Hogarth, "Scene from the Beggar's Opera" (1728).
Is that licentious hand-holding I see going on there?
Why did J. S. Bach never write an opera?
I suppose some might say that it makes no difference, that he was a
great composer and that is that. But for me, that's not enough. Over the
past months I've been giving some thought as to what reason or reasons
there could be for Bach never producing an opera. And I've come up with
some theories — admittedly most playing devil's advocate.
Didn't have the talent for opera.
Absolutely not the case. His hundreds of cantatas, sacred and secular,
are clear indicators of that. Not to mention works like the Matthauspassion,
which includes pretty much all elements needed to write an opera.
Didn't have the time.
Doubtful. Bach was no doubt a very busy man. But we are talking about a
composer who could probably write a movement from a cantata just sitting
a few minutes in the water closet. Difficult to imagine that he couldn't
have spent some time here and there working on an opera. Besides, many
other composers held busy positions similar to Bach, but managed to write
Didn't have a venue for such.
Irrelevant. Composers back in that day often wrote operas on a "if I build
it they will come" basis, hoping they could sell their idea and get it
A lot of Baroque composers never wrote operas.
Actually, pretty much all Baroque composers I have looked at have written
operas. As far as I can determine all of Bach's more famous German contemp-
oraries made at least made some attempt at it. Telemann wrote about 50 of
them. Heinrich Schutz wrote two operas (now lost) and which are considered
to be the first German operas. Even Heinrich Biber wrote one (again now lost).
As for the great Handel, he started out as a composer of Italian operas and
considered himself an opera composer throughout his life.
He didn't like opera.
Well in the "he just didn't feel like it" line of thinking, it is hard to argue
with that one.
This is my current though admittedly speculative view. Back in Bach's
day the worlds of opera and theater were considered to be rather sleazy,
institutions populated by people of low moral character. Bach might
simply have rejected opera for those reasons. But it should be added
that there were many composers who were religious who wrote opera —
Vivaldi was a Roman Catholic priest. So either this theory is incorrect
or Bach must have been a very conservative Lutheran indeed.
I think the latter.
In any case it seems that Bach did come pretty damn close to writing an
opera once — a secular stage production written for a birthday celebration
of the Duke of Saxony in 1733, a work known today as Cantata No. 213, or
at the time of its production as "Hercules auf dem Scheidewege."
Hmmm. Sounds kind of French. :p