Singers’ Perpectives on the Bach B-Minor Mass

I think this piece has moments that are some of the hardest pieces of music I’ve ever had to learn.  We started working on it last fall, and it has taken me this long to get to the point where I begin to fell comfortable with the more baffling runs in the interior alto parts. . . .  My husband has gotten used to me whistling the alto runs in pleni sunt coeli, trying to make sure I have the timing right.  The dog leaves the room when I pick up the blue Bach score on the coffee table.  He dislikes my singing.  Yes, it hurts my feelings.  But it’s what has been necessary to be able to sing this piece.

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I have heard the work performed, at the Bethlehem Bach Festival, over thirty times.  Because the chapel where it is performed is light enough I, and many others, follow the score.  As a listener, I know it very well.
I shouldn’t have been surprised but, in spite of that familiarity, it is a lot more difficult to do than I thought it would be.  What helped me the most to prepare is the synthesized voice used by the Choralia web site.  After years of listening it is a real thrill to actually be doing it.

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This work is astounding in its complexity.  The longer I work on Bach, especially the faster sections, the more I feel the pulse of the music, as if it’s really Bach’s pulse, his breath . .  .

The Pleni sunt part of the Sanctus and the Cum Sancto Spiritu are so challenging.  Over and over I listen to a recording, and listen to the alto section on Cyberbass.  Why is it so hard?  And how can it be so beautiful with the fountains of notes weaving in and out constantly?
Favorite parts:
Gratias agimus tibi: I love the feeling of rounds as the voice sections take turns with the melody.  When the sopranos soar upward in m. 35 as the rest go downward it’s soul-stirring.
Sanctus: The anchoring footsteps of the bass section as the rest of us hold long notes; one achingly beautiful measure the altos sing (m. 30).
Dona nobis pacem: every note.
Thank you, Ernie, for the opportunity to be immersed in this music.

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Even though I had sung this Mass on at least three occasions, that was more than 20 years ago, and when I started this I had instant recall for only fragments of it.  So I have been getting reacquainted with it, sometimes appallingly slowly.  This has never been my favorite major work to practice  — it is challenging!  But now that I am totally immersed in it, I am surprised at how much I am enjoying singing it once again.  It doesn’t have quite the emotional lift of Verdi  or the depth of Brahms (in their Requiems), but it is interesting and delightful.  I am always impressed with Bach’s early 18th century accomplishments.  (By the way, most of my music school associates were passionate about Bach, but I never caught the intensity of their bug.)
Yes, I’m looking forward to the performances this weekend, and hope we will do justice to Bach – and you.  You’ve worked very hard on preparing us, and your insights are always interesting and useful.  Thank you for all you do for us singers.

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This is one, if not THE, hardest piece I’ve tried to learn.  The challenge for me has been to have it make sense musically, to me.  I will tell you that it has helped to mark where the themes are in each movement.  However, the massive runs that he has placed in some movements are probably the biggest hurdles for me because sometimes the change in direction doesn’t make sense to me.  I have listened to this piece in my car, played the CyberBass sections while I’m at work, sat at the piano and “plunked” out my part, and yet, at rehearsal there were times, though there were marks in my score, I felt as if I were hearing the movement for the first time.All that being said, now that we are at concert week, it’s finally starting to “gel” with me.  I am getting more adept at the runs and am feeling a bit more confident with most of the piece.  As with all Bach that we do, once I am more familiar with it, I love it.  Bach is the most challenging composer for me as a singer.  It’s always an adventure!

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I have really enjoyed learning the B minor Mass because it is so stimulating for my brain–you have to think, and think HARD, at every moment of this piece without break from beginning to end. It’s exhausting but so satisfying, especially when you get to end the work with “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which in my opinion is heaven embodied in music.