Behind the Musik: Bach B-Minor Mass

Download the Program Notes and Program Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
By Charlotte Nediger

In the last years of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach set about composing and compiling a series of works that would represent a summation of his life’s work. The works were written, not for specific occasions, but rather as a testimonial to his achievements, and include The Musical Offering, The Art of the Fugue, The Goldberg Variations, and the eighteen chorale preludes. The last to be composed was the Mass in B Minor. Much has been written as to why Bach, a devout Lutheran, would have chosen a setting of the Roman Catholic Ordinary as a testament to his choral work. A plausible explanation is that Bach wished to leave to posterity a great Latin mass, a centuries-old symbol of Western culture, and a musical form that had challenged generations of composers. The tradition and the architecture of the Roman mass gave him the opportunity to write a complex, highly structured work, with a formality and on a scale not permitted by the Lutheran cantatas and Passions. Like those of the other great cyclical works mentioned above, the score of the Mass in B Minor can be seen almost as a “text book.” It was, in fact, never performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime. Bach’s score was inherited by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who performed the Symbolum Nicenum at a charity concert in Hamburg in 1786. Forkel and Haydn had copies, and Beethoven made two unsuccessful attempts to procure a score. The Berlin Singakademie apparently rehearsed the work in the second decade of the nineteenth century, but the first performance of the complete work, translated into German and “modernized,” took place in Leipzig in 1859, more than a century after it was written.

One of the most astonishing features of this work is that, despite its elaborate symmetry and complexity, it is largely a compilation of works written much earlier. The first section to be composed was the Sanctus, first performed in 1724 as part of the Lutheran Christmas service. Manuscript parts of the Kyrie and the Gloria accompanied Bach’s petition in 1733 for a court title to the new Elector of Saxony in Dresden. Two new sections, the Credo and the movements from the Osanna to the end, contain large-scale reworkings of earlier works, including movements from several of Bach’s German cantatas. Only a few choruses were newly composed. It does not seem, however, that early models were chosen in order to facilitate or hasten the compositional process, a practice that was common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as composers struggled to meet deadlines. Bach’s reworkings were extensive and detailed: even details of text accentuation and resulting changes in articulation have been fully considered. It seems rather that Bach’s use of early material was carefully planned, so that this “text book” score could preserve a vast range of styles and genres. It is a remarkable demonstration of Bach’s great skill at reworking and restructuring existing works. It was also a testament to the tradition of the parody mass: parody is the term used to describe the extensive reuse of existing material, and this technique was widely used in mass composition during the renaissance. Parody masses form a large proportion of the masses of such composers as Gombert, Victoria, Lassus, and Palestrina. Bach’s use of the renaissance stile antico in several movements of the mass is a further nod to the long tradition of mass composition, here ingeniously coupled with movements written in high baroque style, and others in a “modern,” galant musical language.

Bach’s manuscript score of the Credo, described by Nägeli as “truly the most amazing piece of music in existence […] the awakening of the powers of faith through the wondrous force of music.”
Bach’s manuscript score of the Credo, described by Nägeli as “truly the most amazing piece of music in existence […] the awakening of the powers of faith through the wondrous force of music.”
From this diverse material Bach created a coherent and balanced work, each of the four main parts presented in a symmetrical design complete unto itself, and yet all parts intricately interconnected. This complex work, which both challenges and satisfies on countless levels, is perhaps the ultimate expression of Bach’s belief that “the aim or final goal of all music shall be nothing but the honour of God and the recreation of the Soul.”

The autograph manuscript score of the Mass in B Minor is in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Mus. Ms. Bach P180), and can be viewed on their website. After Bach’s death, the score was inherited by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and then by CPE’s daughter, Anna Carolina. Hans Georg Nägeli, a composer and music publisher in Zurich, acquired the score from her estate in 1805, and in 1818 announced his plans to publish the score and sell it by subscription:

ANNOUNCEMENT
of the Greatest Work of Art of All Times and Nations
The incomparably great Johann Sebastian Bach has now, in our own time, been accorded a degree of recognition that makes it possible to proceed toward the publication of the work that, in content and length alone, but above all in grandeur, style, and wealth of invention, surpasses his works hitherto printed, to the same extent that these, without considering the vicissitudes of taste and the contingency of art forms, surpass those by all other composers. This is a Mass in five voices with full orchestra.


PROGRAM LISTING

Directed by Ivars Taurins

April 5–8, 2018, Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre
April 10, 2018, George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

Mass in B Minor

Dorothee Mields soprano
Laura Pudwell mezzo-soprano
Charles Daniels tenor
Tyler Duncan baritone

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra

There will be a 20-minute intermission between the Missa and the Symbolum Nicenum.

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Get to know Susan Suchard, soprano

Soprano Susan Suchard has been a member of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir since 2003. She teaches voice in her private studio at Trinity-St. Paul’s, and conducts the Preparatory Chorus of the VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, for whom she also serves as General Manager. 

How did you come to be a singer?
I grew up singing in church. When I was young my family attended a Brethren church in London, Ontario. There was no piano or organ played in services. One of the elders, always a man, would stand up and “call out” a hymn. He would then proceed to sing the first line and everyone would join in. My brother, sister, and I would giggle when the singing got into dangerously high or low ranges, which it often did.

Then, in elementary school, I was inspired by Mrs. Sheila Schaus, the itinerant music teacher. I loved when she came into the classroom. Her perfume was exotic and she wore bangles that jangled when she conducted.

In high school, there was no vocal music program, so I took up the French horn, an instrument that allowed me to create lovely lyric singing lines (when I wasn’t required to play off-beat quarter notes!).

I became a horn major at Western University and began studying voice on the side. I did as much playing as I could in large ensembles and quintets, but each year I also sang in one of the Faculty of Music’s choirs. In my fourth year, I joined the Opera Workshop, and after singing Pamina in The Magic Flute and Blanche in The Dialogues of the Carmelites, I gave up the French horn to concentrate solely on singing. [Editor’s note: Tafelmusik Chamber Choir Director Ivars Taurins was playing viola in the orchestra for those operas at Western!]

What was your first music gig?
My first paid gig was as a horn player in the London Musicians’ Union Marching Band at the Western Fair in London, Ontario. I suppose my first unpaid gig was as the student music director of a high school musical for children called The Lion Who Wouldn’t starring Tom McCamus, now of Stratford Festival fame, and Nancy Palk, one of the founding members of Soulpepper Theatre.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Both of my parents played piano very well by ear. I learned to play too, and I read well enough to accompany my voice students, but sadly I did not inherit their skill at just sitting down and rattling off a tune. At any party or event, one of my parents could often be found leading a sing-along. To this day, my dad can’t pass a piano, in an airport, restaurant, or on the street in Huntsville, without sitting down to show off his party pieces.

What is your favourite music to listen to?
I am a sucker for a sad beautiful tune. I love the ballads from musicals and standards. I’ve always wanted to put together a cabaret show, but, because the songs I love are all sad, I’m not sure anyone would want to sit through them! 

What are the last 3 recordings you’ve listened to?
In trying to help one of my students find repertoire for a grade 9 Royal Conservatory examination: Bach’s “Ich nehme mein Leiden mit Freuden auf mich,” Fauré’s Au bord de l’eau, and Jean Coulthard’s Quiet.

What is your favourite thing to do in Toronto during your free time?
During my daily 45-minute drive to Trinity-St. Paul’s, I like to listen to audio books, with a decaf latte in the cup holder.

What’s your favourite restaurant in Toronto?

I like to try a new restaurant every time I go out downtown, but a trusty standby in the east end is The Real Jerk on Kingston Road.

Where is your own, personal, oasis in Toronto?
I’m fortunate enough to have a lovely, leafy back garden with lots of shady space. Last summer, my husband built a swanky new deck, so I’m looking forward to getting out there again in the spring. Otherwise, my daughter and I like to have a spa day every now and then at the Elmwood.

Are you involved with any other organizations?
When I’m not singing or teaching in my studio at Trinity-St. Paul’s, you’ll find me in the basement, also at Trinity-St. Paul’s, in the office of the VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto with my general manager’s hat on.

Where do you see yourself ten years in the future?
I’m itching to be in front of an adult choir as a conductor. I enjoy working with children’s choirs, and have done all my life, but I am really feeling the urge to work with an SATB or SSA group. I have a church soloist job and, when the organist is away, I step in as conductor. Each time I do it, I realize how much I enjoy the experience.


Hear Susan sing with Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra in BACH B-MINOR MASS, from April 5–8, at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, and on April 10 at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available here.