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Reflecting on the Journey of Early Music Performance in the 500th Anniversary Year of Lutheran Hymnals

Updated: Mar 26

Mr. Suzuki, have your performance practices changed as you have performed works repeatedly over the years?

The basic approach has not changed, but we have become more forgiving in a way. We used to work on articulation rather fanatically, but we don’t do that anymore, because now we know how Bach’s music should be performed.

It has been over 30 years since I founded the Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) in 1990, and if you ask me what has changed since then, it is that we have become older! But we have been accepting young members into the ensemble to keep the group youthful. Most of the current singers have joined us in the past 10 to 15 years. They are very professional. They know Bach’s music very well, so it has become much easier to conduct rehearsals.

Has the environment for educating singers changed?

Yes, very much so. When new singers join a group with many long-time members, the young ones learn quickly what the older people took many years to acquire. They learn so much faster. We used to say, “We need to pass our knowledge on to the next generation…” but now it is rather the old ones who need to put in more effort to catch up with the young people. You might worry that the younger members would be selfish in the way they perform, but they are not selfish at all. So we don’t need to be so arrogant... Those who join us share our ideas. The music has been handed over very well.

We used to hear that the main focus of vocal lessons was operatic performance and that singers didn’t learn ensemble singing at university. Has the educational environment become more aware of ensemble singing?

Definitely. When the Early Music Department was set up at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music in 2000, people knew that Baroque vocal ensembles were important, but they still believed that opera singing mattered more. They didn’t know how to teach early music at the beginning. But their awareness gradually changed as singers started learning early music and performing it in ensembles. By the time I left the university 13 years ago, ensemble lessons were taught to students of both vocal and instrumental music.

Do you also see such a change in countries other than Japan?

Yes. Europe and the USA changed much earlier than Japan did. Even some modern orchestras have a desire to perform Baroque music. The biggest issue for the finest orchestras is not technique but how to limit the number of members who will play a concert. Many orchestras have 16 or 14 violinists in the 1st and 2nd violin sections, respectively. If you tell them, “I only need four in each,” usually they cannot do that due to their regulations. But when I performed “Messiah” with the New York Philharmonic the other day, I asked for 6 each, and they could do that. Those who realize the need for flexibility in their social system can adjust quickly.

Choirs have the same problem. The primary difficulty is how to create a social environment for such concerts. With amateurs, you cannot have a fine ensemble if you are limited to 8 singers. Then you might say, “We need 80 singers.” It is okay to sing Messiah with 80 singers, but then you can only perform music intended for 80 singers.

I don’t usually work with amateur choirs, but there are some competent ones. You just need to decide what to do depending on the situation.

In this article I was asked to discuss performing 500-year-old works: the year 1524 – 500 years ago – is an extremely important year as it was when the Lutheran hymnal “Erfurt Enchiridion” and a collection of hymns edited by Johann Walter were published. In the 200th anniversary year of its publication in 1724, Bach wrote 40 chorale cantatas. This year, 2024, is the year of chorale cantatas, and we (Bach Collegium Japan) are planning to perform these 40 works.

Although Bach wrote so many cantatas, many people are unaware of most of them, except perhaps for very famous ones such as Nos 140 or 147. Bach often used chorales, or hymns, which are songs for the congregation, in his cantatas. His chorale cantatas were written in 1724, the second year Bach lived in Leipzig.

In cantatas, there is usually a choral piece at the beginning, followed by several recitativos and arias, and a chorale at the end. In chorale cantatas, on the other hand, chorales are used in every movement. In the opening chorus, a soprano may sing the melody of a chorale without variation; against this, the other vocal sections and instruments have totally independent lines of music. Instead of adding variation to the same melody, something with a different value is added to create the opening chorus. Bach’s achievement with these works was to generate unique musical values, independent of the hymn melodies.

For instance, the first verse of the hymn text is used for the 1st piece, and the last verse is used for the four-voice part in the end. Then, if there are 10 verses in between but only several Cantata movements, the meaning of the chorale is digested and applied to the recitativos and arias. So all the texts are covered, but in a different way than in the chorale itself. The melodies of the chorale sometimes appear in the middle of a recitativo or an aria, and you feel the spirit of the chorale throughout the entire cantata. These are very special cantatas.

Forty such works were written in the same year. Then Bach later replenished the missing works for some Sundays according to the Christian calendar. He spent the rest of his lifetime trying to complete the annual catalogue of chorale cantatas. Hymns were that important for him.

Do you think the fact that Bach sang in a choir in his youth affected his writing?

I am sure he was familiar with chorales from his childhood. In the era of Mozart and Haydn -- apart from Mendelssohn, who was very conscious of hymns -- no other composers used hymns at the core of their works. In the history of music, hymns played a significant role only until Bach’s time, and not after that, unfortunately.

Bach’s cantatas, especially these chorale cantatas, are truly enjoyable to perform. You find many things, such as how the shape of music is based on a certain text. There are many places like riddles.

Bach always composed works with a sense of perfection. This doesn’t mean he tried to create massive pieces: Rather, he made sense in every note, and he never wrote anything carelessly. Partly because the structure was mostly counterpoint and not accompaniment, every note has a deep meaning. For instance, in the first 4 bars of chorus in the Mass in B minor, where the chorus sings, “Kyrie…,” the inner voices move so intricately because they are making the form of a cross. Such symbolic meanings are constantly sought after, and he never gives up. That’s an impressive energy.

Mozart and Beethoven also have power as such, but the uniqueness of Bach’s music is such symbolism in sound shapes. I’m impressed by his tireless energy in carving every shape of music, even though others may dislike it.

What works would you like to work on in the future?

I want to keep following the tradition of religious music. Next year (2024), in addition to the Chorale Cantatas, we will also perform Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang and Brahms’ A German Requiem. Mendelssohn is apparently connected with Bach, and Brahms studied Bach’s works extremely closely. Brahms’ German Requiem also has something like a chorale melody. I would like to excel in performing music by following the thoughts of those composers. Playing on period instruments has a significant impact, especially with Mendelssohn. The sound will be totally different from that produced by modern instruments.

What do you wish for your choral musicians and the music society?

Music only exists when it is performed. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that live performances at concerts continue; that is the mission of performers. This is universal for both amateurs and professionals.

The effort to make performance better enables us to enjoy ourselves. The key is to work only on great music. Do not perform rubbish music. Your life is limited, and you will never be able to perform all the music that exists in the world. The first key is to choose only the better ones. The second key is to focus on how to perform it, for the sake of making the best music possible.

The level of the Japanese music society is very high, and the young musicians are especially splendid. But I think people are forgetting the importance of really enjoying music: they pay too much attention to competitions. Competitions are just a starting point. You must become mature after them and make better music. I always believe we should pay attention to the music, not the people.

Translated from Japanese by Tomoko Yokoyama

Edited by Anita Shaperd, USA

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