Mozart and B-A-C-H

Most styles of Western European music (which have spread almost worldwide) use seven notes called A, B, C, D, E, F and G. It is possible to spell a small number of words with these letters; for example, the spaces of the treble clef spell F-A-C-E. In fact, most styles of Western European music are built on twelve notes, five of which are called, in English, ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’. In German musical terminology, though, B refers to B flat, and B natural is called H. Thus we can spell the surname of one of the most famous Western European composers, JS Bach. German B-A-C-H is English B flat – A – C – B natural. Bach was aware of this, and used these four notes in several of his compositions. Various composers have used it since, either as the basis for a  whole composition, or as a passing reference. Some draw attention to it, while others don’t. 

I was recently watching a video about the Requiem by Mozart, which he was in the middle of composing when he died. Relevantly, he died after writing eight bars of the Lacrimosa movement (Full of tears will be that day When from the ashes shall arise The guilty man to be judged) (video). I suddenly noticed that right there, four of the notes in the bass part are B-A-C-H. I haven’t been able to find anything online about this (eg, searching for ‘mozart lacrimosa bach motif’) but I can’t believe that I’m the first person in 200+ years to notice this.

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Handel’s Brockes Passion and Google’s auto-translate

Ordinarily, I would have been singing at church on Good Friday, but the service I would have been singing at was presented online by the ministers and readers only, with music pre-recorded by the main choir interpolated. Instead, I listened to a performance of the St Matthew Passion of J S Bach, which someone had recently mentioned and which I can’t remember ever having listened to in its entirety.

Today, following a theme, I tracked down a performance of the little-known Brockes Passion by Handel. The text, by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, draws on all four gospels and other sources, and was written during the 30 Years’ War, so there’s rather more blood and guts than in Bach’s versions. (Bach knew the text and Handel’s setting of it.)

The video I found, of an excellent performance by the North German Radio Choir and Le Concert Lorrain with soloists conducted by Stephan Schultz, had no subtitles, so I searched for the text.

Unfortunately, I found a text entirely in German (which I won’t identify), which I got Google to auto-translate for me. The first problem was that the German text is badly typeset. The second was that it’s full of 18th century formal religious and/or poetic words, which obviously Google Translate doesn’t have a large dataset for. For either or both reasons, the English translation was at best questionable and at worst outright hilarious. Sometimes there was an obvious reason for it, even with my low level of German (I can spot obvious cognates, and have picked up a few other words along the way, and Google sometimes does better with single words than with a poetic sentence.

(I don’t want to sound like I’m singling Google Translate out here. One of the few things I know about auto-translation is that it’s very very hard. I’m more surprised that it gets so much right.)

(Strong language warning for one word after the break.)

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