Edward McCue (EM) Few of us are familiar with the viola d’amore. What is it about this many-stringed instrument that Bach found attractive, and what role will it play in Boulder Bach Festival performances of the St. John Passion (BWV 245), under the direction of Rick Erickson, on 1 and 2 March 2013?
Paul Miller (PM) Bach already included the viola d’amore in his score for the cantata Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) at the end of 1714, but we’re not certain what kind of instrument he would have known during his years in Weimar. It’s quite likely that that viola d’amore had five or six playing strings, but we’re not sure if that instrument included resonating, sympathetic strings strung below the playing strings. In any case, we can be certain that Bach appreciated the nasal quality of the tone produced by the viola d’amore and realized that it did not project as loudly as a violin.
Later, while in Leipzig, Bach featured the distinctive tone color of the viola d’amore in the St. John Passion. For nearly fifteen minutes, following the violent scourging of Jesus, a pair of these gentle instruments, with the accompaniment of a lute, reflect on the beating of this innocent man during a bass arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel’, and a tenor aria that immediately follows, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken. With these two arias, Bach reveals what lies at the center of his interpretation of John’s gospel, that is, whatever bad happened to Jesus must be interpreted as being good for us. This is in stark contrast with the later St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), where our guilt and sin are lamented over again and again.
Bach portrayed the interplay between darkness and light in the St. John Passion by employing the full Baroque palette of musical devices, including contrasts in tone color. Bach was so very sensitive to tone color, and since many of the organs of his day included a viola d’amore stop, I like to imagine him really enjoying that solo stop for extended periods of time.
EM Few twenty-first century listeners have had an opportunity to hear the extraordinary sound of the viola d’amore. How many orchestral string players have ever heard one, and when they do, how many commit to its mastery?
PM Few upper string players take the time to double on the viola d’amore, and when they do, they must contend with a number of thorny technical issues.
Since Bach didn’t specify a tuning for the strings of the instrument, Zachary Carrettin, our concertmaster for the Boulder Bach Festival Players, and I have had to discover for ourselves what tuning will work. We have found that a G minor tuning of the strings, even though the arias are in E flat Major and C minor, respectively, works really well. Even though there certainly would be other ways to go about it, we find that it is easier to play in tune with each other when we tune both instruments with the same open strings. While there are a couple of spots that are genuinely a bit tricky, most of it works pretty well with the G minor tuning, and we find that the open strings resonate very nicely in all of the right places.
Zach and I have also decided to play on instruments built by the same luthier, Martin Biller. Zach is playing on Biller’s classic Mittenwald model with an absolutely beautiful arched back of interwoven cherry and maple woods. I’m playing on an viola d’amore modeled after a flat-backed instrument made by Johannes Eberle of mid to late eighteen-century Prague, so you’ll see two instruments with different shapes but complementary sounds.
Lately we’ve also been working out other technical issues, including different ways of using the Baroque bow and string selections. Because our violas d’amore have seven strings, rather than the four found on modern violins and violas, it’s easy to crash into the wrong string if you’re not careful, and if you blindly insist on using gut strings, your instrument quickly goes out of tune. As a result, we’ve decided to use metal-wound perlon strings by the Viennese manufacturer Thomastik, the same string-maker that supplied Paul Hindemith when he composed and performed his Kleine Sonate and Kammermusik Nr. 6 for viola d’amore in the 1920s.
EM Paul, it’s obvious that you are very much looking forward to performing the two arias that include your viola d’amore, but what will likely be the high point of the St. John Passion for the other members of the orchestra, the chorus and the audience?
PM Even though I’ve always played one of the viola d’amore parts in previous performances, I think that the other players also like the d’amore arias because they give them a break from playing and an extraordinary opportunity to join the audience in listening to fifteen minutes of sheer beauty. But for all of us performing the St. John Passion, it’s the bass aria and chorale after Jesus has died, Mein teurer Heiland, that is truly amazing. This pastorale in 6/8, very much like a chorale prelude for soloist, chorus and orchestra, confirms that the terror of Jesus’ passion is finally over and that the brightness of God’s glory can now shine forth.
Bach certainly composed gems for the viola d’amore in the St. John Passion, but I’ve got to say that Mein teurer Heiland is even greater evidence of his musical and theological genius.