“Who’s on First?” or…

… Singers, singers everywhere, but who is singing what in the Bach “Mass in B Minor”?

Bach’s vocal music and, in particular, his choral music has been a hot topic for discussion for years.  It’s gotten even hotter.  More so recently with the advent of new scholarship that is looking very closely at who Bach’s singers were, but more importantly at how many there were.

At the outset let me state that there was probably not a performance of this work during Bach’s lifetime and in all probability no complete performance took place prior to 1859.  Here’s what the community reading Wikipedia has to say:

In 1786, thirty-six years after Bach’s death, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach performed the Symbolum Nicenum section (under the title “Credo”) at a charity concert in Hamburg. Scholars believe the Mass was not performed in its entirety until the mid-19th century; according to Bach scholar John Butt, there is “no firm evidence of a complete performance before that of the Riedel-Verein [performance] in Leipzig in 1859.

What this means is that we don’t have a way of looking at performance parts or scores that would have been used by Bach as a sort of “beta test” of the work to see what he might have done.  These are things that we have an abundance of works like “Messiah” and Bach’s settings of the “St. John Passion” and the “St. Matthew Passion.”

So it leaves the question open as to Bach’s intentions for this work.  Who did he envision performing it and how were they to be utilized?  This question is complicated enough but adding to the confusion are the questions about how and why the sections of the “Mass” were compiled into one large work (they were written over more than twenty-five years of his life and display a very wide range of styles).   Did he intend for the Mass to be a sort of “compendium” of existing musical vocal styles as he did in the “Clavier-Ubung” series for keyboard styles?  In talking about the “Mass in B Minor” Bach scholar Christoph Wolff says that it is:

“a summary of his writing for voice, not only in its variety of styles, compositional devices, and range of sonorities, but also in its high level of technical polish…”

Toward the end of the 19th century, large-scale performances of choral works were the norm.  Even works like the “St. Matthew Passion” was performed by huge choruses with hundreds of singers.  In 1961 Robert Shaw recorded the “B Minor Mass” with a relatively small chorus of thirty-three singers.  In 1968 Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the work using an even smaller chorus comprised of men and boys and an orchestra playing on “period instruments.”  Going even further was Joshua Rifkin who, in the 1980’s, proposed the idea that these choral works of Bach should be performed with one singer on a part!  He based this notion on the fact that Bach had very limited musical resources at his disposal.  Some recent performances and recordings use a combination of both techniques.  So, which is right and which is the most sound in terms of the musical evidence?  To both of those questions I would answer… neither!

In the end I really think that the beauty this work like all works relies on performers who are willing to ask questions about how best to approach the piece, and then be willing to find their own way.  I try to do this with every piece I perform.  To be quite candid, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  But it is always and interesting and exciting way to make music.

So here is a sneak peak into what I am doing with the performing forces for our Bach “Mass in B Minor”:  The orchestra is relatively small (around 23 players) and the chorus is around 42 singers.  There are six soloists who will alternate between singing solo sections of the “choral movements” and the “aria” sections.  This for me is the crux of the issues surrounding the way this work is performed.  The solo sections are for the most part pretty clearly laid out for me in terms of the forces required.  It is in the larger sections for the chorus where things get tricky.

I have come to feel that Bach made some very definite decisions about the way he orchestrates different sections of some of the various chorus movements and this in turn needs to be reflected in the way that the singers are used.  For instance, there is a tremendous amount of “colla parte” writing for the chorus orchestra — places where the instruments simply double the voice parts, as opposed to playing independent parts.  This is true of almost every movement they sing.  But there are also places, most notably in the first part of each of the vocal fugues (e.g., the Kyrie sections), where the orchestra literally drops out.  So for me the question is not only why, but what am I going to do about it?  In these sections I am using a group of the soloists for the first statement of each of these fugues and then bringing the chorus in when the orchestra begins playing “colla parte” with them.  The effect is wonderful and gives me the opportunity to explore different vocal colors within a given movement.  It also gives those sections a wonderful clarity that set the stage for the chorus to enter.  For me it is, as always, a work in progress!

This is the first time I have performed this work and like all of the other performers, I am trying learn some of its secrets.   So, for this set of concerts, this is where I am with this piece.  The next time, who knows?…

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