The Absolute Priority of Words over Music

I have blogged briefly before about the wonderful Bach Cantata edition by the Monteverdi Choir and Sir John Eliot Gardiner which is currently being released. These are recordings made during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, which aimed to perform all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day or Sunday, in locations throughout Europe (and in New York), all within a single year – the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

In each beautifully presented set (with marvellous photos by Steve McCurry on the front cover setting the tone) there is a short endword by one of the performers on their experience of the Pilgrimage.  The note by Soprano Katherine Fuge in the latest set caught my eye:

Along with our music, we received each week photocopies of the bible readings set by the lectionary for that particular Sunday…

The words of the Cantatas are based on the readings of the day – sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely. Clearly Gardiner is persuaded that in order to get the best performance his singers not only need to know the music, but also need to understand the Cantata text. And to understand the text they need to be familiar the Bible readings on which the texts are based.  The results speak for themselves.

There is another equally rich set of Bach cantatas being produced right now from Masaaki Suzuki – a Japanese Christian and organist in the Reformed church – and his Bach Collegium Japan. His performances of Bach in Japan have introduced Bach, and the Christian Faith, to a wide Japanese audience. In an interview with Malcolm Bruno from 2005  Suzuki says this:

Japan’s church population is only 1 percent. It’s not essential to be Christian to understand Bach, but in my case it has been an important motivation. Players as well as singers need to know what the text means, not just how the German should sound phonetically. And as my musicians know very little about the Bible or the words of Christ, I have to explain everything carefully. The tenor aria ‘Schlage doch, schlage’ for example has a very difficult pizzicato accompaniment. When I told the orchestra about the Last Judgement, trying to give them some sense of the angst of the last moment of a person’s life, and the towering sense of judgement in Bach’s Lutheran Germany, they were able to find a new vigour to put into the music.

Later in the interview he adds:

I want not only to reproduce what Bach might have done, but experience cantatas as a nourishment to our human condition. That is why I translate all the German into Japanese myself.

Note that he says “players as well as singers”. Whether singing or accompanying, to interpret music effectively it is essential to understand deeply the words that are being sung.

A further re-inforcement of this for me came recently when Richard Edgar-Wilson came to work with the choir I am fortunate to conduct, Illuminati. We had a fantastic evening. As he worked with us, again and again he drew our attention to the words of what we were singing, whether a folk song, a carol or a latin motet. He encouraged us to think about we could best reflect the meaning of the texts we were singing in phrasing, in dynamics, in all aspects of interpretation.  The results were immediate, and I think will be long-lasting.

Other singers have the same passion. Thomas Quasthoff, in a masterclass I observed once asked one Soprano to lie on the floor so that the Tenor under scrutiny at the time could imagine she was a baby in a cradle as he sang his lullaby. Very funny at the time – but he was making a serious point. Richard Edgar-Wilson mentioned a similar focus from Felicity Palmer, whose discovery of the absolute priority of the words helped transform her singing.  The secret? “To approach every word as though we are speaking it, only there happens to be a pitch.”

She said this in a recent interview

…more than anything, I want to be remembered as a communicator. Singers who don’t communicate the words as well as the music can make you feel bored very quickly. That’s not to say that I don’t think ravishing voices are sensational to listen to, but after a while, I want more.

…and this

If we didn’t have words in opera, it would just be vocalise, and we’d be flautists or whatever. Our vital dimension is provided by the words you hear, and if we don’t get that across both in the emotion and in the actual colouring of the words then we’ve failed because it’s our duty to do that.

Which (eventually) brings me to my conclusion. As primarily a Church musician I’m involved Sunday by Sunday in a context where we have the most fantastic words (the Word) and thoughts in the world to communicate – whether in a worship song, or hymn, a solo, or even an instrumental piece. If musicians in the concert hall, opera house or recital room make words such a priority how much more should we who “have the words of Eternal Life” (John 6:68)

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3 thoughts on “The Absolute Priority of Words over Music

  1. Not sure you are allowed to comment on your own posts, but on Facebook a friend made a very interesting comment:

    “BUT, lets not forget that it’s the music that often helps us to access the words, otherwise we may as well be reading poetry.

    On the very long and slow road to becoming a Christian, the first time I ever truly drank in the word was at a summer conference I realised that it can come in a truly contemporary form that grabbed me by the throat. I had no doubt heard similar lyrics before but had previously never been engaged or interested because of the musical style.

    So, agree with you, but still find the music to often be my springboard onto the words.”

    I had been debating including a quote from John Eliot Gardiner who conducts the Bach Cantata series I referred to, which illuminates this further. He comments on the way Bach sets words which ordinarily the secular 21st Century person might find ‘offensive’ – in this case that ‘Mankind is filth, stench, ash and earth’ (BWV 47). Bach “appears to invite us non-Lutherans into his orbit and to elicit from us a sympathetic response to the underlying homily [of the Cantata text], and to the nuance his music give it…for Mendelssohn (who knew Hegel) ‘it is not that music is too imprecise for words, but that it is too precise’. Bach seems to anticipate and substantiate Mendelssohn’s belief that music can unleash the central core of meaning so often obfuscated by words.”

  2. Interesting blog: we have friends and book in common. For reference the first 40 (!) of the Suzuki cantatas are now available (possibly for a limited time) in 4 ten-cd boxes at around £32-36 pounds. Worth every penny!

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