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Bach’s ‘Trauermusik’

Today’s performance is the result of a fair amount of detective work. It is deeply frustrating for Bach scholars that only few of his works were published during his lifetime and, although some 1276 manuscripts of Bach’s works survive today, not all of his works have survived. Today’s work is one of those for which Bach’s music has not survived, neither in print or manuscript. All that remains of the contemporary sources for the Trauermusik for the reigning prince of Köthen-Anhalt is the libretto, published by Bach’s librettist Picander, the nom de plume adopted by Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-64). Picander and Bach collaborated on numerous works, the most extensive project of which was, of course, the retelling of the story of the Passion according to St Matthew, much of which would have first been performed in Leipzig at St Thomas’ Church on Good Friday 1727 (though the manuscript score that survives to date dates back to 1736).

On 19 November 1728, 19 months after the performance of the Matthew Passion, Bach’s Köthen employer, patron and friend, Leopold I of Anhalt-Köthen died at the age of 33. Four months later, on the eve of the Annunciation, 24 March 1729, Bach’s and Picander’s Trauermusik was performed as part of his funeral at the Ducal Chapel of St James. This rather lengthy delay in burying the reigning prince was not uncommon. In seventeenth-century Europe royal funerals were resplendent affairs, even in the Calvinist duchy of Anhalt-Köthen, and required much detailed planning. In this case, Leopold might even have stipulated that the funeral be delayed so that Bach was able to attend and direct the music Leopold had commissioned. While at Köthen, Bach had only written secular cantatas: the Calvinist court did not share the same liturgical tradition as Lutheran Leipzig or Weimar. The cantatas that he did write, then, were celebrations of the reigning prince – mainly birthday cantatas. In addition, Bach composed a number of instrumental works for Leopold, a keen amateur lutenist.

The libretto of the Leopold’s Trauermusik was first published as a libretto booklet for the funeral and, three years after the first performance of the work, in a collection of Picander’s poems. Picander’s words are the fixed point in the half a dozen or so reconstructions of the work. The first of these was the nineteenth-century editor of the first Bachausgabe, Wilhelm Rust. All of the reconstructions draw on the music of the Matthew Passion, and Bach’s other funeral work, the Trauer-Ode for Queen Christiane Eberhardine of Poland and Saxony, Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl (BWV 198), also performed first in 1727. Much of the music for today’s Trauermusik was first performed – in different contexts and as different commissions – two years before Leopold’s death. The compiler of today’s reconstruction suggests that it was fortunate that the Matthew Passion and the funeral ode for Queen Christiane benefited from the fact that Leopold planned his funeral in good time: they were able to draw on the music for the projected funeral. Bach simply asked Picander and his funeral ode librettist Gottsched to write new words for the Köthen music for the two substantial performances of 1727.

Unfortunately, we have no substantial evidence to establish precisely what came first: the Trauermusik, or the Passion and the funeral ode. It is just as likely that, having heard – of – the success of the Passion and the ode, the ailing Leopold asked Bach to conceive of a work that would honour him. In an age in which musical recordings did not exist, and any re-performance or re-use of a work was an opportunity for the genius of Bach’s music to be appreciated by another audience, it was common for music to be adapted for other performance purposes. Just as at the death of Princess Diana of Wales 25 years ago, the singer Sir Elton John was asked to adapt his Candle in the Wind to create a moving funeral tribute, Good-bye England’s Rose, it may well be that the reigning prince asked that the music of Bach’s most-loved vocal work be used for his funeral, rather than the other way around. In the absence of firm archival evidence, it is hard to determine the chronology.

Whichever may have come first, this afternoon’s performance echoes seven arias and two choruses from the largest, longest and most complex vocal work Bach composed in the second decade of the eighteenth-century. His B-Minor Mass, completed a year before his death, would rival the complexity of music and setting, but at the time of Leopold’s death the Matthew Passion was the pinnacle of Bach’s music making. And so while it is hard to say whether today’s performance was a stepping stone to the ‘great Passion’ or the Passion and the Funeral Ode for Queen Christiane the inspiration for the Trauermusik, the music and words themselves are a fitting tribute to a passionate promoter of Bach and his music. I am delighted to share in the first performance of this latest reconstruction as Bach’s Trauermusik by the combined forces of Polyphonic Voices and the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Michael Fulcher. For me, the work will help me re-discover what I love about the St Matthew Passion through the vehicle of Picander’s libretto to celebrate Leopold and his reign. The fact that the work is performed 288 years after Leopold’s death is testament to his ‘immortal fame’ as the final movement of the work so confidently proclaims.

Image credit: H.-P.Haack, via Wikimedia Commons.