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Synthesis of the Baroque

The acclaimed The Cantatas of J. S. Bach, the book that examines part of the German composer’s work, now has a Portuguese language translation

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGETo explain one of the monuments of Western music, a no less monumental book is needed. After years of work, in January 2015 the publishing company of Sacred Heart University (USC) in Bauru, São Paulo, Edusc, will release As cantatas de J. S. Bach, by German musicologist Alfred Dürr (1918-2011).

A native of Berlin, Dürr was one of the great 20th century specialists on the author of The Passion According to St. Matthew and participated in the publishing of many of Bach’s scores. One of the principle reference works of the bibliography of erudite music, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, devotes an entry to Dürr. It affirms that his writing on the German musician “is the result not just of purely musicological research, but also of the investigation of other considerations, such as the teleological and historical aspects of Bach’s work, and detailed analyses of the sources.”

Meticulous and exhaustive, The cantatas of J. S. Bach was first published in German, in Kassel, in 1971. Since then it has attracted not only the attention of specialists, but also of the public in general. One of the most active promoters of Bach’s music in Brazil, Carlos Siffert, recognizes his debt to the work of the German musicologist. “My bible for the cantatas has been Dürr’s book. My copy is written in, marked up and ragged from so much use,” says Siffert, who presented a series of programs dedicated to the author of The Well-Tempered Clavier on the Cultura FM radio station between 1996 and 2012. “Dürr is one of the greatest authorities on Bach of our time,” says Siffert. “His book is broad-based and covers not only the technical aspects of the works, but also their historical and liturgical context and their spirituality.”

UNIVERSITY OF LEIPZIGThe apex of a musical dynasty active in Saxony and Thuringia between the 16th and 19th centuries, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed more than a thousand works in practically all the genres played in the 18th century (except for opera). By observing the styles played beyond the borders of protestant Germany where he was active, such as French and Italian music, he forged a cosmopolitan language. Due to its intrinsic quality and the influence on posterity, this language led him to be considered the synthesis of the Baroque. Music history books will often use the year 1750 to mark the end of this period, precisely because it is the year in which Bach died.

“I believe that Bach is a composer who transcends the canons of musical history, a presence that is above and surrounds all the other composers,” says Marcos Virmond, a professor at the Music Department of USC, in Bauru, who is responsible for technical review of the Brazilian edition of Dürr’s book. “What is more, Bach is universal and can be understood in a broad cultural geographical space,” says Virmond, who is a physician by training and holds a doctorate in music from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Monument of Western music
The New Grove Dictionary defines cantata as a “work for one or more voices, with instrumental accompaniment.” It also says that it was “the most important form of vocal music in the Baroque period, except for opera and oratory, and by far, the most common.” So it comes as no surprise that they play a predominant role in the production of the Baroque composer par excellence that Bach was. Virtuoso of the organ, he composed some cantatas in his younger days, in the little German towns where he worked as an organ player and conductor. However, his production in this area really gained momentum when he settled in Leipzig in 1723. He lived there for 27 years, until his death in 1750. In the cantatas, Bach used texts from different literary figures. Sometimes a cantata may contain text by more than one author and it is not always possible to determine who wrote the texts, which may be from previous centuries. Bach compiled and put these texts to music according to the liturgical needs of the day.

University of LeipzigBach was responsible for the music at the principal churches in the city, the Church of Saint Thomas and the Church of Saint Nicholas, whose Sunday services began at 07:00, lasted four hours, and always featured music: a cantata before the creed and another (or the second part of the same cantata) after the sermon or during communion. Thus, although he also wrote cantatas about secular texts, those of a sacred nature were predominant in his composing at that time. The total number of cantatas composed by Bach cannot be precisely determined, since it is estimated that two-fifths of them have been lost, including most of the secular ones.

Possibly the most famous of Bach’s melodies, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, belongs to one of his cantatas: this is the final chorale of BWV 147 (the BWV index is the cataloguing system for the composer’s works, established in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder). Among those with a secular theme is The Coffee Cantata, BWV 211 – almost a comic opera, which takes a humorous look at the consumption habits of this beverage in the 18th century.

When evaluating the importance of the 200 or so cantatas by this German composer that have reached us, Siffert likes to quote a phrase by Dürr: “For me, the set of cantatas is the greatest monument to Western music, and is incredible for its richness, variety and passion.”

Bach_livro_montado1USC PUBLISHING HOUSEThe Brazilian edition
The idea of publishing Alfred Dürr’s book in Portuguese in Brazil arose in 2002. The suggestion was made to Edusc by José Fernando Perez, then scientific director of FAPESP. This undertaking seemed excessively bold and ambitious for a medium-sized academic publisher like Edusc. However, Sister Elvira Milani, ex-president of the University and currently the coordinator of socio-cultural and missionary projects at Institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (IASCJ), took Perez’s words seriously.

“The project was designed at that time, but it didn’t move forward until 2010, when a decision was made to send it to the Ministry of Culture, which ended up approving it under the Rouanet Law,” says Milena Balduino, cultural project advisor at USC. “Sister Elvira is an energetic and determined person. She visited several companies in the Bauru region, and they ended up going along with the idea.” No less important than the financial feasibility of the project was guaranteeing its excellence. “I do not accept a book that is less than perfect,” said Sister Elvira at that time. This phrase became the guideline for this initiative.

The translation was entrusted to Professor Claudia Sibylle Dornbusch, associate professor in German literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). In 2011, given the size of the text (1,400 pages), she took advantage of a seminar on translation in Leipzig, precisely the same city in which Bach composed the most expressive part of his cantatas. While there, she invited Professor Stéfano Paschoal from the Federal University of Uberlândia, who is specialized in the German language, to be her partner. Prof. Dornbusch notes that the translation of the text of the cantatas did not seek to preserve the metrics or the rhymes of the original, since the intention was to present their content, not to give poetic recreation or prepare the text for a performance, which would have required an entirely different amount of work.

“Many sections of the cantatas are passages from the Bible, whose translations vary if they are rendered into different languages; in addition, some books in the Bible are organized differently in different languages and religious traditions,” she says. “In this regard, the comparison to the English translation was very helpful. What should be adapted and mixed, and how to render the Biblical text blended with literary creation were questions that demanded solutions that were not always easy to find.” Curiously, due to translation difficulties, the English version sometimes cut out parts of the text, which the translators worked to replace fully.

Paschoal identifies three different parts to Dürr’s text. “The first was a musical analysis of the cantatas, in a highly technical language; the second was an analysis of the history and appreciation of each of the cantatas. This was a text with few mentions of technical musical vocabulary, but with a complex, almost literary style,” he says. “And the third part was the original texts of the cantatas, the majority of which were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, all with direct or indirect references to the Bible.”

The specificities of the book required yet another specialist in music to be responsible for the jargon of the area, and the task fell upon professor and conductor Marcos Virmond, whose love affair with Bach began at the age of 15, when he discovered an old LP with his works for the organ at a store in the district of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro. “Technical review of a work of this size is complex, not just due to the depth and erudition of the text, but also because of the limited production of books on Baroque music in Brazil, and in particular, on Bach and his cantatas,” he says.

“In fact, many of the concepts surrounding music as played in his time are hard to adapt to musical vocabulary in Portuguese,” says Virmond. “There are even some well-established terms in German in the field of musicology that have no counterpart in our language, which gives the work of technical review an innovative and daring character. So, besides establishing a basic text of academic bibliography on Bach, this translation of Alfred Dürr’s book may introduce and strengthen some specific terms in the field of Bachian musicology in the Portuguese language.”