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Listening to Bach

The Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio

Daniel R. Melamed

Publication Date - November 2019

ISBN: 9780190097257

176 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

In Stock


Of all the things we can know about J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio, the most profound come from things we can hear. Listening to Bach explores musical style as it was understood in the early eighteenth century. It encourages ways of listening that take eighteenth-century musical sensibilities into account and that recognize our place as inheritors of a long tradition of performance and interpretation.

Daniel R. Melamed shows how to recognize old and new styles in sacred music of Bach's time, and how movements in these styles are constructed. This opens the possibility of listening to the Mass in B Minor as Bach's demonstration of the possibilities of contrasting, combining, and reconciling old and new styles. It also shows how to listen for elements that would have been heard as most significant in the early eighteenth century, including markers of sleep arias, love duets, secular choral arias, and other movement types. This offers a musical starting point for listening for the ways Bach put these types to use in the Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio.

The book also offers ways to listen to and think about works created by parody, the re-use of music for new words and a new purpose, like almost all of the Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio. And it shows that modern performances of these works are stamped with audible consequences of our place in the twenty-first century. The ideological choices we make in performing the Mass and Oratorio, part of the legacy of their performance and interpretation, affect the way the work is understood and heard today.

All these topics are illustrated with copious audio examples on a companion Web site, offering new ways of listening to some of Bach's greatest music.


  • Explores two of Bach's greatest and most-loved works for voices and instruments, the Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio
  • Uses works by Bach to examine fundamental problems of listening to 300-year-old music today
  • Supplemented by a companion Web site including copious audio examples
  • Accessible for those with no technical musical knowledge and based on the latest scholarship on Bach's music

About the Author(s)

Daniel R. Melamed is Professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He is the author of Hearing Bach's Passions (updated paperback 2016) and J.S. Bach and the German Motet, co-author (with Michael Marissen) of An Introduction to Bach Studies, and editor of the essay collections Bach Studies 2 and J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition (Bach Perspectives 8). He serves as the General Editor for the American Bach Society and advisor to the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project.


"Melamed invites us into new ways of listening to and thinking about the Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio and also engages significant debates in relation to these works. [Listening to Bach] also serves as an excellent introduction for students not only to these two important works, but also to Bach scholarship and performance practice." -- Bach: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institutep

"[T]his makes for a highly unified and informative book, one enhanced by sixty-five recorded examples (presented on the Oxford University Press website and performed mostly by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort) and an appendix of nine helpful tables... In the end, Melamed's book is about Bach the craftsman, the astonishingly inventive but pragmatic composer who compiled monumental choral works by blending styles-old and new, secular and sacred-and by appropriating, revising, and even abridging preexisting pieces. His approach reflects the tendency of today's scholars to present Bach as an enlightened, humanistic figure by stressing his musical and intellectual accomplishments and playing down his religiosity and observant Lutheran worldview." --New York Review of Books

"A highly unified and informative book, one enhanced by sixty-five recorded examples... A rich examination of parody and its consequences in the Christmas Oratorio." --New York Review of Books

"Melamed is sensible and tolerant in detailing the wide diversity of present-day Bach performance practice. The message is that there is no one way of listening to Bach, but awareness of musical style can help one learn both new and old ways of listening. This important book is must reading." --D.Arnold, CHOICE

Table of Contents

    List of Tables
    List of Audio Examples

    Preface: Listening to Bach

    Part I: The Mass in B Minor BWV 232
    1. Performing the Mass in B Minor in an Age of Choices
    2. Listening to Parody in the Mass in B Minor
    3. The Musical Topic of the Mass in B Minor

    Part II: The Christmas Oratorio BWV 248
    4. Parody and its Consequences in the Christmas Oratorio
    5. Listening to the Christmas Oratorio with a Calendar
    6. The Christmas Oratorio in the Shadow of Bach's Passions

    Epilogue: How to Listen to Bach

    Appendix: Tables
    Suggestions for Further Reading and Listening