Bach & Viola: A Political View in the 1700s

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Viola By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Viola
Last updated: 17/05/2017
Tags: 18th century, js bach, politics, symbolism, viola

After an Easter period in which many people around the UK performed and listened to Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) St John's and Matthew passions, what message can we take from this great composer on how to vote in the upcoming general election? Understanding his use of instrumentation for the viola in the 18th Century may help shine some light on his political views.

The viola player’s social position in the 18th Century court orchestra was of an inferior standing. The instrument was more associated with beer-fiddling (pub gigs) and other forms of lower-class life, with violinists and trumpeters getting highest recognition in the field.[1] In the 1752 treatise by Johann Quantz On Playing the Flute, the German theorist elaborates on the poor view of the instrument at the time:

“The viola is commonly regarded of little importance in the musical establishment and few violists devote as much industry to their work as they should. If they employed the necessary industry, they could improve their lot in a large establishment, and gradually advance their position, instead of remaining chained to the viola to the end of their lives, as is usually the case.”[2]

Despite these diminishments, the viola has a significant role to play in Bach’s music - from his vocal pieces in the solo cantatas (BWV 199, BWV 5, BWV 18) and passions (viola d’amore in the St John), to his instrumental works such as the orchestral suites and Brandenburg Concertos (n.3 and n.6 especially). The parts are technically challenging, soloistic and explore the whole range of the instrument.

It is argued by Michael Marissen in his book The Social and Religious Designs of J.S Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (1995), that the use of instrumentation by Bach was a symbolic and rhetoric device used to challenge these hierarchical relationships between musical and political structures.

Using Marissen’s interpretation, Bach’s prominent use of solo viola in his writing challenges the assumption of the class order of musicians and is also a political and religious statement on equality. This can be especially seen in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, where 2 violists take the highest parts and violins are not present in the work.

With this reading in mind and an election looming, JS Bach - as far back as 300 years - was espousing ideals of social equality through a deliberate underscoring of the viola in prominent works; this symbolism is still pause for thought today.

[1] Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J.S Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995)
[2] Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute (translation and reprint by Edward R. Reilly, London: Faber and Faber, 1976), p.237-241



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