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Distributed Listening: Aural Encounters with J. S. Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

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This article proposes a historically oriented approach to Bach’s sacred cantata repertoire that aims to reconstruct some of the parameters within which listening responses by his congregants unfolded. Draw- ing on a range of primary materials that document attitudes to musi- cal listening among Bach’s contemporaries, I develop a model of distributed listening as an alternative to traditional structural- hermeneutic accounts of the cantatas. I consider the distributed nature of congregational listening in Bach’s Leipzig in three respects: listeners’ attention distributed across the musical and textual features in individual pieces; sonic-affective markers distributed across the corpus of cantatas; and the distribution of affective responses across the bodily-spiritual community of Bach’s congregation. Even if the ideal listening attitude demanded by certain theologians at the time can seem to foreshadow the aesthetic listening stance of the modern concert hall, congregational listening in Bach’s time thereby emerges as a mutable and multidimensional set of practices. In rehearing the cantatas from this perspective, the article champions an aurally based analytical model that can potentially capture something more of what these cantata performances did to and for their initial recipients.



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BACH: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute

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Riemenschneider Bach Institute

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British Academy (MD19/190007)