The Size of Bach's Choir

This is a recent revelation, unearthed by the stunningly comprehensive research of early music heroes like Joshua Rifkin. Quote from J.S. Bach himself :

"A church choir should consist of at least twelve people, so that if two or three are absent or ill, as so often happens, a double chorus can still be sung".

Bach is talking here about what would happen in an ideal world, and he's implying one voice to a part. In practice, he didn't write many double choruses, because he didn't have the resources. His standard choir consisted of four singers. All of them top-flight, paid professionals, of course, selected and trained by Bach himself, and capable of sight-reading excruciatingly difficult music from the crabby handwritten score that Bach had composed two days before, or rather from the parts that his wife and kids had scribbled out from it. They had about four days to get the whole thing up to performance standard. Compare that to the average amateur choral society performance done by eighty indifferent singers, or even a more competent "Bach choir" of similar numbers, and you see Bach in a new light.

Think of Bach's cantatas - or even works like the B minor mass. Get rid of the modern preconceptions of "choir and orchestra", and look again at the scores. What you see is a small, fully integrated band of musicians (usually around 10), some of which happen to be singers. One moment we have a duet for soprano, flute and continuo, the next it's a trio for tenor voice, viola and oboe, and finally we get a chorale for vocal quartet, but with instrumental lines interweaving through it. One of Bach's favourite tricks is to write an instrumental piece, but float the vocal chorale on which it is based gently in the background. All conventional recordings will bring the overgrown choir forward, drowning important instrumental lines. Even Joshua Rifkin himself, who has done some excellent cantata recordings with four soloists, hasn't taken on board all the implications, and his four singers often overpower the instruments. Only Andrew Parrott has produced cantata recordings which put the singers and instruments on an exactly equal footing. They are holy gems. Buy them.

Now that courageous researchers have thought the unthinkable, other evidence is coming to light. It's not just Bach, it's all the generations before Bach. It transpires that most Tudor church music followed similar principles. Plainchant sections sung by as many singers as the church can muster (possibly 50 or 60 in a cathedral choir), then the best four or five soloists doing the counterpoint. This is exactly the opposite approach to that heard on most recordings. We can at least now drop the clever interpretations of title pages like William Byrd's "Mass for five voices". No interpretation needed. Five voices means five voices. It does what it says on the tin.