The dreaded Cantata BWV152 (Viola dámore)

in Music2 months ago


This Bach cantata "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" (BWV 152, Step upon the path of faith) comes up every now and then for me. It is an unusual cantata for 4 solo instuments and soprano and bass voice. The solo instruments are a recorder, Viola dámore, Viola da gamba and oboe (no orchestra) which is already an unusual combination of instruments... and this particular cantata is the ONLY cantata that has a specified Viola dámore part!

As with most of the dámore repertoire from Bach, there is nothing specified about the actual instrument. Principally, what tuning is required! So, in the past, I have settled on a bass gamba-like tuning system that covers much of the passage-work in a relatively convenient way. I have a written scordatura for the piece (you see a few pages of it above...) that works for a certain instrument tuning at A = 415Hz (modern standard Baroque pitch).

There are two big difficulties with this piece... the first is the fact that it is just bloody hard. Bach was well known for just writing what he wanted... and leaving it up to the player to just get good enough to play it!

However, the bigger difficulty is the fact that the instrument is a soft instrument at the best of times, especially in the middle register. When it is teamed up with a loud oboe and continuo... plus a recorder and Viola da Gamba... well, you are constantly battling to just get heard!

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Normally, I have played it in the standard modern adaptation of the parts. With all instruments and voices playing at A = 415Hz. However, the truth of the times was quite different.

Bach employed different pitches for the strings (A = 466Hz) and the winds (A = 415Hz I think...) and yet another pitch for the singers! This was due to the fact that the singers and strings tended to be attached to a local church organ and were adaptable (the strings can easily be tightened and loosened) whilst the winds were travellers, with fixed pitches for their instruments (to change the pitch of a wind instrument, you need to make it physically longer or shorter... and when you do that, you will need to re-bore all the finger holes to have the right intonation).

The Viola dámore in the manuscript (the 3rd line from the top) is written at a completely different pitch. I have the directions from the conductor to have my instrument tuned at A = 392Hz (standard French Baroque pitch)... which means that my strings will have less tension than usual... which means less projection and sound. Thanks... that makes my life just that little bit harder!

However, I will have to check, but it appears that the different pitch will mean that I will have a completely different fingering for the instrument... which would mean that I have to re-write a scordatura for the whole cantata. On the plus side, it might meant that I use higher positions and higher strings for the piece, which would enhance the projection of the instrument! Mixed blessings!


First things first... I have a snapped top string. This summer, I was travelling around quite a bit with this instrument... and the locations were warm and humid... which plays havoc with the pure gut strings. I have been putting off replacing the string, as I wasn't planning to play the dámore until much later in the next century.

The mechanical pegs are a huge boon when you are trying to make quick adjustments when performing... but are a pain in the arse when feeding in a new string. The pegs are geared, so that you can make small adjustments with a large turn... but when you are feeding a new string, you are forever turning and turning and turning whilst the string feeds in slow slow slow....


I did end up opting for a slightly thicker than normal top string... I probably could have gone one or two steps thicker. A thicker string will need more tension to reach the same pitch... and if I'm being forced to use a low pitch in comparison to the rest of the strings, then I will need every advantage I can get!

Meanwhile, I need to slowly coax my Baroque Viola up from A = 415Hz to A = 466Hz... I hope it will forgive me for the increase in tension! I've done it before... and it doesn't like it!

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Great post @bengy. Oh yes, Bach just wrote what he wanted, big genius!
I do not have to change the pitch of my instrument, but my son plays the violin, so he does have to. Last year, before all this corona stuff started, he played with a baroque orchestra, so they had to lower the pitch for the rehearsals and the concert.

Yep... Bach was pretty annoying like that! Still, he came up with some pretty decent music, so it is worth the extra pain!

Ah yes, I am a Baroque specialist, so I guess your son was tuning at A = 415Hz as the standard modern Baroque pitch. Luckily, he wouldn't have had to delve too deep into temperaments and all of that... it is a rabbit hole!

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I actually came across upon some facts about Bach just the other day, reading how he wasn't very much appreciated for his musical talent while alive. Amazing how things change with artists.

Yes, he had periods of that... although, he did hold some pretty important posts as Kapellmeister at some pretty famous churches.

But yes, there were people who were more "famous" at the time... but fads come and go...

Fame is indeed a funny thing when it comes to artists