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

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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.