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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Further Listening – Let Us All Sing!

by Ivars Taurins, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir Director

If you enjoyed our concert program Let Us All Sing!, featuring Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, and Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone, and Philippe Gagné, tenor, I encourage you to explore some of the following:

George Frideric Handel
The Laudate Pueri on our concert program is thought to have been part of a larger work composed by Handel while visiting Rome in 1707. It was a commission to compose music for a Vespers service in celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for an order of Carmelite nuns at their Church of Santa Maria di Monte Santo. One of the most striking pieces in Handel’s “Carmelite Vespers” is his DIxit Dominus, and within it the most exquisite and sensual movement, setting the words “de torrente in via bibet” – (He shall drink of the brook in the way), for two sopranos, male choir singing chant, and strings.

De torrente in via bibet” from Dixit Dominus (Elin Manahan Thomas & Grace Davidson, the Sixteen, dir. Harry Christophers). The whole of Dixit can be seen here in a live performance with John Eliot Gardiner directing the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
For me, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music is the epitome of the French baroque movement in music, but is also a harbinger of the orchestral colours, textures, and harmonies which reappear generations later in the music of Debussy and Ravel, and brings to mind the works of the great French impressionist painters of over a century later.

If you track down Gardiner’s ground-breaking 2002 recording of Les Boréades, have a listen to “Que ces moments sont doux” from Act V, scene v: 1 minute, 10 seconds of overwhelming beauty and sensuality.

Listen to Entrée de Polymnie from the same opera…divine. And, if you want something which, at the beginning, sounds like something from another century
( hints of Stravinsky! ), try The Overture to Zaïs: specifically the first selection of the live concert at The Proms (0:00 – 4:54). You can also try this recording  of Les Musiciens du Louvre, directed by Marc Minkowski, with modern art!

Agostino Steffani
I admit that up until three years ago, Steffani’s music was unknown to me. It was due to the groundbreaking research and consummate artistry of Cecilia Bartoli that I discovered the amazing riches of this obscure Italian composer, working at court of Hannover, for the future King George I of England.

Here is Bartoli’s video project about Steffani, entitled “Mission,” and info from her website about the project. Here are a couple of examples of Steffani’s ravishing music for voice: “Morirò” from Henrico Leone and “T’abbraccio mia Diva” from Niobe, regina di Tebe.

You can watch and listen to all of these videos on our YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/tafelmusik1979 in the playlist titled Further Listening – Let Us All Sing!

Memories of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir

By Peter Mahon, countertenor

As the longest serving member of the choir (hands up all those who remember me from the 1980s!), I have been asked to write about my memories of the choir over the last 35 years. As you might imagine, there are many from which to choose over that length of time. The problem is to decide which ones to talk about.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, 2001
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, 2001

I could mention the growth and development of the choir from an essentially amateur ensemble with a quartet of paid section leaders to a fully professional group.

There was our first recording in 1987, for Hyperion Records with soprano Emma Kirkby. We recorded in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene … in February, in the freezing cold because the heat was turned off to stop the pipes banging. We were all wearing winter coats, hats, and scarves. Not pleasant, but it was worth it.

Vivaldi Cantatas, Concertos & Magnificat, 1987
Vivaldi Cantatas, Concertos & Magnificat, 1987

There was the incredible expansion of our performance schedule around the same time. I was working in the office and got to witness it first-hand. The demand for tickets was like an avalanche. In very short order we went from two concerts per project to five. We went to Massey Hall for the Sing-Along Messiah for the first time. Our first year we had 1,500 people and of course, now we sell out with scalpers outside the hall.

We have been fortunate to work with many great guest conductors: Gustav Leonhardt, Andrew Parrott, Richard Egarr, Sigiswald Kuijken, Nicholas McGegan, Ton Koopman, Bruno Weil, and Kent Nagano, to name a few.

Kuijken worked with us in 2002 while the Salt Lake City Olympics were going on. I will always remember the look of puzzlement on his face when he saw everyone on stage smiling near the end of the Sunday afternoon concert. What he could not see was Elly Winer standing at the back of the hall with his hands held up showing the final score of the gold medal hockey game, Canada 5 – USA 2.

After the concert, everyone rushed downstairs to the men’s dressing room. As the guys were undressing, the ladies all barged in to watch the medal presentation on the small b&w television that we had brought in. As the Canadian flag was being raised, in various stages of undress, we sang one of the finest renditions of O Canada that you will ever hear.

For many reasons the choir does not do much touring. However, we have been to Montreal twice recently. First, to sing the Bach B-Minor Mass with the orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano. It was during the month of January and we got to experience the kind of winter that we don’t normally get in Toronto. It was 25 below zero for the entire week. We were very glad that we could walk from the hotel to the hall without going outside.

A couple of years later, Maestro Nagano paid the choir the singular honour of inviting us to take part in the opening concert of Montreal’s new Maison Symphonique in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with OSM and OSM Chorus.

It was quite a change from one of our early tour in the mid-1980s. We went to Michigan to sing two performances of Messiah. In Detroit, we sang in a 2,000-seat hall. The most memorable part of the performance,  and indeed of the tour, was the rapturous applause that we received at the end of the concert from our audience of 23 people. The concert promoters probably should have spent a little more on marketing. We have certainly come a long way since then.

As a new parent in 1981, I would not have imagined that I would still be singing with Tafelmusik in 2016. It has afforded me my favourite memory, namely the pride and pleasure of performing with two of my children and my son-in-law, each of whom has been a member of the choir in recent years.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir members, 2016/17. L-R: Paul Oros and Joel Allison, bass; Peter Mahon, alto; Daniel Webb, tenor; Meghan Moore, soprano.
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir members, 2016/17. L-R: Paul Oros and Joel Allison, bass; Peter Mahon, countertenor; Daniel Webb, tenor; Meghan Moore, soprano. Photo: Sian Richards

Finally, it has been a great pleasure to get to know many of you through the years and an honour to perform for you. It is always a special moment to walk out on stage at the beginning of a Tafelmusik concert, being greeted with your warm applause and the friendly smiles on so many familiar faces. I look forward to forging more happy memories for all of us in the years to come.

Join us for Let Us All Sing!, November 5-6 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.