Bach and the recorder, part 2

Nik Tarasov

Part 2: Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig


Copperplate of the Thomaschurch in Leipzig


Bach wrote compositions involving recorders throughout his creative life. Part 1 of this article (Recorder Magazine Spring 2007) looked at his writing for recorders while he was employed in Mühlhausen, Weimar and Köthen.  Numerous works have survived from his time in Leipzig, too, some of them involving particularly interesting instruments, such as the sopranino and the sixth flute (soprano recorder in D).

In 1723 Bach found himself in new employment.  The Leipzig City Council’s remark that Bach had been appointed as Thomaskantor “because the best candidates (Telemann and Graupner) were unavailable” has often been cited, but needs to be understood in context and was in no way meant to belittle Bach.  In any case, the position was a prestigious one and Bach remained there until his death in 1750. His workload in the first few years was  considerable: he had to compose a new piece every week, produce performance material and rehearse the week’s music.  Occasionally he was able to adapt and reuse his compositions from Weimar.  Three cycles of cantatas have survived from his time in Leipzig: 1723-24, 1724-25, and 1725-27 (see table).

Once again, Bach used the recorder, perhaps even more often than before. In Leipzig he did not have to worry about differing pitch standards (Chorton and Kammerton) affecting the recorders, making their use much easier. On occasion, Bach used three treble recorders together, and in August 1723 he used recorders in four successive cantatas.The first cycle of cantatas (1723-24) contains 9 cantatas involving treble recorders in different combinations. The main points are listed here in English:Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz BWV 46 (1/8/1723) 2 recorders.  In the prelude, the two recorders paraphrase the sighs of the grieving choir; there are concertante obbligato recorder parts in the  following contrapuntal fugue; then glowing alternating figures in the recitative for Tenor describing the destruction of Jerusalem (but resting for the storm).  They are used to pastoral effect in the aria for Alto. Particularly interesting is the concluding chorale: while choir and instruments are resting the recorders imitate each other only a quaver apart – the resulting echo effect is further enhanced if Bach’s instruction to double both parts is followed (often omitted in modern editions).Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BWV 69a (15/8/1723)  1 recorder: original version of the “Ratswechsel”cantata of 26/8/1748. Third movement later transposed from C to G major, the original recorder part replaced by violin.Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe BWV 25 (29/8/1723) 3 recorders: Recorder 1 has high F# and G; use of tremulant (as in Brandenburg concerto no. 2); all instruments double the choir voices in the concluding chorale, recorders in unison with the Soprano.Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn BWV 119 (30/8/1723) 2 recorders: used as independent orchestral instruments. They provide harmonic support (together with the oboes) in the recitative for Bass and act (in unison) as an instrumental contrast for the Alto voice in the aria; they double the Soprano in the concluding chorale. Magnificat Es-Dur BWV 243a (25/12/1723)  2 recorders (flutes in the BWV 243 revision, which has a key-change from Eb to D).  This original version contains a part for two treble recorders in the ninth movement: characteristic pastoral music in thirds and sixths illustrating a text about feeding the hungry and scorning the rich. Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen BWV 65 (6/1/1724) 2 recorders, used in the introductory chorale and doubling the upper voice in a further chorale; also used in an aria for Tenor and the concluding chorale.Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen BWV 81 (30/1/1724) 2 recorders, only used in the plaintive introductory aria; parts written into oboe parts. Doubling violins at octave, only occasionally independent or supporting the voice on their own.

Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt BWV 18
(13/2/1724, revision of the cantata originally performed in Weimar in 1715 with 4 violas and bass): The Leipzig revision adds 2 recorders, doubling the violas. Recorder 1 has high A. Low E in four places; in the concluding chorale both recorders double the soprano voice at the octave.Himmelskönig sei willkommen BWV 182 (25/3/1714, rev. for Leipzig 25/3/1724) 1 recorder, has high F# and G.  Bach rewrote the Chor- and Kammerton split key original version in a single key, the recorder part down a third.  In order to avoid awkward fingerings and to prevent the part from going too low he introduced a few alterations in the recorder part in the aria for Alto but did not reallocate the part to a flute.

Bach's autograph of the cantata Schmuecke Dich ...

In the second cycle of Bach’s cantatas (1724-25) the recorder parts throw up some surprises regarding the choice of instruments. The introductory chorus of his cantata “Herr Christe, der einige Gottessohn” BWV 96, which was first performed on 8/10/1724, is the first instance of Bach specifying a size of recorder other than the treble. The required flauto piccolo is without doubt a sopranino recorder in f’’. Its soloistic concertante semiquaver passages presumably symbolize the brilliance of the morning star mentioned in the text. In a repeat performance in 1734 this characteristic piece of writing was reallocated to a violino piccolo, most likely because of the lack of a suitable small recorder and player. No record has survived to tell us what instrument was used for a further performance in 1747. According to the part used at the premiere, the player of the flauto piccolo changes to a traverso in the third movement – and the part for the latter is no less demanding. It appears that Bach was able to employ a talented soloist on a temporary basis, possibly a travelling virtuoso player. Other works that may originally have been written with a recorder part have recently been associated with the same, unknown player (see Hypotheses). Cantata 96 has no autograph indications as to whether the recorder was also used to double the top voice part in the concluding chorale.
Bach uses the treble recorder in four of the subsequent cantatas in his second cycle. But a concertante flauto piccolo is again required for its special sound in the cantata Ihr werdet weinen und heulen BWV 103 (22/4/1725). The part is written in the French violin clef (common practice for the notation of recorder parts at that time even in Germany), which shows that it is definitely meant for a recorder. The use of sharp keys, the range (sounding e” to f#””) as well as the transposing notation in the score using fingering for the treble recorder of the day (simply to be played on a different size of instrument) clearly indicate the use of a small recorder in d”, in other words a sixth flute.
In two of the movements this bright instrument plays independently and has a significant central role, for the music expresses the transition from sadness to joy. Nevertheless, the aria movement was subsequently cut from the flauto piccolo part: the reason for this change is not known. At a second performance six years later the flauto piccolo was replaced by a violin or transverse flute (as happened with BWV 96). This was doubtless a makeshift solution that should no longer be acceptable because of the high standard of recorder playing today, especially as the original passage at 4-foot pitch loses its special character when played an octave lower.
Looking at the autograph score of BWV 103 one notices Bach’s numerous corrections to the flauto piccolo part, which is, perhaps, evidence that the composer had to familiarize himself with the instrument. Many of the corrections move notes up an octave, almost certainly to ensure that the instrument would be audible above the choir.
This size of instrument was relatively new and enjoyed a certain amount of popularity in England in the 1720s.  A number of virtuoso players, such as John Baston, successfully introduced them to the London public and had concertos printed. This probably came to the attention of amateurs and virtuosos on the continent, who would certainly have made the case to their local composers and instrument makers.  As early as 1722, therefore, Telemann may have intended the flauto piccolo parts in his opera Sieg der Schönheit (I:6, II:14 and III:15), written for Hamburg, to be played on the sixth flute.
Bach’s sixth flute part of 1725 demands not only a virtuoso player but also an exceptionally good instrument. In Windkanal 2002-2, Heinz Ammann reported on  a rare example of a decorated ivory sixth flute (A = c. 420 Hz), made in Nuremberg by Johann Benedikt Gahn. So far the Swiss instrument maker Andreas Schöni has made a single copy of this model.
However, not all the instruments played at German courts and in Kantoreien (church music ensembles) in the Baroque period were of German origin. As David Lasocki has shown, cross-border trade in musical instruments had been common for several centuries (1). Princely courts purchased instruments from the best makers for their musicians from time to time; travelling virtuoso players would have acquired high-quality instruments in any case. A letter written by the Amsterdam woodwind maker Richard Haka in 1685 survives, in which he mentions that he delivered recorders to Sweden. Thomas Stanesby Jr. (who also made sixth flutes) was also aware that his instruments were widely esteemed: he makes the claim on his trade card of 1728 that his instruments were “Approv’d and recommended by the best masters in Europe”. Bruce Haynes cites a letter written in 1729 by Johann Michael Böhm to his former employer, Count Ernst Ludwig of Hessen-Darmstadt, regarding the court inventory, in which “vier große Hell: Flöten, nebst englischen Flöten“ (four large unstained recorders, including English recorders) are mentioned. (2)
Despite all this evidence we can assume that – just as today – very few musicians in Germany would have owned a sixth flute. It would seem that Bach wrote very specifically and uncompromisingly for a visiting virtuoso soloist who possessed just such an instrument, not only in Cantata 103 but quite possibly in several others as well. This will be investigated in the paragraph entitled “Hypotheses” below.

Sheet-music-example: kein arzt ist ausser dir zu finden

The beginning of the later re-instrumentated Aria from the cantata BWV 103 in modern notation, so that the part of the sixth flute can be read like a soprano recorder.

The two cantatas BWV 103 and BWV 106 (the actus tragicus), both substantial works by Bach involving recorders, were published together by the publishing house Simrock in 1830. This led to the rediscovery of Bach’s music by a wider audience after an interval of more than 100 years.

The "Ordnung" (rules) of the school of the St. Thomas Church Leipzig from 1723     

The "Ordnung" (rules) of the school of the St. Thomas Church Leipzig from 1723 with a copperplate engraving by J.G. Krügner. Source: Archive of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

The "Ordnung" The St. Thomas Church Leipzig and its school building

The "Ordnung" The St. Thomas Church Leipzig and its school building. Photo of c. 1880. Source: Archive of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.of the school of the St. Thomas Church Leipzig from 1723 with a copperplate engraving by J.G. Krügner. Source: Archive of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

Late works of Johann Sebastian Bach

The third cycle of cantatas (1725-27) is not as closely knit as the two previous cycles. It appears that Bach’s interest in creating a continuous series of works for use in church services has diminished. The recorder appears in only two cantatas and in a relatively conventional register.
Around 1730 Bach seems to have withdrawn progressively from his duties as Kantor, because of a decline in the number of suitable performers. In his “Entwurff an den Leipziger Rat” (1730) he requested, amongst other things, the employment of at least two recorder or flute players for the sake of variety, but this does not appear to have been granted.  Proficient recorder players had become a rarity for Bach, and this is reflected in the compositions of this time. From 1729 Bach directed the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, a society of ambitious university students and professional musicians founded by Telemann, and probably adapted some of his earlier works for this ensemble. However, his main ambition in the remaining two decades of his life appears to have been the editing of his works for future generations. He began to group together his major compositions according to a definitive plan. Due to the lack of a continuing tradition of recorder playing in Leipzig, Bach seems only to have used the instrument in two further works: in a minor role in the St. Matthew Passion; and finally in 1738 in the Concerto for Harpsichord in F major BWV 1054, his own transcription of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 4  of 1721.

Works of doubtful authenticity

The first surveys of Bach’s compositions mistakenly ascribed to him, and included in the “Bach Werke Verzeichnis”, works which were later found to be by other composers. Occasionally these misattributed but sometimes charming works still appear in concert programmes under Bach’s name. Three of them involve the use of recorders: the Christmas Day cantata Uns ist ein Kind geboren BWV 142 is a rewarding piece but quite possibly the work of either Johann Kuhlau (1660-1722) or Georg Philipp Telemann. It is written for three soloists and choir, accompanied by two recorders, two oboes, strings and continuo.  Similarly, the cantata Meine Seele rühmt und preist BWV 189, for tenor voice, treble recorder, oboe, violin and Basso continuo, is nowadays attributed to Georg Melchior Hoffmann (1679-1715).  There is also some doubt about the authenticity of the cantata Gedenke, Herr, wie es uns gehet! BWV 217. It was written for the first Sunday after Epiphany, and is scored for four solo voices, choir, recorder, strings and continuo.


Because many of Bach’s compositions were lost or rescored it is quite likely that there were originally more works involving recorders. In a few cases there is conclusive evidence.
In 1727 Christoph Ernst Sicul from Leipzig writes that a performance of Bach’s funeral ode Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl BWV 198 involved both “Fleutes douces and Fleutes traverses”. However, no mention is made of recorders in the autograph. It has been suggested that recorders may have doubled or replaced the flutes in some movements, or been used to strengthen the violas at the octave as in BWV 18. This may indicate that the use of instruments other than those originally intended by the composer was not regarded as sacrilege at that time.
Remarks on a part of the wedding cantata Dem Gerechten muß das Licht BWV 195, marked “2 Hautbois è Fiauti”, as well as a note later added to the title page of the score by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, make the participation of recorders likely. However, no such passages have survived: it is possible that an earlier version of this piece has been lost.

The only warranted portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

According to the circumstances, Bach himself or his assistants adapted the original instrumentation of his cantatas for repeat performances. It is conceivable that some compositions involving recorders were later rescored for, for example, flute, something that is obvious when both versions have survived. But in some cases only the revised versions have survived, or versions that can be assumed to be revisions.
This means that the recorder repertoire in Bach’s cantatas can be extended with the addition of some probable pieces.  The instrumentation of the cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele BWV 78 (10/9/1724) includes a Flauto traverso, used in the opening and a tenor aria as well as in the concluding chorale. A glance at the part is enough to show that this is typical treble recorder writing: the range of f’ to g’'', the key of G minor as well as the type of figuration are all strong pointers. When writing for the flute in other works, Bach makes a point of using its lowest register. This composition from 1724 has only survived in a copy from the latter half of the 1730s. Although there is no specific mention of it, it would certainly be appropriate to substitute the recorder in modern performances.

There is an earlier set of parts for the much-discussed cantata Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben BWV 8 (24/9/1724), which survives in two late versions, both of them scored for Flauto traverso, two Oboes d’amore, Corno, Strings, Soloists and Basso Continuo.  These earlier parts call for a flauto piccolo in the opening chorus, at once inviting comparison with cantata BWV 96 which was probably first performed only two weeks later. In the very similarly scored opening passage of BWV 96, a sopranino recorder in F’’ is clearly required to play the flauto piccolo part.  However, such an instrument cannot be used in BWV 8 because of the key of E major and the unidiomatic combinations of fingerings. Historically it remains a mystery which piccolo instrument Bach had in mind. But, considering that at this time the composer did not have to cope with Chor- and Kammerton, a simple solution seems at hand. The written range from A’ to G sharp’’’ (most likely not meant to sound an octave higher) and the key of E major are suitable for performance on a third flute, that is a recorder in a’. Thinking in treble fingering, the written notation would be in C major, and the range falls easily into the two lower octaves of this recorder. A performance in this hypothetical first version would probably come closer to Bach’s setting than the later version from the 1730s, in which the unique character of this instrument is substituted by a flute.  The repeated notes in the piccolo part imitate the clear tone of the death bell, and the arpeggios closely recall the piccolo part of the introductory chorale of BWV 103.
In a perceptive study Klaus Hoffmann has pointed out that in addition to the score of the cantata Was frag ich nach der Welt BWV 94 (6/8/1724), a part for flute has survived, the notation of which would suggest that it was originally intended for the recorder. In this case this can only mean a sixth flute. We recall the use of this special instrument in Bach’s Cantata 103 Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (22/4/1725), where the instrument is treated in a similarly demanding way. Performing BWV 94 would certainly be a great soloistic challenge for any virtuoso recorder player and his instrument.
It is interesting to speculate who the virtuoso recorder player for whom Bach composed his most demanding recorder parts may have been. One possibility is Johann Michael Böhm, a famous oboist who also played the flute but who was above all an outstanding recorder player. Böhm was born around 1685, educated in Dresden, and later worked in Leipzig. In 1711 he was employed at the court in Darmstadt where he even became Konzertmeister. When Telemann was in Frankfurt in 1712 he invited Böhm and other court musicians to play together with him. In 1715 Böhm was recorded as working in the opera house in Hamburg, and he is one of the dedicatees of Telemann’s Kleine Kammermusik in 1716. In 1720 he married the sister of Telemann’s second wife. In 1729 he moved to the court of Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart (after a scandal in Darmstadt, where he had been accused of stealing music and instruments and threatened with arrest) and retired there in 1753.
Interestingly, in a letter to his former employers in 1729, Böhm says that he visited Saxony several times “to further his studies”. One would certainly want to believe that he may have used these opportunities to visit the “famous Bach”.   Böhm would have been the ideal player for those difficult high recorder parts, which were later rescored because there was no longer a musician capable of playing them available.  In this respect it is worth remembering that Telemann probably wrote his most difficult treble recorder parts (which have ranges up to C4) for him. If this is indeed the case, Böhm must have visited Leipzig several times in 1724/25, judging by the proposed and surviving virtuoso recorder parts (with a certain predilection for high notes) in Bach's cantatas of those years.


1 Windkanal 2003-4 &
2 Bruce Haynes, The Eloquent Oboe: A History of the Hautboy from 1640 to 1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
3 Hofmann, Klaus: Die rätselhaften Flötenstimmen des Bach-Schreibers Anonymus Vn : drei Studien (Musikalische Quellen – Quellen zur Musikgeschichte. Laaber. S. 247–268)
Further reading:
Unfried, Hannelore: Die Verwendung der Blockflöte in den Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs. Diplomarbeit, Wien, 1984. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Signatur 1214897-C. MUS.


Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig: original works involving recorders

Please click on the following picture to open the pdf-document.

J. S. Bach in Leipzig: original works involvling recorders


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