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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - B
B is for 'B Minor Mass'

This is an extract from an interview with Sir Roger Norrington, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'.

Is seems an extraordinary thought but Bach almost certainly never heard the B minor Mass complete. From what we know about other composers - Mozart and Haydn to take examples, works were only normally completed if there was a performance in sight. Bach seems to have put together the B minor Mass without a planned performance, working on the first part from scratch and then drawing in many of his other compositions to create a complete, perfect mass. He spent his last years and months tinkering with it and making it perfect and perhaps, during these final years of his life, it was his aim to put it together for posterity.

Bach wasn't used to hearing big performances of his works and certainly the performances we hear now are on a much larger scale. His other music is strictly for Church use and this strays right outside the boundaries.

From the time he died until about 1829, Bach was only known for his keyboard pieces as lots of people had copies of them. The large works - the Passions, Cantatas, the Mass, Magnificat and Christmas Oratorio were never performed. It's a big contrast to our attitude to Bach now, where there are dozens of recordings and performances. The average music lover is now fantastically more knowledgeable about Bach than Brahms ever was! 

Sir Roger Norrington November 2005

    Read what others have said..

    moyeen islam
    Mass in B Minor was the first piece of choral music that I ever seriously listened to. I don't even know why I bought it - almost on a whim or a vague recommendation from a friend. But listening listening to the Kyrie is to listen ot one of the greatest experiences that anyone can have. It is pure, joyous, intense and above all filled with a spirit that seperates the great frm the good. Listen to it and revel in it. I envy anyone who hears it for the first time as to listen to Bach for the first time is to have a door to another wrold opened.

    Andrew Miller
    Bach's B-minor mass expresses the joy of life like few other pieces; if ever in despair, it never fails to restore the meaning of life. Who can be grumpy after hearing it? Even a grumpy, old atheist is revived back to youth and my first hearing of this magical piece. What a great performance from the 2000 proms!

    Christopher M Thomas, Kilburn, London
    I had the privilege of handling the autograph score of the 'so-ganannte H-moll Messe' at the Berlin Mendelssohn-Archiv under the watchful eye of Prof. Friedrich Smend in 1974. He demonstrated that it was written in two stages (the manuscript paper bound together was of two different sizes: Kyrie and Gloria in one size, then the rest quite a bit smaller). But more tellingly and amazingly, that Bach composed in 'fair copy' even when composing for a king: there was one single crossing-out in the whole work, where in the continuo part (I forget exactly where - someone could remind me?), he altered a note to avoid parallel octaves with the soprano. Any lesser mortal would have torn this one page up and 'copied' it out again!

    I was sent to a school in Massachusetts in 1956 where all the 220 students were required to sing 3 times a week. I was thirteen, and had only had some fairly bad piano lessons, but found myself sitting on a bench clutching the score of the B Minor Mass. Over the next 5 years I came to have an abiding love for this work, and it inspires and illuminates my life to this day.

    Frank-Willem Klokgieters, Amsterdam (The Netherlan
    During rehearsals for the b minor Mass our conductor explained the beginning of “et expecto resurectionem” as follows. Bach seems to wonder if it is really true before plunging into triumph. He wanted it to be performed in this way. The idea of Bach,, the icon of faith, expressing human doubts about the essence of his religion in what may be one of his most personal works is appealing to me. He was one of us after all. We do not know if he really meant it this way. It can also just be an expression of the mystery. But if so, is that so different from doubt? Anyway, this section remained one of the most striking of the Mass for me since then.

    Carl, Cambridge
    A monumental musical masterpiece! I shall enjoy singing it at my choir next year.

    Desmond Quinn Peterborough
    The greatest Choral Piece of all time!

    Moonyeen Albrecht, Shepherd, Michigan 48883
    When I was a graduate student in music at Northwestern University back in 1960 there was a music history teacher (Earl Bigelow) who played the B Minor Mass for students and demanded that they dress appropriately for the occasion. An enterprising young student created a loving cartoon book about this teacher called "The Bigelow Reader" and in it was a cartoon of two couples standing in front of Lutkin Hall, place of music history class. The couple in jeans and tee shirts said "We're going down to Orchestra Hall to hear the Chicago Symphony" and the couple in tuxedo and formal gown said "We're going to Lutkin Hall to hear a recording of the 'B Minor Mass.'"

    polly clarke, Coggeshall, Essex, UK.
    I sing with the Essex University Choir, and we are rehearsing Bach's Mass in B Minor for performances at Snape Concert Hall and in Norwich. It is wonderful when all of us sing together, like bathing in a lily pond on a hot summer's day. I visited his house in Eisenach a few years ago; it's a wonderful museum and there were letters from so many composers about Bach and what an important influence he had been on them. That the word Bach means Stream is totally appropriate, the music seemed to pour out of him all of his life.

    Mike Lucas Swansea
    This is not so much a recollection of listening to the work but of being part of a performance given by the London Bach Society and the Steinitz Bach players in the Thomaskirche in the days before reunification. The effect of singing in the Bach church was indescribable. We were positioned in the gallery looking out over the audience with the Bach grave in view. I certainly felt as if he was lending an ear to our performance. It was a privilege to be part of any Paul Steinitz performance but it is this one that sticks in my memory most. Many thanks to him for his amazing work for Bach's music.

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