I have written largely about the historical/musicological aspects of presenting Bach’s Mass in B Minor, over the past weeks. Such a focus is inevitable: the score is enormous, complex, surrounded and influenced by competing traditions; a conductor is forced to make decisions about every page, and to coordinate these many decisions in order to come up with a coherent whole. No work is more studied or more commented upon; no work excites more controversy. I have to be able to defend the choices I make. And I have to satisfy my own need to express a personal vision: Chorale is presenting a work of art, not a music history lecture about a work of art. In the performance history of the work, enormous choruses, numbering in the hundreds, have sung, and continue to sing, the Mass in B Minor, though the general trend has been toward smaller forces– on occasion, just one singer per part. Chorale is fifty-six singers for this concert-- by no means a symphony chorus, but larger than the professional early music ensembles which present the most cutting edge versions of the work. We could have chosen to bypass the work altogether, in acknowledgment of historical correctness– but then we would be deprived of the glorious experience of learning and performing the work, and our audience would be deprived of the opportunity to hear it. So we choose to sing it, and to devote tremendous effort toward lightening our sound and articulation, while making the most of our full sound where it is needed and welcome.
Frequently, even when larger groups sing it, a smaller group, termed concertists, will introduce many of the movements, will sing particularly exposed passages as solos, will even sing the more intimate movements entirely on their own. Sometimes, these concertists will be members of the choir; alternatively, they may be the soloists who also sing the aria and duet movements. This trend toward ripienist/concertist texture is supported by the scholarly literature. Chorale chooses to forego the ripienist/concertist procedure. It could have been interesting and appropriate for our forces, but our singers want to experience all of the music, each note, as an amateur event—an act of love. As Robert Shaw said—music, like sex, is too good to be left to the professionals. Again, this forces us to be more careful in our control of texture and dynamics than we would be if those issues were resolved through controlling the size of the forces.
Chorale chooses to sing the Latin text with a German pronunciation. Most ensembles use the more common Italianate pronunciation, and have good results; and recent research indicates that the German pronunciation Chorale uses, based on modern German, is not necessarily the pronunciation Bach used or intended. So we can’t defend our choice on a secure, scholarly basis. But our choice does suggest the music’s German background. And I agree with Helmuth Rilling’s contention that German consonants articulate more clearly than Italian, while German vowels narrow and clarify the vocal line, even for an entire section of singers, lending greater definition to Bach’s remarkably complex counterpoint. This is particularly necessary with a group of our size: clarity of pitch and line is far more important, in this music, than the beautiful, Italianate production of individual voices in the ensemble, which can actually work against an accurate presentation of Bach’s musical ideas.
We choose to present the Mass at Rockefeller Chapel, on the campus of The University of Chicago, because the building’s size and grandeur reflect Bach’s music more accurately than other spaces available to us. The Hyde Park community, which surrounds the Chapel, represents, in a purer form than other Chicago neighborhoods, the combination of scholarship, idealism, and high culture which can support concerts like this. A high percentage of Chorale’s regular audience are Hyde Park residents, and they often express appreciation for the level of Chorale’s striving and seriousness of intent. And from a purely monetary point of view, Rockefeller Chapel seats a sufficient number of listeners that, if we sell tickets effectively, we can cover a significant proportion of our production costs (which are mind-boggling) with door receipts.
Our concert is in one month. Sunday, March 26, 3 p.m.
We have rehearsed, and I have written about the experience, since the middle of December. The writing has focused my study, my listening, my thinking about the work; it has been a significant and helpful discipline for me. I hope you will come to our performance; and I hope you will spread the word, and bring your friends. I’m a believer; I am convinced that Bach’s Mass in B minor truly is “the greatest artwork of all times and all people,” and I’d like to show you why.