Andreas Scholl | Bach
Andreas Scholl

Andreas Scholl
Bach Cantatas
CD 478 2733
Also available as download
Pre-Release USA: October 2011
Internat. Release date: January 2012

Singing Bach

At the age of nine I sang in Bach’s St John Passion with the Kiedricher Chorbuben, the boys’ choir of my home town. I will never forget the enthusiasm of all the boys and the intensity of our singing in the concluding lines of the final chorale, “Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich, / Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!” (Lord, grant me this and I will glorify you throughout eternity). Somehow we all seemed to have been bound up with Bach’s great work. Is it possible for children to completely fathom all aspects of those compositions? Given the challenge posed by Bach’s arias even to experienced adult singers, let us doubt that. In the German language we distinguish between “verstehen” (to understand) and “begreifen” (to grasp). I believe that although a child may not be able to analyse a composition and gain access to it through its intellect or understanding, it may yet be able to “grasp” the intentions of a composition in its entirety through experience rather than analysis. This is something that I call the “gnostic” side of singing. In gnosticism the individual’s very personal experiences, the “knowing”, means more than the “believing” of acquired teachings. Ideally, a singer should, through his preparation and work, be able to create this experience for the listener.

We all know that the complete truth in Bach’s music cannot be traced back to instrumentation, tunings or the instruments being used, that it transcends such tools, requiring communication with the soul of the listener. This communication is the motor that drives Bach’s compositions. The religious context constantly refers to the human soul, a soul that needs redemption. For me this is always the starting point of any consideration of how to sing any Bach aria; I believe that a truly “authentic” interpretation must never ignore the reason why this music exists in the first place.

Do you need to be a religious person to sing Bach’s church music in a truly convincing manner? It is a question that frequently arises. Bach’s music is rooted in the idea of “Gotteslob”, praising God through music and educating the souls of the Christian community assembled in church. As a singer I need to be aware of the role I assume when singing any recitative or aria. The actual text, the message of a specific aria and its context must be the basis of any interpretation. Who am I when I sing this recitative or aria and to whom am I singing it? Knowledge of the religious background and belief can be as much a help as it can be an obstacle. I heard a colleague who deeply moved the entire audience with his singing of an aria, and I was convinced that there was religious conviction in his singing. When I asked him about it later, he told me that he was not a religious person, but accepts the truth of the music during the time in which he sings it.

Feeling the incredible power and conviction of Bach’s music, one could be tempted to feel unworthy of singing it. I had my share of problems with Herr Bach when I prepared and recorded the solo cantatas for alto in 1997. At one point I was almost in tears wanting to quit, thinking, “I am not good enough for this Bach”. Fortunately, our conductor Philippe Herreweghe and his wife, the cellist Ageet Zwijstra, sensed my troubles and helped me through this with their support and meaningful music making.

I believe it to be very important to have considerable time to study Bach’s music. It is always a safe bet to have it almost memorised and then to revisit it again and again over a certain period. I have found, especially in recitatives, that I constantly discover new details, gain new insights and ideas for an interpretation. In order to get to a point where I feel that I have a convincing way of communicating an aria to an audience, I need to stay with it for a while.

The typical singer’s reflex action is to open a score and immediately start singing. I believe one loses an important chance to understand the meaning in doing so. Once we have heard ourselves singing a particular aria we somehow etch this memory into our mind. Later, after gathering new ideas, it will be difficult to deviate from this imprint. Recitatives in particular gain immeasurably from being read out loud many times. There are so many different, individual ways of dramatizing a recitative that I need to find out which one will be the one I consider to be my choice. As I’ve already made clear, the idea of text and context is extremely important to me. What happened in this work before? What am I saying? It is this that makes the singing of Bach arias taken out of context, in a recital or audition, so difficult.

As singers we constantly send out energy, sound-waves on the simplest level and the “meaning” of words on a mental level, hoping that the listener receives the message. If the interpretation of an aria is compared to a projection screen for the audience, mediocre preparation combined with “beautiful singing” leaves plenty of space for the listener to project anything he wants to hear onto the “screen”. A well prepared and executed interpretation leaves the listener much less opportunity to project his own ideas. As a singer I make a statement about how I think the composer meant this aria or recitative to be received. The listeners can choose to accept or reject my opinion, but most of them will be able to receive something that one could call “conviction”.

For years I have tried to find a term that describes the state of mind of a singer that enables him to “speak” to an audience. I call that state of mind “connected”. The rather dry and analytical approach of remembering all the many different, essential elements when singing an aria needs to culminate in a “connection” or amalgamation of those elements. I can’t always recall all the single elements of my preparation when singing, but this preparation and revisiting a piece over and over again connects these elements to achieve a level that can’t be analysed. Like a child, the listener can “grasp” what it’s all about without the “knowing” that would be the result of receiving and understanding all the single elements individually. Ideally, he, too, gets “connected”. There is no guarantee that a well-prepared interpretation will ultimately move the audience. But the chances of successful communication grow greater with every extra minute invested into contemplation of what my task is – how best to serve the music.

© 2011 Andreas Scholl
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in
Goldberg Magazine.