v Gordon Dalgarno

a write-up

of my

lifes work

a write-up

of my

lifes work

Gordon's Face


the vibro acoustic chair

The vibro acoustic chair is a comfortable reclining chair with built in vibro acoustic units. The mounting of the units is important for two reasons. The active surface of the unit should be as flat as possible against the body. This means flexible mounting and secondly we don’t want to transmit vibrations to the body of the chair as this would create a loud noise as well as interfering with the sensation from other vibration units in the chair. I should explain that we don’t want stray sound from the vibro acoustic chair to annoy other people. Both of these can be solved by using sponge rubber mounting but the sponge rubber has to be of the type of reconstituted. Reconstituted rubber is sold commercially and consists of small pieces of sponge rubber glued together in random orientation. Unlike ordinary sponge rubber, this transmits vibration very poorly. The best place for units is on the back. I use one unit on the left back and one on the right back. With two part music, these are the only two used. With more parts I also have a vibration unit on the seat and one on the feet. When using MIDI music, which can be either from a computer or a live band, I would split up the musical parts for example as follows. Oboe on the left back, clarinet on the right back, cello on the seat, percussion on the feet or a pluck double bass on the feet. And of course with a live band, there is no necessity to use MIDI.

The units themselves consist of small loud speakers, preferably small woofers, but any sort of loud speakers do not couple vibration well into the body. To couple well, a membrane is required in front of the loud speaker, close to or in contact with the body.

The Sometron company, who I believe make the best commercially available chairs of the type which do not split up the musical parts, have a patent on this membrane. Their membrane is thin ply wood. With their permission and encouragement, I experimented extensively with different materials for the membrane and found that a membrane made from camping mats (that is dense sponge rubber about a quarter of an inch thick) were much better in that they gave a sensation that was more like music and less like a mechanical vibration, and also gave a wider frequency response in the treble where it is much required but with the disadvantage of being more easily damaged than Sometron’s plywood membrane. I also designed a double unit with two loud speakers in a pair connected in a push pull way so that when one loud speaker pulled inwards, the other pushed outwards (see photographs). This gave three benefits. A; a stronger vibratory sensation, B; less noise, and C; along with some other minor details in the design, it gave a wider frequency response. The units could be sensed about half an octave higher in pitch. Anyone can have a bass response but a response in the treble is difficult to achieve. It may not sound much but our design gave half an octave extra frequency response in the treble. The Sometron Company allowed us to use the membrane feature of their patent and said they would cover our design also with their patent and in addition they were free to use our design.

A 30-band graphic equaliser is required in the drive of the vibration unit because we want to achieve an equally strong sensation for each frequency in the usable range. Just as in music, where we want an equally loud sensation at each frequency in the range, here we want an equally strong vibratory sensation at each frequency. Only the lower half of the graphic equaliser is actually used in the range because the upper half is outside the range of frequencies that can be felt as a vibratory sensation. The body is usually more sensitive around 100Hz so the drive has to be turned down around that frequency and increased at both lower and especially higher frequencies. Considerable dynamic range compression is also required in the drive because although the ear can cope with volumes between 35 dBHL and 110 dBHL, the sensation of vibration would have to be compressed into a much smaller range by a factor of at least four.

helping hard of hearing people


It is very important that we do not insult the people we are trying to help. Deaf people do not like to be known as hearing impaired. Deaf people like to be called deaf not hearing impaired because they don’t consider themselves to be impaired people. When talking about deaf people, they prefer to be called “deaf people” and not “the deaf”. Hard of hearing people do not like to be called deaf. It’s important to realise that hard of hearing people live in the hearing world making every use of residual hearing, lip reading and facial expression and their friends tend to be both people with normal hearing and people who are hard of hearing. Deaf people tend to live in a signing world and for some of them, all their friends are deaf people who predominantly use sign language.


The following advice is not intended for scientists to read, it is written in an everyday language for the ordinary person. Working with hard of hearing people is enormously challenging. This is mainly because one cannot hear what they are hearing. Obviously there are no headphone sockets where you can plug in your headphones and hear what they are hearing so it has all got to be done by very sympathetic questioning and inference. The work requires great patience and empathy. Hearing aids, while technological marvels, are not the best thing for hearing music for the following reasons. Hearing aids are designed primarily for speech and not for music. Great compromises are required because of the small size of the hearing aid, battery life, and the circuitry has to work on only 3 volts. Marvellous results are obtained despite these constraints.

Hearing aids

Most modern hearing aids are digital but a number of people believe it would be better to be digitally controlled analogue processing but these do not seem to be currently readily available.

An alternative to hearing aids

The following applies when listening to music at home along with other people and can be from any source such as television, radio, CDs and MP3s. It does not apply to listening to CDs on your own which have been specially created for you. When listening at home as above, there is no need for the constraints listed above for hearing aids and better listening results for listening at home can be obtained by using studio quality signal processing equipment which is bulky and works off the mains but can be plugged into existing home music systems or hi-fi systems. To keep down costs, we are anxious to use standard off-the shelve studio equipment which is sometimes used here in ways that designers never envisaged. One might think the most important piece of studio equipment would be a graphic equaliser to boost some frequencies and cut others but this is not so. It is more like a final step.

Step One - Choice of headphones

The most suitable choice of headphones are those known as “sound cancelling headphones” such as those made by Bose. Sound cancelling is an exaggeration but they partly cancel out ambient sounds so that for example if you are listening in an aircraft, the sound of the engines and the wind is partly cancelled so you can hear what you are trying to listen to, i.e. the signal being fed into the headphones, more clearly.

And thus in our application of listening to music with friends, you hear their music in an attenuated way. If you do not use sound cancelling headphones, you need to use headphones which are closed-back (so as to attenuate ambient sounds as much as possible), of good sound quality and giving loud enough sounds for the purpose. While doing the following experimentation, play some music which is at a fairly constant medium volume.

Even if you don’t like listening through headphones, follow the procedure below and then later change to small loud speakers very close to your ears. If you are going to listen without the sound in your ears being affected by the sound of the music intended for the others listening to the same music and vice versa, you will need to listen with headphones. If one ear is distorting, it would be desirable to use an ear plug if you are not using sound cancelling headphones. If you are, there should be no signal going to that ear.

When listening with others, it’s important to have your own control of the volume which means a separate headphone amplifier (almost any good quality audio amplifier will suffice; a large wattage is not needed).

Step Two - Getting the volume right for each ear

It is also important to make the best use of each ear. Sometimes what a hospital person might call the poor ear is just less sensitive but clearer for music given suitable amplification so experiment to see if this is so in your case and if so either set your music system or headphone amplifier to mono. If it does not have this facility, add the left and the right channel (this only requires two resistors and feed both to the ear which is the clearest, otherwise if both ears are reasonably clear, it enables you to use a stereo signal but adjust the relative volumes correctly) (this might be outside of the range of the balance control on the amplifier in which case two more resistors may be required and occasionally it may be necessary to use the loud speaker output rather than the headphone output to get a loud enough signal for one of the ears).

*When adding a second amplifier to an existing home music system, you will often require a pair of Y branches. These are cables about 6 inches long with a two into one arrangement of phono plugs or sockets. See photographs.

Step Three - Keeping the valume within a comfortable range Dynamic range amplitude compression

Quiet passages in the music may be too low volume to be heard comfortably and loud passages can be uncomfortable or even painfully loud. Painfully loud we want to avoid at all costs. What we need then is to automatically turn up the volume in quiet passages and turn it down in loud passages and also frequency discrimination is poorer if the volume gets too high, e.g above 80 dBHL, so it is always best to err on the side of less loud. The studio quality device that can do this is called a dynamic range amplitude compressor. This device, and not the graphic equaliser, is the most important single item after step two from all the studio equipment to help people with hearing impairments. What a dynamic range compressor does is shown in figure 1 and as you will see after a fresh hold level for the volume is reached, a smaller increase in output is given for a given increase in input. The ratio between these is called the compression ratio which can be dialled on the front panel. There are also settings on the front panel for timing response because the compressor cannot act instantaneously but for automatic gain control, these should be set to a “slow response setting”. In other words, this is dynamic range compression set up for automatic volume control. A compression ratio of about 3 should be suitable. If stereo listening is in operation, a stereo compressor should be used and the same settings should be used on both channels. Some compressors have a switch on the front panel to enforce this.

Step Four - Fast acting dynamic range compression

This compressor should be a separate unit connected after the unit above. Most of the time in classical, and similar music, it will do nothing “but it earns its keep” by catching any sudden loud notes and turning the volume of these down so as to avoid the listener being subjected to painfully loud music at all costs. If you were sure that the source material after being compressed as above will not contain any exceptionally loud notes, it may not be necessary. In music which is varying in volume very rapidly, i.e loud and soft notes in quick succession, it is complicated to set up the fast acting compressor and it wouldn’t be worth while learning how to do this as a one-off so I suggest you ask an expert to do it as a one-off job. It’s important not only to avoid loud notes coming through but also to avoid “pumping sounds”.

If you are only using mono, you can save money by using the unused side of the compressor of three of a second compressor as the compressor for number 4. Be sure the input signal into the fast acting compressor is not too high, otherwise distortion will occur.

Step Five - Selective Compression

The above is all that is normally required for compression but if you wish you could experiment with the following. Sometimes people are bothered by very loud low notes or alternatively high notes. And if that is the case, you might like to experiment as follows. Use a graphic equaliser to select either low notes or high notes and feed this signal into the control input of the first dynamic range compressor. A simple graphic equaliser will be adequate for this purpose. I would advise against trying to split the sole signal into different frequency bands and compressing each band differently. The reason being this produces too much change in timbre and can produce other disorientating effects. This opinion is backed up by other researchers at Keele University where I worked as a visiting fellow.

Step Six - Equalisation

We wish the listener to hear notes right across the frequency spectrum used in music equally loudly or, at the very least, across the range of pitches used in the piano (which is a wider frequency range than you might think because there are many higher harmonics on the upper range of notes on the piano) so this means boosting some frequencies and cutting others. To get adequate control and selectivity, a 30 band graphic equaliser should be used such as an ALESIS M-EQ 230 with the left and right channel adjusted individually for each ear. Before boosting certain frequencies, bear in mind that there may be distortion at some frequencies. For example, the ear is most sensitive at about 2.5 kHz and people who have been subjected to industrial noise often have distorted sound around that frequency. In many cases, where noise damage has occurred, it may be desirable to cut rather than boost the amplitude at around 2.5kHz or at any frequency where noise damage has occurred. Experimentation is required preferably using a signal generator which can either be a hardware one or an app as available on an iPod or similar. Bear in mind that it is absolutely pointless boosting frequencies where there is no hearing; all that one will achieve is generating noise. If for example, the highest frequency a listener can hear is 7 kHz, it may well be worth boosting 7 kHz in the hope that 8 kHz can be heard to some extent but absolutely pointless to boost 10 kHz and above. At the bass end, if loud bass notes are causing a problem even after the equalisation, it may be expedient to cut down their amplitude but this should really be tackled on the compression stage. I have never found it worthwhile to use two graphic equalisers in succession. It just creates noise but if you do try it, be sure that the signal from the first equaliser is not so high in amplitude that it overloads the second which would cause severe distortion.

Listening to special recordings

Commercially available recordings

These could be listened to on your own or with friends and family. An example of recordings which are much clearer than the original are arrangements of Mozart’s operas for wind band by for example Joseph Trebeze. These maintain the essence of the music but are much clearer with fewer musical parts and, because of the contrasting timbers, the parts are much easier to pick out. These arrangements are enjoyed by many people not just hard of hearing for which they were never intended. Wind bands played these commonly in the street in Mozart’s time. I collect arrangements which are clearer for hard of hearing people and I suggest you ask your family and friends to do the same. Original pieces which have contrasting instruments for example quintets for piano and winds rather than string quintets / quotets can be easier to listen to for the same reason.

Specially made recordings

Some of Bach’s music, e.g Fuges, is difficult to appreciate because it’s hard to pick out the individual parts because they are all played with a similar timber. So if you can get a few friends to play the parts with contrasting instruments, this can sometimes be much clearer.

Computer generated music

Computer generation allows vast control, for example you can move some or all parts by octaves and choose the instruments (timbers). This advantage is that unless you spend an enormous amount of time and energy, the performances are never very expressive. And are absolutely never as expressive as those of top performers. An example of how you can manipulate the music is to put small detachment gaps between notes so that the sound of one note dies away before the next note begins. In musical terms, this would correspond to playing slightly staccato and this is an example of one of many many things that you can try when working with very hard of hearing people. Another example is doubling of musical parts, for example if you have an organ sound where the amplitudes rises relatively slowly it can be useful to double it with a harpsichord sound which gives a very clear start to the note. Another example is timbers which die away very quickly and can have their amplitude envelope extended which makes pitch perception easier.

You can also do arrangements, for example in a Fuge you could set it with four contrasting instruments. You could also try spatial separation by having each of the instruments come from a separate loud speaker placed around the room or if you are using a vibro acoustic chair (see you later) each instrument sent to a different vibration unit on the chair, so that for example you might hear an oboe type sound on your left back and a clarinet sound on your right back, cello on your seat and a plucked double bass on your feet. You can adjust the volume of each instrument individually so you can achieve a good balance allowing for the fact that the listener might not hear an oboe sound as loudly as a clarinet sound or vice versa. Preventing parts crossing with octave shifts is another example. An octave shift of the whole thing can be useful in that some people can hear better higher or lower but if transposing down by octaves be aware that the sound can become “muddy”. This is an inevitable consequence of acoustics. If you have a piece with rapidly alternating loud and soft notes (remember this was difficult to deal with with an analogue dynamic range compressor) you can produce a new version of the piece processing it digitally with software such as Audacity which is available free of charge. But be aware, this cannot is not in real time listening.

VisTa Music

This is software I developed standing for visual and tactile music. This is the name I gave to software I developed myself for people who were going extremely deaf. It contained features for all the above in a convenient form. It also had especially good facilities for creating expressive performances.

Attempts to help with greater deafness

VisTa Music

This is software I developed standing for visual and tactile music. This is the name I gave to software I developed myself for people who were going extremely deaf. It contained all the features described in “helping with hard of hearing” in a particularly convenient form including means to control relative volumes.

It also had especially good facilities for creating expressive performances because deaf people do not like unexpressive music anymore than anyone else (and for this reason as a spin off I produced a version for physically disabled people to create their own expressive performances).

The visual display which was a colour graphic representation of each musical phrase at a time on the screen was greatly liked by hearing people and mildly hard of hearing but to my great disappointment did not help in cases of very great deafness.

Pitch perception

Vibro acoustic sensation from the vibro acoustic chair gives a good general impression of the music especially of the rhythm but the problem to be solved with people with very little residual hearing is pitch perception. I believe that only coarse pitch differences can be perceived by vibration alone perhaps a minor third, e.g. C2E Flat or A2C. Some people think I am wrong and that some people can detect tiny fractions of semitones by vibration alone but I think they are mistaken and some other mechanism is involved. I think the most likely explanation for this difference of opinion is hearing but not consciously. Hearing below the conscious level is a scientifically recognised phenomenon. If this is not the explanation, then it is one of the great mysteries that I have come across when working with deaf people.

So in an attempt to get precise pitch perception for a very deaf person, the obvious move is to use the place of vibration on the body. In people with normal hearing, the place on the cochlea, where the resonance of the hair cells occurs gives much of the pitch information so it would seem logical to make an array of small vibration transducers on the body with different ones being activated for different pitches. For the time being, limiting ourselves to just two part music, we placed an array of small vibration transducers on the right forearm for the upper part and the left forearm for the lower part. This works for MIDI music only (which could be either computer generated or played live from a MIDI-enabled instrument). Getting this to operate was a considerable technological achievement because the electronics had to look ahead and see which note was coming next and route it to the appropriate transducer. I did this in conjunction with a final year electronics student as his degree project and was aided by some brilliant technicians in the electronics workshop of the department. The result from having the transducers in a row on the forearm was not good for the following reason. Imagine notes in a rising scale, C,D,E, F, G, AB, ‘C but the C would jump to a transducer at the bottom end of the array and despite vibrating twice as fast it would be sensed as a stronger version of the C at the bottom of the array. It would sound like a stronger version of C rather than the C above B. To get round this, I thought of using a transducer on each finger and thumb. The initial thought was to use pentatonic music (5 notes in a scale) but I thought this too limiting and realised I could use the heel of the hand on the left and right of the hand giving a location for seven transducers. This gave a much better result and one could imagine a rising scale of three octaves as a rising helix. This arrangement was done in both hands and the two part music could be perceived in positions of a right and a left helix. Despite all of this, it ran into an unexpected problem. The strong vibration on the back from the vibro acoustic chair tended to swamp the more delicate vibration on the fingers and if one turned down the volume of the sensation of the back so we could concentrate on the vibration of the fingers. It took away the main sensation of the music, the brain did not seem to be able to cope with both the sensation on the back of the vibro acoustic chair and the vibration in the fingers simultaneously. This was a most unwelcome and unexpected problem. But I think even if it could be overcome with training, there was a deeper flaw to the idea. That is, that it was giving information about the music rather than the music itself. I can explain this with the following analogy. If you write down CC,GG,AA,G-, that is the notes of the start of twinkle, twinkle little star but it is not twinkle , twinkle little star. So reluctantly, I had to admit defeat on this idea of vibro acoustic arrays.

Visual display of VisTa Music

The other part of vista music that could be developed for very deaf people is the visual display. I did not put much effort into this because it seemed unlikely. Very deaf people like the vibration but did not pay much attention to the visual display. I had developed a much better way to allocate colours to notes as shown in figure 1, 2 and 3 which made musical sense rather than just going round sequentially through the colour circle and people with some hearing agreed it was much better than the previous methods which had all involved going round the colour circle sequentially. But it was not good enough; I think the reason for this is as follows. Colours were allocated to the pitch of the notes but that’s not enough because notes require another dimension. Take for example the note B; this can function for example as the leading note in the key of C or the tonic in the key of B or the mediant in the key of G. And that is equally important as is pitch but was not shown in the main vista music display. A small effort was made in an experimental computer programme to show how the note was functioning as well its pitch.

If we take the analogy with Braille, Braille could do nothing for you to convey a beautiful illuminated manuscript where you already knew the content. And similarly, the colour display can never convey the beauty of the sound. This could be further explored. At least as a start, it seems sensible to try it with only two kinds of music where the interest is not primarily in the beauty of the sound. For example A: Music in two parts such as Bach’s Two Part Inventions where the interest in the music is in the interplay of the two parts and would retain their interest even when played on an instrument which did not produce a beautiful sound and even if a little out of tune. And B: Block Corded Music such as Hymn tunes where the interest in the music is in the sequence of harmonies and these would retain their interest even if played on an cheap church harmonium which could not possibly be described as a beautiful sound. The argument being if we can’t do it for these two types of music; we can’t do it at all.

More on Cellos and Gambas

Some Information on ‘Cellos and Gambas’ and a note on their use

From feedback received I can see I need to explain a bit more. Both instruments function as providing the bass for the higher pitched string instruments The ‘Cello is a stringed instrument belonging to the violin family and is bass of that family. Not the double bass (*) The Gamba short for ”Viola da Gamba” is the largest and deepest pitched – the bass instrument of the viol family. It is the ancient instrument and the Cello is the ‘interloper’. In the old days rich people would have had a “chest of viols”)

Both instruments perform the same function as a bass for the higher pitched string instruments of their own family. The Gamba would serve perfectly well as the bass for the violin family as well as for its own family.

The Gamba has five strings tuned mainly in fourths whereas the ‘Cello has 4 strings tuned in fifths. Usually the ‘Cello is normally played supported by a spike on the floor where as the Gamba is held between the performer’s knees.

A very important difference is that the finger board on the Gamba is fretted (like a guitar) and with strings stopped against a fret. This makes a big difference to the timbre. You could almost think of a Gamba as being a very large guitar held vertically and played with a bow.

Another big difference with the Gamba is because of the fretted fingerboard, no vibrato of the violin type is possible. Although in any case vibrato was little used in Baroque times, even on instruments which lent themselves to it such as the ‘Cello’.

So I was puzzled why Bach who was so short of instruments for performing his music had both Gamba and a ‘Cello’ in his orchestra.

I went around asking everybody every “third person” I met until I got the answer

Meantime I had formed my own hypotheses:-

Studying the score of works such as the St Matthew Passion and looking at the part for the Gamba is clear that it would be very awkward, (especially in a sequence of chords), and sometimes not just awkward actually impossible to play on a Cello.

But I eventually found an expert who told me the correct answer that Bach reserves the ethereal sound of the Gamba for the time of Christ’s death in all his Sacred works.

My hypothesis while correct as far as it goes could not be the correct answer because once Bach had decided the party was for Gamba he would write chords which could be played on the Gamba and similarly for the Cello.


  • The Double Bass Belongs to neither the Violin nor the Viol family but has some features of each. It is absolutely wrong to refer to the double bass as a bass violin. A mistake on par with the Japanese calling a coranglirs an “English horn” (coranglirs is a corruption of an angled [or bent horn]).

Handel's Messiah and Mozarts Version

When I first heard that Mozart had created a version of The Messiah I was very surprised. But it is correct and I was filled with curiosity to find out about it.

I am a person of great curiosity. Some people say I am also a curious person but don’t know whether to take that as a compliment.

The Messiah in its original form was fantastically successful.

So many people wished to come to the first performance (*) that gentlemen were asked to come without swords and ladies without hoops in their dresses.

It made Handel a great deal of money large sums of which Handel gave away charitably. Handel made so much money from The Messiah that for example he paid the debts of some debtors to allow their release from the debtors prison and largely funded an orphanage)

Many believe Handel was divinely inspired in his writing. The Messiah was written in only 24 days. The story of how Handel did not like to be disturbed by his housekeeper bringing him meals is well known.

It was to text by Charles Jennings. Many think Jennings did very well in his choice of extracts from the Bible. With my great curiosity I wonder why he chose to include “Thou Shall Smash Them” which comes from Isaiah, and his prophesy which did not happen.

Handel, who liked to direct from the organ must have felt the organ part to be very important, for he had his own organ shipped over to Dublin.

So why on earth did Mozart feel the need to make an arrangement? First let’s dispose of any erroneous idea that Mozart was attempting to improve upon Handel. Mozart was a great admirer of Handel (as also was Beethoven )

The correct explanation is that Mozart wished to make Handel’s music accessible to the public of the day. In general I dislike music which has been ‘messed about’ or which has been perhaps ’modernised’ in an opera. But Mozart’s motivation here, I believe, makes it not only acceptable but desirable.

Amazingly, only 48 years after The Messiah was written Handel’s style was completely out of fashion. Handel’s style was to write the tune and the bass with very sparse inner parts

That was not liked by the people of Mozart’s day and they also wanted to hear modern wind instruments especially clarinets and ‘new’ bassoons and trombones with better timbre and intonation.

Now Handel was of course perfectly capable of writing inner parts and the fact that he did not do so in The Messiah was for a musical reason. Nonetheless, this style of writing had become unacceptable to the public of the day, and remember that Mozart's aim was to make Handel’s music accessible. Mozart covered both requirements by adding strong inner parts and having them performed on the ‘new’ wind instruments of the day.

Even so Mozart considered some of Handel’s numbers so musically perfect that he could not bear to touch them. One example is the number “Glory to God”.

Handel was very expedient. If for example, he owed a lady singer a favour he would rearrange one of the arias originally sung by a male for her. If he had a particularly florid singer he would add ornamentation or even change the time signature to 6/8 so that the singer could show off their voice.

These adjustments to every performance show how expedient Handel was in striving to please both the audience and his soloists. (He was very astute at making money through his music) and that he did not consider the original at all sacrosanct so clearly would not have objected to Mozart’s version.

Indeed composers at the time especially Bach, seemed to consider music common property (but all without acknowledgements).

To illustrate this Handel “lifted” one of the numbers in his original of The Messiah from Rienhard Keiser , ( a less known composer who preceded him in Hamburg. (And Bach’s concertos for 2 or 3 harpsichords seem be arrangements of Vivaldi's concertos for violins) Consequently there is no definitive version of The Messiah. Ebenezer Prout (no, not an invention of Dickens) strived hard and long to produce a definitive score but concluded it was impossible. Later Prout produced his own version of The Messiah, following Mozart’s pattern, by adding even more wind instruments and inner parts.

Unlike Mozart’s reasons for adding to The Messiah which were all for Handel’s benefit, I disapprove of Prout’s reasons for doing so ( one might hazard a guess that he wanted something from a long time spent studying scores for Handel’s original, or maybe it's just that he believed his version sounded even better than Mozart’s). If you too disapprove, we are in good company: The "Musical Times" at the turn of the 19th century wrote that it was time that "hangers on" to Handel's Messiah were sent about their business!!

The lost St. Mark Passion Ybachand how it may be re-constructed

An interesting musical detective story

In music, a PASSION is an Oratorio about the capture, torture, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Two of Bach’s finest works are John and Matthew Passions

(Remember it is not St Matthew’s passion but “The Passion of our Lord” according to St Matthew.)

Critical opinion that these two Passions along with Bach’s Mass in B Minor are the finest pieces of music ever written (remember popularity and greatness are two entirely different things.)

Before going on the Mark passion, I need to talk a little more about the Matthew and John.

Bach never had the resources to perform his Matthew Passion. He had hardly enough for one choir and orchestra never mind the two required here (or three choirs if you count the repieno choir)

The two choirs and orchestras work antiphonally, (one on each side of the church) one asking the question “whom? how? when? and the other choir answering.

Bach’s friend and sometimes rival Telemann was a much more expedient person (and far more successful in his lifetime than Bach) and wrote for the resources he actually had. He kept the harmony simple so the congregation could sing along in the choruses. Telemann wrote thirteen St Matthew Passions during his long tenure of office in

Hamburg, as Cantor for the four principle churches. It would have four times that number if Telemann had not successfully prevailed on each one to take it in turn.

One of the reasons many think the Matthew is superior to the John is because the words fit the music better. In the John, Bach took the words straight from the Bible whereas in the Matthew it was first turned into poetry by a man very well known at the time who rejoiced in the nickname of Picander (his real name was Henriki – he was head of the post office in Weimer) – and used the nickname to distinguish his part time activities. Picander’s role as literary collaborator is equivalent to a librettist in an opera.

Much of Bach’s music has been lost. We have Mendelssohn to thank for rescuing much of it. Amazingly he found a butcher’s shop in Weimer, where Bach’s manuscripts were being used to wrap up meat. He did the same in a florist, where Bach’s manuscripts were being used to wrap up prickly roses; in addition some of his music disappeared in WWII.

It would be a wonderful day for music if a Bach Passion according to one of the other Apostles turned up. One according to St Luke did appear, but it was found by scholars to be spurious.

We can be quite certain that a St Mark Passion existed because Picander published his texts separately.

At the time of writing the St Mark, Bach was under even more pressure and I suspect that he was also going through one of his slightly rebellious moods. After all he had to produce a truly eye-watering amount of music for the church each Sunday, as well as train the choir etc and with a status the same as that of the cook. He must have thought of the huge amount of music that he had written, which had only been performed once; so, he decided to write the St Mark using what is confusingly termed “Parody technique”.

He searched among his own music for something that would fit the emotions of the St Mark story and employed his poet (Picander) to write words that fitted the music.

So, in order to reconstruct the St Mark, the task is to find which piece of music Bach used. Two well-known attempts are (a) by Ton Koopman, who is Director of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and, therefore, exposed to a great deal of Bach’s music, and (b) by Andor Gomme, a professor of English, at Keele University; who took a more scholarly approach , studying manuscripts in Germany, all in his own time, and basing his work largely on Cantata203 . The scholarly on approach is very evident in the accompanying notes to the CD: GAX23712. Which is a performance conducted by Geoffrey Weller

Whether the correct music for the construction, or not, my own view is that Goome’s reconstruction is 2 correct” it is very much to be preferred ;being more cohesive as well as giving great uplift

Yet Coopman is preferred by many perhaps because of his position in the professional musical world reactive to Gomme’s

Scholars are not convinced that either is correct. Here is your chance, not just for 15 minutes of fame, but to go down in history as a person who reconstructed the St Mark. No ability to write music is required, but

bare in mind that the task may be impossible because the music you seek may be among the Bach music which is lost. Possibly one of the manuscripts used to wrap up meat in the butcher’s shop in Weimer, before Mendelssohn got to rescue it.

For an unconnected reason Mendelssohn is sometimes known as “the butcher of Weimer “ because he arranged and performed a version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which was absolutely “butchered”; in ways which would nowadays make our toes curl. He greatly shortened it and simplified it to require fewer resources, added inappropriate rubato and other Romantic style musical effects. Unbelievably he also changed some of the notes to suit the singers available. Never the less it achieved Mendelssohn’s aim of drawing attention to Bach’s choral works.