Black with Notes

Chorale is seven rehearsals into its preparation for our March 26 performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I am grateful for so extended a rehearsal period-- every singer in the group benefits from repeated exposure to this complex, difficult music.

Bwv232-credoA typical Bach score is black with notes. Harmonies outlined in the basso continuo rarely rest, and pitches above them change constantly to keep up. Performers become accustomed to this– one is always on the move, aiming for the next harmonic arrival point, then taking off again once it is reached. The overall effect is—page after page of notes, thousands of them; how does one organize them? Where does one begin in breaking them down into comprehensible groupings, in assigning emphasis, ebb and flow, in such a way that they all make sense, all get heard, all matter and contribute positively, without just canceling one another out in a cloud of sound?

The first movement of the Mass in B Minor, Kyrie I, immediately plunges us into this “Bach problem.” After a 4-bar, homophonic introduction, the movement unfolds in thirteen independent musical lines, in addition to the continuo line. Singers aren’t accustomed to thinking much about instrumental lines– we see five vocal lines, and figure our job is to make sense of those; it surprises us to learn that the instruments do more than just accompany us, and have their own, independent lines, weaving in and out of what we are doing. Fundamentally, there is no hierarchy; each line contributes equally to Bach’s structure and texture. We need to find hierarchy within our own lines—periods of higher energy, balanced with periods of relaxation; figures which require pointed, staccato or marcato emphasis, and figures with require legato; passages of a more soloistic character, and passages of background accompaniment. If we don’t find hierarchy within our own parts, relative to the rest of what is going on, we end up sound like a beehive on a warm day, lots and lots of buzzing.

A Chorale member commented on a performance of the Mass with his college choir, that “we just tried to sing the notes; we never did anything with all this articulation stuff.” I know what he is talking about: even with a high percentage of singers who have previously performed the work, Chorale struggles to find pitches and rhythms; vocal quality, articulation, phrasing, would be complete non-starters, were I not constantly stopping to point them out, dictate them, and work on them. The Bärenreiter piano-vocal scores we sing from are “clean”—they include very little that Bach himself did not notate in his own scores, and Bach did not customarily notate much in the vocal lines. The instrumental lines are fairly marked up, following Bach’s own score and parts, and many of these marks have been transferred to the piano reduction in the singers’ scores—but singers are not prone to look down to the piano line: following their own line is about all they accomplish at this point. So we transfer the markings to the vocal parts in rehearsal, and then rehearse characteristic phrase articulations, ornaments, etc. Taken by themselves, these articulations can seem pretty mechanical and not awfully graceful; they have to be performed with understanding and within the context of the vocal line, and this is extremely difficult– Bach demands a great deal. I urge the singers to listen to the 2015 Gardiner recording, as an example of the sort of articulation and expressiveness we are after; but it takes a great deal of familiarity for them to internalize these gestures and allow them to mean something, rather than just perform them mechanically. The individual lines have to flow; they have to alter in emphasis and adjust to the volume, the surrounding parts, the intensity of individual passages; and this requires far more than mechanical competence and repetition.

I ran across the following passage by Martin Luther yesterday: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” Very much the same thing can be said about learning to sing this music-- our rehearsal period is a kind of pilgrimage, a process. With every preparation Chorale does of this “greatest of all works,” we draw closer to the essential truth of this great composer and his overwhelming accomplishment. The Mass in B Minor is not only the best we humans can come up with, but it is transcendingly good, and we are a part of this transcendent goodness; there is more to us, more to hope for and plan for and celebrate, than the brutality, the violence, the hatred, which we daily confront in one another. A human being, one of us, composed this monumental and life-transforming work; just knowing that, should make us better people.