Research Seminar

Wednesday 11 November 2015, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Professor John Butt (University of Glasgow)

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the problem of parody: an exploration of early hermeneutic theory and musical autonomy.

This paper addresses a long standing issue relating to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Not only is the larger proportion of the work a ‘parody’ of pieces originally written for royal occasions but Bach seems almost to have gone out of his way to make the change of sense different - sometimes absurdly contrary - with the new, religious, text. This situation suggests that customary approaches to understanding the ‘rhetoric’ or symbolism in Bach’s music are often overly literalistic and simplistic. An examination of hermeneutic theory contemporary to Bach might suggest that the issue of musical meaning needs to take attitudes towards context and viewpoint much more strongly into account.


John Butt is Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow and musical director of Edinburgh's Dunedin Consort. His books have been published by Cambridge University Press: these include Bach Interpretation (1990), a handbook on Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1991), Music Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque (1994). Playing with History (2002) marked a new tack, examining the broad culture of historically informed performance and attempting to explain and justify it as a contemporary phenomenon. He is also editor or joint editor of both the Cambridge and Oxford Companions to Bach and of the Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Music (2005). His book on Bach’s Passions, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity, was published in 2010, and explores the ways in which Bach's passion settings relate to some of the broader concepts of modernity, such as subjectivity and time consciousness.

John Butt’s conducting engagements with the Dunedin Consort (2003-) have included major Baroque repertory and several new commissions. His recording of Messiah in its first performed version (Dublin, 1742) was released by Linn Records in 2006 and received the Gramophone award in the Baroque Vocal Category in 2007 and the MIDEM award for Baroque Music in 2008. In 2014 Butt and Dunedin won another Gramophone award, this time in the Choral Category, for a reconstruction of the first performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Linn have also released his recording of Bach's Matthew Passion in March 2008 (which was ClassicFM Magazine’s Recording of the Month), and Handel’s Acis and Galatea in November 2008 (which was Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice and Recording of the Month, and shortlisted for a Gramophone award). His recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor was released in May 2010 and was also Editor’s Choice in Gramophone. This was followed by Handel’s Esther (2012) and Bach’s John Passion (CD of the month in both Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine) and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in 2013 (both the latter were shortlisted for Gramophone Awards).

In 2003 John Butt was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and received the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association. In 2006 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy and began a two- year Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for his research on Bach's Passions. He was a member of the Council of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), 2010-14. In January 2011 he was the fifth recipient of the Royal Academy of Music/Kohn Foundation's Bach Prize, for his work in the performance and scholarship of Bach, and in 2013 he was awarded the medal of the Royal College of Organists and an OBE. 

Location: I/D003