Wednesday, November 16, 2005


JS Bach Orchestration

Adam Carse writes:

Famous in Germany as an executant, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was hardly recognised as a prominent composer during his lifetime. His orchestral works were written for performance under his own guidance in the various towns where he was employed, for variable and often insufficient resources, reaching at best a limited circle which was more local than national extent. His orchestration follows in direct succession the beginning made by Gabrieli in Italy, introduced into Germany by Schutz, further developed by succeeding German organist-composers, and finally handed on to Bach and his generation by the Church composers immediately preceding him, the generation of which perhaps the best remembered is Buxtehude. Confined within the radius of a few German churches and provincial courts, Bach's orchestration neither contributed nor acquired any of the freedom and progress which marked the contemporary work of German composers in the theatre or concert-room.

Bach's resources at Leipzig are known to have been an orchestra of from eighteen to twenty, of which wind instruments would account for nine or ten players, leaving only two to three instruments to each part. The wind players were obviously double-handed in the sense that the oboe players, for example, would have to play on alto and tenor instruments of the same type when required, and it is not at all improbable that the players on brass instruments were similarly obliged to change from one instrument to another. Whereas a four-part string orchestra is employed in almost every work, the specific wind parts vary in a manner which suggests that Bach wrote for whatever wind instruments happened to be at his disposal and that the combination and supply varied considerably from time to time. His "memorials" complaining of the lack of necessary instrumental players bear out the impression that he was obliged to cut his coat according to his cloth, and that his orchestral "cloth" was frequently insufficient in quantity if not in quality.

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