what Bach was paid for the pieces.)

What about the performance re­quirements? Four are for eight voices in two "choirs"; one is for five and the last for four. In his notes for this record, Hans Joachim Marx, citing remarks by the com­poser himself, insists that the eight-part motets at least were designed to be sung by one voice to a part. If so, they might even have been performed in graveside ceremonies.

In the present instance, however, the Stockholm Bach Choir is joined by Nikolaus Harnoncourt's instrumental Con­centus Musicus. There were once those who insisted that the motets were for voices alone. However, no. 2 exists with scoring for a pair of hunting oboes, a bas­soon, strings, and continuo, and no. 5 with an organ part. But the instruments merely double the voices, and the current think­ing is that instruments would have been thus used discreetly. In any case, the Con­centus' boast of "original instruments" goes for little here, since they don't make much impact of any kind.

In the set recorded years ago by the Barmen-Gemarke Schola Cantorum and the Collegium Aureum, there is included a seventh motet, Set Lob und Preis mit Ehren, S. 2 31. The notes tell us that Albert Schweitzer calls it "formerly attributed to Bach," but that it was authenticated by Wolfgang Schmieder, who gave it its S. number. But, as Alfred Mann points out (Bethlehem Bach Studies, Bethlehem, PA, 1985), it is actually the second movement of Cantata no. 28, which was at some time isolated from its source.

The largest and most complex of the motets (which makes use of the tune we know as "Old Hundredth") is no. 1, pro­bably written for the birthday of Frederick August of Saxony. Mann cites Friedrich Rochlitz' report of how Mozart "discovered" Bach on hearing this piece sung in the Thomaskirche. At the opening he sat up, stunned, and remained galvaniz­ed throughout the whole work. Afterward he asked to see the score. There being none, they brought him the parts, which he laid out all around his chair, reconstruc­ting the piece in his mind as he surveyed them.

Review from page 15

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