BC and secco recitative

Last Sunday, I felt a tremendous sense of relief as I finished up the last notes of the postlude, which was Bach’s Fugue on the Magnificat.  That was because it was my last service before I get on the plane to spend Christmas in California! However, I still played this afternoon’s rehearsal with the soloists, and Thursday night I’ll go to choir rehearsal as usual. Joey Fala will play the Friday night dress rehearsal with orchestra, and all three Christmas services.

Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at St. Thomas, Leipzig

Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at St. Thomas, Leipzig

This afternoon, Georgine Stark (soprano), Miguel Felipe (alto), Renson Madarang (tenor) and Keane Ishii (bass), met to rehearse the solos in Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D minor, as well as Bach’s Cantata 191 (Gloria in excelsis Deo) and Kuhnau’s Uns ist ein Kind geboren.

During the rehearsal of Uns ist ein Kind geboren (now attributed to Johann Kuhnau, even though it has a BWV number of 142), there was a soprano recitative. I asked Miguel, “Is this secco?” Since Joey Fala will be playing this in my absence, I wanted to mark the score since this will probably be his first time with this type of music.

Example of figured bass

Example of figured bass

Here are some definitions for you non-Baroque types: BC refers to basso continuo, and it refers to the instruments which provide the harmonic structure, the “rhythm section,” if you will. It consists of instruments which can play chords (like the organ, harpsichord, theorbo or lute) and bass instruments such as the cello, double bass or bassoon. The instruments which play chords read “figured bass,” which I wrote about extensively when we did the Monteverdi Vespers a year ago. If you need a refresher course, check my post about the theorbo and the musical shorthand we read called figured bass. Luckily the continuo part for these cantatas is already written out— “realized.”

When these instruments play “secco,” it means that the accompaniment is very sparse and we don’t take notes at full value. For example, in the organ part, the first chord is shown as a whole note (4 counts). However, since this is a secco recitative I only hold it for a quarter note  (1 count) then release for 3 counts. The secco recitatives allow the soloists to take more freedoms  (because they are based on the speech rhythm of the text). There is a very comprehensive article by Thomas Braatz called “The Shortening of the Supporting Notes in the Bc of Bach’s Secco Recitatives,” which tells the whole history of this performance practice, introduced by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his landmark recordings of Bach.

Here’s an example of secco recitative sung by tenor Jan Van der Crabben of La Petite Bande.

In contrast to “secco” recitatives are those which are “accompagnato,” or accompanied by strings and/or winds in addition to the continuo instruments. They are a lot easier to play, because they tend to be more regular in tempo.

Anyway —The answer to my question about whether Georgine’s recitative is “secco,” is a resounding “Yes!” (In case you were wondering!)

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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