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Brahms’s Concert Arrangements of Cantatas by J S Bach: Research Report and Performance

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Brahms’s leading role in the Bach revival in Vienna and elsewhere is relatively well-known in outline. This evening’s report by Robert Pascall offers the findings of recent archival research which materially amplify this knowledge. The report will be followed by performances of two arias with Brahms’s newly-discovered continuo realizations for string ensemble, given by the Faculty of Music Bach Ensemble under Martin Ennis.

In October 1874, Brahms wrote to his friend Philipp Spitta about his recent performances of Bach’s Cantatas Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 and Nun ist das Heil BWV 50 : “in concert-life for me the most striking and the most pleasing of adventures.” He had begun performing Bach cantatas with the first mixed-voice choir he directed on a regular basis, the Singverein at the Detmold court (1857-60) and he continued when he got to Vienna, with the Singakademie 1863-4, and the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde 1872-5.

For these performances he prepared arrangements which met the practical requirements of his time. Broadly speaking, he added instruments to support and colour Bach’s vocal parts where he thought necessary; he replaced or adapted Bach’s high trumpet parts, which were no longer fully playable by late 19th-century musicians; he wrote continuo realizations; and he added performance nuancing in accordance with contemporary taste. He intended these cantata-arrangements for one, at the most two specific performances, with no idea of publication whatsoever, and the source survival is correspondingly complex. Brahms’s working habits as he evolved the arrangements will be surveyed, and issues arising for the forthcoming edition of them in the new Johannes Brahms Gesamtausgabe discussed.

In the main Brahms prepared his continuo realizations for organ, but two movements survive in which he replaced the keyboard continuo with a string ensemble, and it is these two pieces that will be performed tonight. In them he deployed his full compositional powers, particularly as developed in his latest chamber music, thus fashioning his own creative tribute to his revered forbear.

Robert Pascall studied at Oxford under John Caldwell and Sir Jack Westrup, and served as Professor and Head of Music at the Universities of Nottingham and Bangor. He has written on music from Bach to Schoenberg, with particular focus on the music of Brahms. He is Vice-Chair of the New Johannes Brahms Complete Edition, for which he has edited the symphonies, including Brahms’s own arrangements of them for piano duet. He is an Honorary Member of the Royal Musical Association and Honorary Professor of Music Philology in the University of Cambridge.

This talk is part of the Faculty of Music Colloquia series.

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