Do the Turbae Movements in Bach's Passions Undermine the Idea of the Tempo Ordinario?

An appendix to "Bach's Notation of Tempo and the Early-Music Movement: Some reconsiderations"
by Bernard D. Sherman (from Early Music, August, 2000)

Further footnotes to be added as time permits.

What follow here is an online appendix to my article Bach's Notation of Tempo and Early-Music Performance, which was published in the journal Early Music in August, 2000 (space limitations precluded the publishing this section as an appendix there). That article argues that Bach's notation indicates tempo more systematically than many performers today recognize. Bach clearly did not use the familiar modern system, based on tempo words, which became standard in the 19th century, of course. Rather, I argue, his notation is a late example of the late-17th-century system in which he was trained.

Basic to the notation of tempo in late-17th century Germany was the association of time signatures with tempos. My article argues in particular that, when not modified according to a set of criteria discussed, the time signature C indicates an "ordinary" or basic tempo, neither extremely fast or extremely slow (although for Bach, relatively lively).

This appendix considers a type of work that seems to contradict that conclusion - the turbae from the Passions. These movements are typically performed today in a presto tempo, particularly in the St. John Passion. Yet they have none of the modifying criteria that might indicate extra speed in Bach's notational system. Since the high speeds typically taken are much faster than the "ordinary" tempo, some may argue that the turbae show that C had no particular tempo implications for Bach. I argue here, however, that the turbae do not clearly demonstrate that point.

Let us consider the St. John turbae further, as their usual tempo notation is the C time signature (although two are in 6/4, one in 3/4, and one in C marked "Allegro," as I will discuss.. In the score, the signature is typically written at the beginning of the preceding recitatives; the turbae, in the usual notational practice of the time, are not set off by double bars but instead follow directly with no change of signature or tempo marking. Admittedly, the music may be said to imply that the turbae will not proceed at the tempo of the preceding recitatives. Perhaps that possibility could be taken to suggest that the turbae were meant to be very much faster. Indeed, one could conjecture that an unnotated performance tradition of Bach's day would call for unusually rapid tempos in turbae choruses.

But the notation of the approximately 20 period Passions I have been able to inspect - among them, the anonymous St. Luke Passion that Bach programmed twice in Leipzig - does not support the conjecture. For example, while 'Ja nicht auf das Fest' in Telemann's 1730 St. Matthew Passion is marked Presto, numerous other Telemann Passion turbae have no indications of extra-ordinary speed, which suggests that the Presto is exceptional. The St. John Passion attributed to Handel, 1704, contains a C turba marked Presto, and a 6/8 turba marked 'Allegro'; another turba in C marked Allegro slows to Adagio briefly, then increases to Presto. But these three movements are counterbalanced by five others: one turba is marked Adagio, three have only a crotchet-denominator time signature, and one has only a 12/8 signature. This work's turbae, then, are not notated with exceptionally fast tempos as a standard rule; instead, it seems that high speed required special notation.

The tempo notation of other German Passions from the late 17th and early 18th centuries similarly suggests that turbae were not by default taken at high speed.1 The Passion settings that Bach clearly knew support the conclusion. An important one to consider is the St. Mark Passion that Bach attributed (perhaps incorrectly)2 to Reinhard Keiser, since Bach performed it in three different decades. Parts survive from Bach's performances, some in his own hand. In these sources, the turbae are generally marked only C, with no other tempo indications. But the exceptions - all of which exist in Bach's hand - are telling. One, the three-bar outburst 'Kreuzige ihn,' is in 12/8 metre and marked Presto. That no other turba has this tempo word may suggest that no other turba was as fast. However, the 12/8 metre is also unique among turbae in this work. The idea of intrinsic speeds discussed earlier may suggest that a 12/8 dotted crotchet would move about a third slower than common-time crotchets. Thus a fast tempo word may have been necessary to bring the dotted crotchet of this movement up to the usual speed of a common-time turba crotchet. The general implications of this case, then, are unclear.

1 Including Passions by Schütz (all three in the 1957 Neuausgabe), Selle (in Das Chorwerke, No. 26), Funcke (ibid., Nos. 78/79); Meder (ibid., v. 133); Sebastiani (in Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst, v. 17); Thiele (ibid.).

2 Daniel Melamed and Reginald Sanders, 'Zum Text und Kontext der "Keiser" Markuspassion,' Bach-Jarhrbuch 1999, show that Bach's attribution of the work to Keiser may be incorrect.

A more conclusive case involves Keiser's 22b ('Pfui dich') and 22d ('Er hat andern geholfen'). Both begin with short homophonic sections marked only by the time signature C. Both then move into imitative passages, which are set off only by a rest on the second beat of the measure, and not by bar lines, and which have note values similar to the preceding sections. Both imitative sections have the word Allegro written over their beginnings. The tempo word Allegro suggests that the preceding bars' C was not particularly fast, and that the new sections are to be faster. Thus, in this score it appears that a turba marked merely C is not a notably fast movement.

One Passion that does suggest generally fast turbae is Handel's Brockes-Passion, which Bach copied (partly in his own hand) circa 1747; most of its turbae are marked Allegro. Other works suggest that for Handel, 'Allegro' was faster than his tempo ordinario, though not his fastest marking. (Of course, his notational conventions were not necessarily the same as Bach's). Still, the example does not suggest that Bach assumed an 'Allegro' in his own turbae. Bach writes 'Allegro' in exactly one turba in each of his extant Passions; if it was to be assumed as a matter of convention, why write it even once? Instead, Bach appears to have applied it in special cases only. And if one were to accept Marshall's conclusion that 'Allegro' indicates simply the tempo ordinario in Bach, its significance might be to ensure that the turbae in question not be played too slowly. (Indeed, one turba with the marking, "Bist du nicht" from the St.John, is effectively in 3/2, although it is notated in C; most performers take it more slowly than other turbae. The Allegro might have been meant to counteract a slow 3/2 tempo.)

In a 1789 pastiche, C. P. E. Bach wrote 'Allegro' over two turbae borrowed from his father's St. Matthew Passion. The son's performance practices cannot be assumed to resemble those of the father over half a century earlier, of course, but they deserve consideration. The two turbae in question - the one-bar shout of 'Barrabam' and the three-bar 'Halt! Halt! Lass sehen '- are marked 'Allegro'; both have relatively simple declamation. But the son marks another St. Matthew borrowing, the fugal, tortuous 'Lass ihn creuzigen', only with the C time signature, and marks the four-bar 'Wahrlich, du bist auch einer von denen' (with its semiquaver run for the tenors) 'Allegro ma non troppo'. The markings suggest that turbae had varying tempos depending on their content (other period Passions do as well) - but not a default tempo far above the ordinario range. (We can look forward, of course, to seeing what the newly rediscovered Kiev collection reveals about other C. P. E. Bach pastiches.)

Thus we have no strong evidence of a tradition of automatically taking very fast tempos in turbae. Instead, evidence suggests that special notation was needed to indicate exceptional speed in these movements.

Bach regularly did use notational devices (e.g., words like Presto) when he wanted to indicate a strikingly fast tempo. In 'Ehre sei Gott' from the Christmas Oratorio, for example, the continuo parts (and a few other parts and staves) have such indications. Both of the surviving Passions include reasonable amounts of performing material. We can conjecture that Bach might somewhere have included indications if he did want very fast turbae. That he made no such notations may not prove anything; but it leaves us with no historical justification for always taking these choruses far faster than the upper end of a tempo ordinario range.

It may be relevant to this argument that one can take the St. John turbae at ordinary tempos without any loss of power or variety, as Britten demonstrates: his turbae have a mean and median tempo of ± =MM92 (the same applies to Leonhardt in the St. Matthew turbae). But Presto speeds in the turbae have become standard in recordings of the St. John (though not the St. Matthew). The average HIP tempo for the St. John turbae, ± =MM110, is about 20 percent faster than Britten. One may or may not prefer the faster tempos aesthetically; and the dramatic nature of the St. John may justify them. I do not decry them. I merely question their historical privilege.

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