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Performing Bach’s Mass in B minor

Music / No Comment / August 1, 2011

Having reached a riper old age than many in the Eighteenth Century and, like many of today’s statesmen are reputed to do, Bach had a keen eye on his ‘legacy’. Raising sons such as Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, who became eminent composers in their own right, created filial champions of his reputation; Bach also collated works that were arguably intended more for future generations rather than audiences of his own day. The Art of Fugue is one example; another is the B Minor Mass.

Probably still the longest Mass setting ever, the B Minor Mass of 1748 is far to long and demanding to be used in any church service. It would, at first sight, be especially ill-suited to Lutheran rites at St. Thomas’, Leipzig, where Bach was Kapellmeister. Indeed, the vast majority of his choral output – not least the legendary church cantata cycles – sets passages from the Bible in German. It is in fact an expansion of the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) of 1733, to which Bach added the other movements (Credo, Sanctus Benedictus and Agnus Dei) of the Catholic Mass, often by reworking movements from earlier works.

On 30 July, I took part in my second performance of the B minor Mass with the Somerst Chamber Choir. My abiding memory of our first performance, in 1996, is the ‘wall’ of exhaustion often experienced when singing the Osanna double-chorus fugue for the second time. On this occasion, thanks once again to painstaking preparation by our conductor, Graham Caldbeck, and several more years of experience since then, it didn’t feel so bad. After all, at about two hours in length, it is ‘only’ about as long as Handel’s Messiah.

As befits a compendium of Bach’s artistry, the Mass is incredibly varied and uses virtually every musical device and technique known at the time – fugue, canon, counterpoint, ornamentation and much more – and this creates great challenges for chorus members. I cannot claim to speak for orchestral players or vocal soloists but can imagine that it presents formidable difficulties for them too, not least the horn soloist in the Quoniam.

The Mass opens with a solemn choral invocation of the prayer Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy. As first impressions count, it is always important to deliver this with precise diction, unity of ensemble and accurate pitch. The subsequent stately orchestral largo emphasises the serious nature of Bach’s conception and leads into the first major challenge for me as a tenor: the first entry of the Kyrie fugal subject. It needs to be delivered as one voice.

The second Kyrie chorus is an interesting piece: scored for choir with only very light orchestral accompaniment, I see it as Bach’s ‘homage to the Ancients’, in which he reinterprets the polyphony of Palestrina and his school. There is a similar section in both Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle and Verdi’s Requiem.

Trumpets and drums enter at the outset of the Gloria; the rush of adrenaline engendered by their presence makes it all too easy to sacrifice vocal tone to sheer volume. Managing a seamless transition into the initially quieter Et in terra pax is the next challenge for the conductor; Graham guided us through it with aplomb. A similar gear change is required mid way through the chorus Confiteor unam baptisma in the Credo.

The aria Laudamus te is the great soprano showpiece of the work. We were very fortunate to have Dame Emma Kirkby perform it with her characteristic freshness of tone. The chorus Gratias agimus tibi that follows it prefigures, up to a point, the idea that Mahler used in his Fifth Symphony: of giving one an early glimpse of the eventual triumphant finale. Whereas Mahler’s vision was clearly part of his symphonic argument, Bach was more probably taking a straightforward, pragmatic approach – making the most of his musical material – by repeating this chorus at the very end and simply substituting the text with Dona nobis pacem. It is nevertheless a noble piece, growing slowly but steadily from a simple rising figure in the bass line and acquiring increasingingly rich orchestral sonorities as it proceeds.

The Gloria concludes with Cum sancto spiritu, the first of three highly exciting, fast choral finales in the work, the other two being Et vitam venturi saeculi at the end of the Credo and the Osanna after both the Sanctus and Benedictus. In each, the challenge for the singer is to keep one’s eye on the beat, articulate clearly and accurately as many of the fast semi-quavers as possible and convey the text intelligently.

One of Bach’s musical influences is Antonio Vivaldi and, in the Mass, this is especially evident in the slow movements, such as Qui tollis peccata mundi and the Crucifixus. Dark minor keys and aching suspensions accentuate the grief-stricken text. Perhaps one of Bach’s most interesting ideas, however, occurs in the opening chorus of the Credo and in the powerful Confiteor, where he weaves ornate decoration around austere plainsong melodies.

Overall, then, the Mass does indeed deserve its place in the pantheon of choral music greats. It is a huge challenge to perform – but well worth it.

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