Back to Bach

Chicago Chorale RehearsalChorale is four weeks into rehearsal for our March 26 performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor. This is Chorale’s third preparation of this work, usually considered the greatest composition for chorus and orchestra in the Western canon; it is rivaled only by Bach’s other greatest choral/orchestral work, the Matthew Passion, which Chorale presented two years ago. The Mass edges out the Passion only because the Mass is truly a choral work, the choral movements greatly outnumbering, even overshadowing, the solo movements; each stands alone as a supreme example of the choral art, and the whole is an overwhelming tour de force for the choir. The Passion, which is a continuous narrative dialogue, gives far more weight to the soloists, leaving the choir to sing significantly less than it does in the Mass. Understandably, ambitious choirs tend to prefer the Mass… and this preference finds expression in the good natured euphoria greeting our opening rehearsals. The majority of Chorale’s singers have sung the Mass at least once, and are familiar both with the notes and with the overwhelming majesty of the work; and they carry the neophytes with them. We can already hear what the finished product will sound like—which is a far different experience than that enjoyed by a choir reading this mind-boggling difficult score for the first time. Our preparation is greatly influenced by the historically informed performance practice (HIPP) movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Voices, and instruments, are tuned to a=415, approximately one half step lower than modern pitch; and our orchestra will play on copies of period instruments—gut strings, wooden flutes, natural horns and trumpets, etc-- which have a very different characteristic sound than modern instruments: they are far softer in volume and quality, they play with less vibrato, and they rely more on articulation than on unbroken legato sound. Our sopranos and altos are women, rather than the boys and counter tenors Bach would have employed, but they sing with a narrower, straighter sound than modern singers would usually employ. And we work hard to sing with the kind of non-legato articulation we will hear from our instrumentalists, the kind of articulation that “reads” well when presenting music as complex and polyphonic as this, in a resonant space.

In some respects, we are a thoroughly modern choir: we are 60 singers, rather than the 8-24 some scholars think Bach had in mind; we perform in a building which, though superficially resembling a “period” building, actually has modern, diffuse acoustics, and requires non-period forces to be adequately filled with sound; and we are presenting a “mass” as a concert, rather than in a liturgical context, with appropriate, necessary breaks during which the rest of the liturgy would occur. It is important to realize that this work was never performed, in its entirety, during Bach’s lifetime—neither as a concert, nor in a service. The former was just not the way music was presented, back then; and the work is far too large, and too long, for the latter. In fact, it isn’t at all clear Bach even intended that his mass be performed in its entirety; the work seems, rather, to be an encyclopedia of his career, of the music he composed throughout his lifetime (most of the movements are reworkings of earlier pieces of his), and of the styles and procedures available to a composer in his time, from the early stile antico to the operatic, style galant popular at the time of his death (1750). Perhaps, approaching old age and conscious of his place in music history, Bach intended to leave a record of himself and his work, an autobiography of sorts, and did it through compiling this great score.

Whatever Bach intended, it is an unqualified thrill for me, and for Chorale, to prepare this immense work of art once again. Our singers will never forget the experience; and their understanding of the power of music will be changed forever. The Mass in B Minor defines choral music, and defines choral singing.