Mass in B minor BWV 232
Conducted by Ifor Jones
Mass in B minor performed MMVPP by Bach Choir of Bethlehem
Aryeh Oron wrote (February 4, 2005):
I found the following article about a performance of the Mass in B minor by The Bach Choir of Bethlehem in 1946. The article is included in the book 'The Art of Judging Music', by Virgil Thomson (Alfred A Knopf: New York, 1948). The interesting observation by Virgil Thomson is that performing Bach's vocal works with big forces was unsuitable to Bach's intricate music. Please remember that the article was written almost 60 years ago, a long time before the current trend to small forces and OVPP.
Majestic but Inefficient
BACH CHOIR, OF BETHLEHEM, Ifor Jones conductor, performance of Bach's Mass in B minor last night at Carnegie Hall, with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the following assisting artists: Ruth Diehl, soprano; Lilian Knowles, contralto; Lucius Metz, tenor; Calvin Marsh, baritone; Edwin Steffe, bass; and E. Power Biggs, organist.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which has not visited New York in twenty-five years, brought its full effectives to Carnegie Hall last night. These consist nowadays of about two hundred choristers, trained and directed by Ifor Jones; some sixty members of the Philadelphia Orchestra; E. Power Biggs, organist; and the necessary vocal soloists, these last varying from season to season. The evening's music was the work that music lovers have long traveled in May to Bethlehem for hearing sung by this choir, Bach's Mass in B minor.
Let us praise last night's performance right off as the best of its kind this Bach lover has ever heard. Its kind is that invented by Mendelssohn, namely, a transformation, or distortion, or, if you like, transfiguration of Bach's intricate music for small forces into a massive Romantic oratorio like Mendelssohn's own Elijah or Saint Paul. The appropriateness of the operation need not be questioned, since for a century now it has been considered acceptable by music lovers all over the world. It has been recognized, however, for forty or more years as a distortion, and a grave one. This writer, for one, considers it unfortunate that so much devotion, sound musical skill, and publicity should be mobilized for the preserving of a tradition that has long been known to be historically and esthetically false.
The falsity lies in the inability of that number of executants to render this particular music, which is full of linear complexity, with a reasonable degree of exactitude. Any chorus of two hundred can make a majestic noise; and Mr. Jones's chorus makes the most agreeable, the most brilliant and bright-sounding choral fortissimo I have ever heard. But when they get to the intricate and rapid passages they go fuzzy, just like any other group that size. Moreover, the very grandeur and power with which they sing the choral numbers inevitably makes the solos sound puny.
Faced with this prospect, the soloists attempt to sing the arias louder than they can do correctly. Nobody living can sing those solos with power vocalism. They are fluid, florid, and melismatic; the only possible way to make them expressive, to stay on pitch, and to blend the vocal line with the instrumental obbligato that accompanies it is to sing lightly, with a marked nasal resonance. But this produces chamber music and makes the massive choir sound coarse. So the choral conductor cannot let them do it. Thus a full half of the Mass, the solo half, ends by sounding strained, incompetent, and foolish. Since a good half of the choral numbers are already overstuffed and not sounding at their best, this leaves only about one fourth of the work making the kind of musical clarity that we all know Bach's music should make.
Hearing the work at all, of course, is a major musical experience. And hearing even so much as a quarter of it sound for so frankly and so confidently as the Bethlehem group makes it do is reason for throwing anybody's hat in air. But how much rich and grander it would be if Mr. Jones would cut his chorus down about eighty per cent and his orchestra by half, spend more time and thought on the soloists, and move the whole thing to Town Hall. The benefit to Bach would be enormous.
February 19, 1946
Thomas Braatz wrote (February 4, 2005):
Aryeh Oron wrote: >>The article is included in the book 'The Art of Judging Music', by Virgil Thomson (Alfred A Knopf: New York, 1948). The interesting observation by Virgil Thomson is that performing Bach's vocal works with big forces was unsuitable to Bach's intricate music. Please remember that the article was written almost 60 years ago, a long time before the current trend to small forces and OVPP.<<
"It has been recognized, however, for forty or more years as a distortion, and a grave one....February 19, 1946<<
Without giving a specific reference when this distortion was recognized, Virgil Thomson makes it appear as if the period 1900 to 1906 marks the beginning of a rediscovery of the size of Bach's vocal and instrumental forces. Indeed, there are passages in Albert Schweitzer's "J. S. Bach" [first published in 1911, then Dover, 1966 English translation, Vol. 2, pp. 417 and 443] which eloquently address this issue.
In reality, according to Arnold Schering in his "Johann Sebastian Bachs Leipziger Kirchenmusik" [Leipzig, 1936, pp. 4 ff.] this battle was already being fought among the editors of the BGA, in particular Moritz Hauptmann and Wilhelm Rust who seem to have had many arguments about matters concerning "Bachs Aufführungspraxis" ["Bach's performance practices"] some of which spilled over into the introductions to some of the BGA volumes. In particular, Rust was able to benefit from some of the results of Philipp Spitta's research (in the form of historical documents that were being uncovered.) Schering then reports that after the turn of the century (1900) there was a deluge of smaller and larger publications dealing with this matter, the smallest portion of which dealt with the historical records and the largest attempted to solve performance practices for the present. There was hardly any Bach biography published during this time that did not touch upon this subject along with many others of this kind. In particular, Schering points to Schweitzer's book and for questions regarding the instrumentalists C.S. Terry's "Bach's orchestra" [1932}. Schering then proceeds, in his book, to define even more precisely the limited number of singers that should constitute a Bach choir, but it is Rifkin, based upon Schering's research who takes this issue to its ultimate extreme, OVPP.
Here from the Schweitzer's book and pages noted above are some of his comments from the 1st decade of the 20th century:
>>It is often debated whether large choirs are an advantage in the cantatas and Passions. It is hardly possible to give an unequivocal answer. It is obvious that Bach's music, with its complicated polyphony, does not aim at the same massive effects as Handel's. It would even be easy to name a number of works that for purely external reasons call for a choir of only moderate dimensions, - the cantatas, that is to say, in which Bach employs a solo violin or solo oboe with the chorus. In other works, internal considerations forbid the use of a large choir; by their very essence they are a kind of sacred chamber music. The works in which Bach wrote simply for the choir usually at his service - with three or four voices to a part, - are really much mnumerous than is generally supposed. Further it must be acknowledged that even Bach's largest and most powerful choruses are extremely effective with a small choir of really good voices - say six or eight to a part. Julius Stockhausen's experiences in this way with a choir of his pupils, in the St. John Passion, are extremely encouraging. The desire to hear Bach's works more frequently with the "original equipment" is therefore well justified. It is certain that his polyphony shows to the best advantage under these conditions.
On the other hand it would be a mistake to deny that there is some reason in, and some justification for, our large choirs, to which we have become so accustomed, and which are often called for by the size of the building in which we are giving Bach's work. Bach indeed never dreamed of a performance of the Gloria, the Et resurrexit and the Osanna of his B minor Mass by three or four hundred singers; nevertheless we may venture to perform them in this way, and it has been done successfully. We ought to recognise, however, that it is all a matter of chance. Even with a choir of hundred and fifty voices there is a danger of the lines of the vocal polyphony coming out too thickly and heavily in a way directly opposed to the nature of Bach's music. Audience and conductors often show, in this regard, a happy simplicity and modesty, They are satisfied with choral performances that are really more like a confused din than the polyphony of Bach, and that have not even the saving grace of mechanical precision. Siegfried Ochs has conclusively shown that this danger can be avoided, and that the same clarity, precision and delicacy can be obtained with large choirs as with small. In this respect the performances of the Berlin Philharmonic are an event in the history of Bach interpretation. With our large choirs, the dynamic nuances necessarily seem more sharply defined than in performances on the scale of those of Bach himself. In reality, only the broad and simple dynamic plans can come out. The conductor discovers, in the case of almost every work, that when the orchestra and organ enter he has to resign himself to the loss of many interesting nuances that he had set his heart on at rehearsal. In the choruses, as in the chorales, the range of dynamic possibilities is finally limited by the vivacity of the declamation.<<
>> Every voice in a Bach score counts for as much as the others. But this is true not only of the orchestral parts among themselves, but of these in relation to the voice parts. The flute part must come out just as clearly as that of the soprani in the choir. The true essence of a Bach score does not consist in the accompaniment of the chorus by the orchestra, but in the co-operation of a vocal mass and an instrumental mass of equal significance with it. In the performances under Bach himself, indeed, the orchestral part was in the ascendant; in a festival cantata there were eighteen or twenty instruments to twelve singers. But even on ordinary occasions he had at least as many first and second violins as soprani and alti, - if not more - as is shown by the fact that the parts for those instruments are frequently written out in duplicate, which is not often the case with the vocal parts; nor must we forget that the slighter tension of the bow in those days led to a much smaller tone being drawn from the violin than is customary today.
It is in this light that we must consider our present practice of performing Bach's cantatas with choirs of two hundred voices. It was mistakenly assumed to be self-evident that the orchestra should be quite weak in comparison with the choir, and should be practically inaudible when the latter entered. Those who were conscious of this disproportion felt the need for re-orchestration of the works, which they often carried out. The most natural solution of the problem, however, is to strengthen the instrumental parts in proportion to the numbers of the choir. There was nothing in the modern view to negate an increase in the number of the strings; but the advocates of re-orchestration made merry over the proposal to employ with a large choir a dozen oboes, a dozen flutes and half a dozen bassoons, and ridiculed the idea of asking a modern audience to listen to a "bellowing" of this kind. This, however, did not disconcert the advocates of performances in accordance with the original score. Siegfried Ochs in particular fought gallantly both with word and deed for the right principle; his performances have shown that it is possible to get an instrumental equivalent to a large chorus without any re-orchestration, simply by using the proper number of instruments, and that an orchestra of this kind, if efficiently handled, is not in the slightest degree unwieldy.
The old notion that Bach's music cannot be performed just as it is written will probably die out by degrees. We still, however, occasionally meet with a choral conductor who, when a beautiful cantata is recommended to him, immediately asks "whether there is an arrangement of it published" - which shows how our self-reliance has been destroyed by these "arranged" editions.<<
John Pike wrote (February 4, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote: "But even on ordinary occasions he had at least as many first and second violins as soprani and alti, - if not more - as is shown by the fact that the parts for those instruments are frequently written out in duplicate, which is not often the case with the vocal parts;"
He seems to be saying the opposite of the quotation that Thomas gave us yesterday, in which it was suggested that the choral parts for most of the cantatas were copied out at least twice. I questioned the veracity of that statement yesterday and I question it again now, given the quotation below, which seems to support what Rifkin/Parrott state and what I had come to believe. Can anyone clarify, preferably with statistics, please.
Continue of this part of the discussion, see: OVPP - Part 17 [General Topics]
Eric Bergerud wrote (February 4, 2005):
Aryeh Oron wrote: < I found the following article about a performance of the Mass in B minor by The Bach Choir of Bethlehem in 1946. The article is included in the book 'The Art of Judging Music', by Virgil Thomson (Alfred A Knopf: New York, 1948). The interesting observation by Virgil Thomson is that performing Bach's vocal works with big forces was unsuitable to Bach's intricate music. Please remember that the article was written almost 60 years ago, a long time before the current trend to small forces and OVPP.
Majestic but Inefficient
The falsity lies in the inability of that number of executants to render this particular music, which is full of linear complexity, with a reasonable degree of exactitude. Any chorus of two hundred can make a majestic noise; and Mr. Jones's chorus makes the most agreeable, the most brilliant and bright-sounding choral fortissimo I have ever heard. But when they get to the intricate and rapid passages they go fuzzy, just like any other group that size. Moreover, the very grandeur and power with which they sing the choral numbers inevitably makes the solos sound puny. >
Thankee Aryeh for the Thompson review of the Mass in B. When I was in collage Thompson was a pretty regular guest on upscale talk shows and he was always fascinating. I recently bought Bernstein's SMP (BWV 244) (was interested in the English angel) and had exactly the same opinion that Thompson showed toward the Mass. With the large chorus employed by Lenny (certainly not 200, but big) the work is plagued by muddy passages that are nearly impossible to understand in one's own language. OVPP or not, the smaller forces encouraged by HIP have been a blessing for such works.
Bob Henderson wrote (February 5, 2005):
Bach Choir of Bethlehem (PA)
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks so much for providing the 60 year old review of the Bach Choir at Carnegie Hall.
I was fortunate to be a student at Lehigh University which is located in Bethlehem, PA. The yearly Bach festival there and is an outgrowth of the Moravian presence in Beand their musical tradition. The festival is held in the Lehigh Chapel and it was there that I had my first contact with live Bach and the BMM to boot. The windows to the chapel were always open and we sat on the lawn. Next year we got tickets and were inside. With Ifor Jones conducting.
A powerful experience. The Choir is made up of about 100 local people, a real cross section. Moving and formative. It goes to show that musical experience comes in all forms and transcends fads and movements. As much as I like HIP today.
I believe the BC of Bethlehem was the first to perform the BMM in the United States 120 years ago. Again, thanks for the memories
Bradley Lehman wrote (February 5, 2005):
< Bethlehem, PA. The yearly Bach festival there and is an outgrowth of the Moravian presence in Bethlehem and their musical tradition. A powerful experience. The Choir is made up of about 100 local people, a real cross section. Moving and formative. It goes to show that musical experience comes in all forms and transcends fads and movements. >
Their BMM was published on a set of Book-of-the-Month LPs many years ago. I remember checking out my public library's copy of that some half dozen times. Did that performance ever make it to CD? It started, as their local tradition had it, with the playing of some Moravian chorales leading into the opening Kyrie...a nifty way to give the singers the starting pitch....
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (February 5, 2005):
Bob Henderson wrote: < The festival is held in the Lehigh Chapel and it was there that I had my first contact with live Bach and the BMM to boot. The windows to the chapel were always open and we sat on the lawn. Next year we got tickets and were inside. With Ifor Jones conducting. >
Some decades ago I had the unexpected pleasure of attending one of their four day (it was four days or less, long time ago) festivals. I say "unexpected" as there was a guy who had an extra ticket and of course this was before the internet (there really was such a time). He advertised in The Village Voice (NYC counter-culture newspaper) that anyone deeply interested in Bach could have the ticket and a ride with him to boot. What a nice thing to do. It was a great experience.
Teri Noel Towe wrote (February 6, 2005):
[To Bob Henderson] For many years, I went regularly to Bethlehem for the annual Festival, and, like Mr. Henderson, have many fond memories.
The performance of the Mass that David Willcocks conducted on a brutally hot May Saturday afternoon in 1985 was one of the most astonishing performances I ever have been blessed to hear.
I vividly recall seeing a television broadcast of the Mass on 'PBS in the early 1970s. The conductor was Alfred Mann, a Bach scholar-performer who is better known as a Handel scholar-performer. If only the videotapes could be found! The performance would make a lovely DVD, at least for those of us who are receptive to non-HIP performance forces.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem still is a potent advocate for Bach and a powerful listening experience. Its activities now extend far beyond the annual spring weekend series of concerts at Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University.
No matter what one's philosophy, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem provides good music, well performed.
The Choir has a website at: http://www.bach.org/
PS: The custom of intoning the chorale offstage as a lead in to the "Kyrie" of the Mass has, alas, been done away with.
Doug Cowling wrote (February 6, 2005):
Teri Noel Towe wrote: < The Bach Choir of Bethlehem still is a potent advocate for Bach and a powerful listening experience. Its activities now extend far beyond the annual spring weekend series of concerts at Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University. >
Among their educational offerings this season, they mounted the stage version of the Classical Kids production of "Mr. Bach Come To Town" in which a modern child meets Bach and explores his music.
Although I wasn't on that project, I've written two Baroque offerings, "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery" and "Hallelujah Handel", both of which are touring the US and Canada and are available as CDs (Naxos) and books (Scholastic Press)
IMHO, an engaging way to introduce children to classical music. Keep those retail sales high!
[end of shameless self-promotion]
Ifor Jones: Short Biography | Bach Choir of Bethlehem | Recordings | BWV 232 - Ifor Jones