eA few years ago, Swiss author Ezo Chamartin was supposed to write a script for “Bach’s Opera” that Rudolf Lutz, director of the Johann Sebastian Bach Foundation in St. Gallen, wanted to perform. His text would have been linked to melodies and choirs selected by Bach using the good old parody style, and perhaps supplemented by a few newly composed recitations. However, when Cammartin looked closely at Bach, he came to the conclusion that such a script is meaningless, since Bach seems to have made a conscious decision not to compose an opera. Instead of the script, Izu Camartin wrote a book explaining the facts for himself, Why Didn’t Johann Sebastian Bach Write an Opera.
First of all, do you really have to ask the question? Are you also asking why Monteverdi didn’t write useful works or why Wagner didn’t write any for fans? But if you ask a question about Bach’s operas, the pragmatic answer is quickly given: there were no opera houses in the main places of Bach’s activity in Weimar, Cothen and Leipzig during his tenure. And for the court theaters of Berlin and Dresden, it is clear that Bach’s influence was not enough to obtain a commission for composition. International opera centers such as Venice and London were far from Bach’s field of activity anyway.
Baroque opera, parodies, and influence theory
Iso Camartin is not satisfied with this answer. In his book, he details the suitability of Bach’s music to opera, which is evident in light of the Baroque theory of influences. Feelings such as sadness, joy, pain, or love were represented on stage and in church by the same musical means in the eighteenth century. In addition, some of Bach’s secular songs, as Camartin explains emphatically, can pass as “mini-opera”. Iso Camartin justifies the fact that Bach did not at least try opera by the fact that Thomaskantor did not consider himself an artist in the first place, but understood music as a science. Bach was able to express everything by the means of church music; Lutheran ministry was a sufficient “stage” for him.
Accompanied by commentaries on the history of opera in Leipzig and on Bach’s sparse connection with the genre, Camartin reports largely on the research of Christoph Wolff and Michael Mull. On the Tour of the Force, he also addresses the history of Baroque opera in general, and the practice of parodies and theory of influences. In contrast, Camartin’s considerations of Bach’s individual melodies were formulated in a more individualistic way. Then QR codes at the end of the chapters direct the reader to the corresponding YouTube audio or video example.
Although this book is well read and individually designed as is, it hardly offers anything new to Bach fans. Instead, there are a lot of errors in the text regarding the facts about Bach. In 1722, for example, Bach was not a direct competitor to Telemann in the selection process for the position of Thomaskantor, but only advanced when Telemann long ago declined. Bach composed his hunting emblems in Weimar rather than in Leipzig, and the piece is not recorded for Schaums but for Oboas.
Good and important
Tillmann did not move from Leipzig to Hamburg in 1705, but rather to Surau, and lyricist of Bach’s song “I Have Enough” is unknown, but was identified by Christine Blanken years ago as Christoph Berkmann. Liturgy B Minor was not completed in 1748/49 for the Dresden Court. After all, it is very audacious to call Leipzig a “German capital”. Of course, these mistakes are not catastrophic, but they could have been easily avoided. The mention of Count Questenberg as a possible commissioner of Bach’s Opera is also highly speculative, since in 1749 this nobleman was in poor health and poor financially to carry out such a project.
In the final act, Camartin invited Bach and his music to be performed everywhere, including the opera stage. This is a good and important requirement, however, which is already met at many festivals. Earlier this year, the Dutch Bach Society and Opera 2 Days in The Hague released a production of Bach’s music on a new script by Thomas Hooft titled Die Apokalypse, which will also be shown at the Leipzig-Bach Festival in 2024. The subtitle reads: “Operas Not Written by Bach Never”.
Iso Cammartin: “Why didn’t Johann Sebastian Bach write an opera”. rüffer & rub Verlag, Zurich 2022. 157 p., Hardcover, €24.
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