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April 10, 2009

"Lasset Uns Den Nicht Zerteilen"

By: Bernard Chazelle

A reader asked me for another example of Bach's "sound imagery." Here's a gorgeous illustration.

In this SJP chorus, having determined that Jesus on the cross was as good as dead, the soldiers divide up his clothes among themselves. They judge his coat too valuable to cut up so they decide its fate by a roll of the dice. The music conveys first the rattling of the dice in the bowl (0:13-1:30), and then the victory of the winner (1:30-1:36). The rhythmic jangling sound is produced by sixteenths arpeggios played by the organ.

There is incredible logic to all this madness. It's arranged as a canon. Not an exact canon with lines repeating unchanged like Pachelbel's Canon. Bach's contrapuntal genius occupies a different universe altogether. Voices chase and imitate one another in dazzling interval patterns. If you've never seen this before, you'll be impressed. Each bar has 3 beats (time sig is 3/4), but each beat is really a pair of eighth notes, so you really have 6 beats per measure. As in:


Count them: that's 6. There are 4 soldiers, hence 4 voices. The canon introduces a new voice every measure in this particular order: bass, tenor, alto, soprano. There are 2 lines of text, stretched over 7 measures. The order of the voices is not random. It's calculated so that the winner of the contest (at 1:30) is the soprano: that would have to be the youngest soldier. Why? No idea. But remember that everything Bach did in his passions has theological meaning. (Maybe our resident Lutheran experts at ATR will be kind enough to volunteer an explanation.) The last 4 measures celebrate the victory of the winner by singing the same words together in harmony.

PS: The conductor is Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a true Bach master. Many of the kids you see in this famous Munich choir are now world-class musicians but not singers. One must appreciate that it is virtually impossible for a choir boy to grow into an opera singer after his voice breaks. It is like for a pianist to lose one hand and have to relearn a new instrument.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 10, 2009 07:59 PM

What a lovely way to start the day. More please, sir.

Posted by: Svensker at April 11, 2009 09:33 AM

Love these posts Bernard.

Would also love to hear your thoughts on Mozart's Requiem and how it stands up against Bach's work.

Our favorite version is Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic's.

Posted by: ran at April 11, 2009 01:15 PM

ran: I've had the requiem in mind for a while. certainly way up there in my book.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 11, 2009 01:52 PM

Which book, Bernard?

Posted by: Santes at April 11, 2009 04:38 PM