What others do with the B Minor Mass

I spent much of the past week reading a dissertation related to Chorale’s current B minor Mass project: Expression and Meaning in Bach Performance and Reception--An Examination of the B minor Mass on Record, by Uri Golomb, King’s College, Cambridge, 2004. This has been an informative, entertaining read for me—I have sung Bach’s music under several of the conductors Golomb discusses, including Helmuth Rilling, August Wenzinger, Robert Shaw, Georg Solti, and Peter Schreier; and I have listened closely to recordings by several more of them, including Philippe Herreweghe, Nicholas Harnoncourt, Gustave Leonhardt, Joshua Rifkin, and John Eliot Gardiner. Golomb systematically categorizes these conductors, and many others, by date of performance (he covers recordings 1950-2000); by ensemble type and size (from the grand symphonic interpretations of Von Karajan, Solti, and Klemperer, to the one-on-a-part performances by Rifkin and Andrew Parrot); by historic vs. modern instruments; by interpretive style (romantic, “Lutheran,” Historically Informed [HIP], and a few others). He also compares the various conductors and ensembles in their versions of specific movements-- describes them according to chorus type (and under that heading, discusses the use of contrast between concertists and ripienists—soloists and tutti chortus—in choral movements), intensity, structure of dynamics, verbal and musical rhetoric, degree and type of articulation, tempo—you name it; this is an exhaustive document. One is amazed when, in his concluding chapter, he suggests that he has only scratched the surface, and identifies further areas of study.

Golomb does see a general trajectory—from a Romantic, 19th century approach, through the radically reduced textures and “lightweight,” human-scale procedures of the HIP movement, and into the recent return to a more personal, expressive, dramatic, even neo-romantic style, within the context of HIP techniques and timbres. So broad-based a study is able to include, and account for, many idiosyncrasies and disparities along the way; and, just as interesting, Golomb compares what the various conductors, themselves, write and say, with the often contradictory evidence presented on their recordings. I am particularly interested in what Helmuth Rilling has written, and said in interviews with the author: I have sung the Mass several times with Rilling in the past sixteen years, and have experienced firsthand the stylistic evolution Golomb describes in just this one conductor. I also sang a good deal under August Wenzinger, a pioneer in the HIP movement, at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute in the seventies and eighties, when the “light-weight” HIP movement was at its zenith, and heard conversations and arguments among my fellow-participants about Wenzinger’s “old-fashioned,” Romantic approach.

An important question the author and his subjects deal with, is—what is Bach's intent in composing the B minor Mass? And what should be the intent of modern performances of it? Is it actually a single work, or is it four separate works, never intended to be performed as a unit? Is it, and should it be, music for Lutheran worship, which Lutherans will instinctively understand better than others-- or is it music with universal appeal and meaning? And another, important question Golomb only hints at, but which permeates his study-- how should performers themselves feel about this music? Do we approach it is an immense mathematical problem, as a collection of historical styles and procedures, or as an emotionally and spiritually compelling journey? Do we commune with God—or with a human and imperfect Bach? Is this a work of such scope that it should be undertaken only by skilled professionals, or does it lend itself to valid performance by amateur forces?

I find the content of this dissertation to be not only informative, but also liberating-- if the most thoughtful and skilled musicians of our time differ so in their approaches to this work, then Chicago Chorale and I, with study, respect, and hard work, can stake out our own territory, our own approach, and be in good company. When, as a singer, I first moved from the Wenzinger approach to the Shaw approach, and then to the Rilling approach, I thought my head would split in pieces—Who was right? Where did my loyalties lie? How could I reconcile the differences I perceived, and not be ridiculed by adherents to one approach or another? My goal, as singer and conductor, has always been to serve the music as best I could—but each of these conductors has claimed that same goal, while also claiming a superior personal position. I have never had the nerve, or the ego strength, to maintain, “This is the way it has to be. God or my superior instincts came to me in a dream and told me I was right.” I rely on tradition, the best teachers I can find—and then, finally, on whatever it is that made me choose to be a musician, and remain one. Bach is a good partner in this venture-- his music is so rich, so many-faceted, it has room for just about anyone. On April 3, you will hear what I—and Chorale—are able to do with this stupendous work, this time around.