Kyrie eleison– Lord have mercy

A typical Bach score is black with notes. Harmonies outlined in the basso continuo rarely rest, and the 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. We 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 mentioned that he had sung the B Minor with a college group, about sixteen years ago. Quoting him as nearly as I remember; “We just tried to sing the notes; we never did anything with all this articulation stuff.” I know what he is talking about: Chorale has worked through ten (out of sixteen) choral movements in the past two weeks, and even with a high percentage of singers who have previously performed the work, we struggle to find pitches and rhythms; vocal quality, articulation, phrasing, would be complete non-starters, were I not constantly stopping to point them out and work on them. It is not much help that our Bärenreiter piano-vocal scores 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.; we also listen to recorded examples, which I bring to rehearsal (we work with recordings by Gardiner, Herreweghe, and Rilling). In last week’s rehearsal we accidentally played the opening of Kyrie I excerpted from a recording by Robert Shaw—and it clearly was not what we were after; everyone in the choir immediately realized this. That in itself was a victory—we grasp the direction in which we are headed.

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 see and hear from the singers a certain satisfaction when they feel they have “got it down”—and at that point I realize how very far we have to go, to internalize these gestures and allow them to mean something, rather than just perform them mechanically. They 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. But the mechanical accomplishment is a good first step; the rest will follow as the singers become more and more immersed in the music and it’s meaning, in the weeks to come.