Bach 360°: What Type of Singers Did Bach Prefer?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Stephen Cleobury Conducts the King's College Choir of Cambridge at the Dubrovnik Festival (Zbor Kraljevskog)

As a boy, Bach was said to have a lovely soprano voice and got plenty of experience singing in choir. Later in life he wrote works that offer enough variety and surprise to challenge even the greatest singers.

But what kinds of voices did Bach exactly have in mind for his weekly cantatas, oratorios and passions? And when it comes to the upper range, which voice type is best suited for communicating the composer's music: boy sopranos, countertenors or women?

In Leipzig, Bach composed for a choir whose members ranged up to age 23 – that is, young men as well as boys. Bach's altos could have been either boys or men singing in a falsetto range (boys in the 18th century were able to sing in the treble range until they turned 17 or 18). Yet evidence is inconclusive as to which high voices Bach preferred.

The American Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin has noted that the standard practice in the German courts of the time was to use adult males to sing alto. But even if this is the case, and Bach’s altos were men, they may have sounded very different from today’s countertenors (men who sing in an alto range), possessing different tone production, declamation and phrasing. Some conductors today also prefer feature female voices, the argument being that they possess greater musicianship and technical maturity.

As we focus today on great Bach singers, tell us which you prefer. Below are two "Bach Battles," the first featuring the choice of a female mezzo-soprano and a countertenor; the second offering a female soprano and boy soprano. Tell us your favorite versions in the comments box below.

Bach Battle No. 1

Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter sings St. Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich, mein Gott


Countertenor Andreas Scholl sings St. Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich, mein Gott

Bach Battle No. 2

Boy Soprano Peter Jelosits sings "Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schon" from the Cantata: Ich geh und suche vit Verlangen, BWV 49:


Soprano Dorothea Roschmann sings "Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schon" from the Cantata: Ich geh und suche vit Verlangen, BWV 49:


FREE Download [Expired]: Theorbo Player Hopkinson Smith Plays the Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major BWV 1007, Prelude

Lutenist Hopkinson Smith has transcribed three of Bach's cello suites for the German theorbo in a new recording for Naive. (Available at


Programming Highlights for Saturday (all times approximate)

7 am Joshua Rifkin’s ensemble performs a mighty cantata in his pioneering “one-on-a-part” style 

8 am Counter-tenor Andreas Scholl delivers a beloved solo cantata

9 am Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan

10 am Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and tenor Peter Schreier, who has just been awarded the 2013 Leipzig Bach Medal

11 am Contralto Maureen Forrester in a cantata that features one of Bach’s greatest opening movements

3 pm Contralto Kathleen Ferrier with a Passion aria in English

4 pm Thomas Quasthoff in a beautiful cantata for solo bass

6 pm We compare performances from three different eras in three parts of a major choral masterwork

  •         Karl Richter’s Munich Bach Choir/ soloists Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, and Fritz Wunderlich, and Franz Crass (1960s)
  •         John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir/ soloists Nancy Argenta, Anne-Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Olaf Bar (1980s)
  •         Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale/ soloists Barbara Schlick, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, and Peter Kooy  (2011)

7 pm Soprano Emma Kirkby and bass David Thomas in a comic, secular cantata

8 pm Helmut Rilling’s Gachinger Kantorei/ soloists Arleen Auger, Julia Hamari, and Peter Schreier

9 pm Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in a solo cantata

10 pm  In 360 style, we circle back to our 7 am cantata to hear a large ensemble performance featuring soloists Soprano Elly Ameling and mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker.


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Comments [13]

joseph rabay from Corona, California.

My favorite version was the boy soprano Peter Jelosits, because of the purness of his voice quality, fallowed by the countertenor Andreas Scholl's version, because his tone of voice is softer than Dorothy Roschmann's soprano voice.

Oct. 21 2013 01:26 AM
Rosanna from NYC

My absolute favorite voice singing Bach is Janet Baker's in the "Agnus Dei" of the Klemperer-conducted Mass in B Minor. To me it's sublime. That doesn't keep me from enjoying other performances, though. Andreas Scholl, Christa Ludwig, Maureen Forrester, Kathleen Ferrier should all be heard. I feel the same way about choirs. The Thomaner embodies tradition, but there is splendor in performances of so many choirs singing Bach from Kings College Cambridge to the Bach Collegium Japan, as well as NY's Musica Sacra, Trinity Church Choir, Amor Artis, Voices of Ascension, St. Thomas Choir, etc., that WQXR has a wealth of playlist choices to draw upon for future Bachfests.

Apr. 02 2013 03:05 AM
Chris T. from Short Hills

If there is one thing I would have wished for in this marathon is more Thomaner performances, whether under Billet or his predecessors.
Not only because the Thomaner are the only institution where Bach has been continually performed for 290 years uninterrupted (and the continuity of tradition that imparts), but because of the type of hour it is:
because of the boarding school nature, and the daily,constant,practice, plus the major focus on Bach'sw's work, they have by far more experience than most boy choirs, esp the high parts (maybe add Regensburg, Field, some British,...).

This helps to a large degree with the lesser experience of children vs. adults, boy soprano vs. female.
But, the purity of the former can't be matched, as the not so frequent here Thomaner recordings show.
And fact is that Bach knew what voices he was writing his weekly cantata for: the Thomaner.

As to vibrato being a plus with female singers:
blessed is the absence, or judicious, vibrato!
Vibrato is music's version of cooking's MSG.
Which is why fixed pitch instruments, the keyboards, are so nice!

For anyone interested, there are very good Thomaner / Gewandhaus recordings with Billet on youtube

Mar. 31 2013 11:09 PM

The first battle goes to the man, for purity of sound. The woman was VERY emotionally expressive, but had a touch of a wobble at spots.

The second battle also goes to the boy, for purity of sound.

Mar. 31 2013 06:34 PM
Liege Motta from Manhattan

As a rule, I prefer female voices to boys or male voices to sing soprano and alto parts. They offer more depth, color and emotional engagement (assuming similar levels of musicianship, as was clearly the case with all four soloists in the above "Bach Battles"). The only element I make an exception for is the amount of vibrato most female soprano singers bring as compared to boy sopranos, as demonstrated by Roschmann and Jelosits (an AMAZING boy soprano!!!). This was a closer call that that between Von Otter and Scholl, but I still loved Roschmann's energy and color a bit more even though Jelosits's clarity and pitch were unbelievable beautiful.

Mar. 30 2013 08:34 PM
David Tayler from California

We favor a contextual approach for singers, so in this example we really wanted the soprano and the trumpet to match well; other pieces by Bach have very different requirements.

Mar. 30 2013 06:47 PM
gg from syosset

The Karl Richter - Munich bach choir recording of part IV of the christmas oratorio - a perfect counter balance for the 1-person per voice versions. And it still sounds magnificent - thank you ! :)

Mar. 30 2013 06:09 PM
David from Flushing

It is very true that all biblical angels have male names. I suspect "female" angels are the result of evolving artistic conventions concerning cherubim. Original these were rather scary creatures that were part animal and part human. By the 1600s, they had become winged babies. Indeed, they sometimes appeared as a face with wings on either side and nothing else. Higher pitched voices are obviously more appropriate for winged babies.

Mar. 30 2013 04:05 PM

I am so very happy and thankful with the modern rediscovery and growing popularity of the authentic male voice returned to these pieces. Yes, occasionally, grown women can bring more musical knowledge and technical sophistication in their efforts to sound like the original boy's and young men's voices, but this in no way makes up for the lack of an ephemeral depth and richness in the quality and the almost magical fragility of sound in the original male voices. There is a profound difference from a more brittle, harsher and more slick sound substituting for the ethereal, delicate and transporting male voices. The authentic trilling, vibrato and quavering quality of sound just cannot be captured by the female voice.
Just as Victorian sentimentality largely invented and popularized women angels as some sort of angelic ideal which has totally distorted our modern day concept of these beings, when In fact, according to even such an unimpeachable source as the bible, there could be no such things as female angels since angels were all "invented" before woman was. So, too, years of sopranos have profoundly distorted the true sound of Bach's (and other early composer's) music. There is nothing that can really replace male voices, and true countertenors-- not just males singing falsetto as in the recent Adams's Passion, while thankfully not castrati, are certainly the closest thing we have to the rare antique sounds that would have graced Bach's and so much other early and Baroque music.
I simply now generally avoid the female substitutes, especially in full opera performances and recordings. I can't imagine wanting males singing the famous diva female roles of Tosca, Traviata, Manon, Brunhilde, etc. (aside from a company like Le Ballet Trockadero), so why are pants rolls any more desirous or acceptable except to pander to a sexual titillation and theatrical taste for women cavorting together? Even if we can appreciate the subversive and scatological Mozart being particularly partial to this phenomenon and popularizing a firm precedent in his operas, we needn't give up the beauty and authenticity of the original male voice in Bach and other early music that predated his shenanigans.

Mar. 30 2013 02:19 PM
David from Flushing

I too have a prejudice against countertenors. If something was written specifically for them, then by all means use them. However, they are no substitutes for castrati. From the one early Edison recording of a castrato in advanced age, we know the sound was similar to that of a female and not male falsetto. I see (and hear) no advantage to using countertenors in higher pitched "male" roles simply because they are males.

Mar. 30 2013 11:08 AM
Sandy from New Hampshire

I generally prefer a female soprano over a boy soprano and a mezzo-soprano over a countertenor. The women's voices are more mature sounding, with more vibrato, and seem to me to be more connected to their bodies. That said, there are many countertenors whom I like very much, including David Daniels (of course), Bejun Mehta, and Anthony Roth Constanzo.

Mar. 30 2013 10:50 AM
gg from syosset NY

There is no winner for the soloists. After all, Bach's second wife was a singer and he performed with her. Boy sopranos and male contra-tenors can also sound magnificent.

Mar. 30 2013 10:25 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

My preferences are as follows: Anne Sofie Von Otter and Boy Soprano Peter Jelosits. In general, I avoid spending money on performances or recordings of countertenors because I prefer mezzos.

I was pleasantly surprised with the singing of a countertenor when I heard a recording, in a blinded fashion, and thought the singer to be a mezzo.

My experience is that if I am not told the voice type, I find myself thinking, "That mezzo stinks!" when hearing a countertenor!

Mar. 30 2013 10:25 AM

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