Conquering the B Minor Mass

The Bach B Minor Mass takes Olympian fortitude to learn and perform. In this interview with conductor and historian Dennis Shrock, we take a look at the history of the work and what singers can do to make the performance experience easier on themselves.

The B Minor Mass is often rated by singers as one of their all-time favorite choral pieces. This is interesting because many people often complain about how difficult the piece is. But maybe it's like the pain of childbirth: You forget how hard it was when it's over because you become focused on the "child"—the beauty of the piece.

Indeed, to do justice to the work you need the heart of an Olympian. We spoke with choral conductor and historian Dennis Shrock to get his insights on overcoming the B Minor Mass' many challenges.

CHORUS AMERICA: The B Minor Mass seems like a mix of so many different types of music. How did this piece come to be?

DENNIS SHROCK: The work as a whole and the different types or styles of music came about because Bach wanted to demonstrate his mastery of both Lutheran and Catholic genres that were prevalent during his time.

Bach was a Lutheran and composed for the Lutheran church almost exclusively. Most of that was vocal work—cantatas for the regular Sunday service, a handful of motets, a magnificat, a couple of passions and four of what are called missae—masses that consist only of the Kyrie and Gloria portions of the Roman Ordinary.

In St. Thomas church, where Bach was the kantor [the choirmaster and organist], they performed the "Kyrie" and the "Gloria" (the missa) in Greek and Latin and the rest of the service was in German. These are wonderful works, divided into solo and choral movements and really quite long—about 30 or 40 minutes—but they are only Kyries and Glorias.

Bach never had an occasion to write a Catholic mass, except once for a job application. In 1733, the position at the Dresden Court, which was Catholic, came open and Bach applied for it. It is presumed that he assembled already-written pieces and wrote some new music and sent it off to show that he could write a Catholic mass.

CA: It's so interesting to think of someone like Bach, who many of us deify, as a working stiff. So what happened? Did he get the job?

DS: He was not selected for the position right then. However, about a year and a half later, he did get a minor position when the hofkapellmeister at Dresden died. From 1736 until his death in 1750, Bach served as unofficial court composer. Remember, he already had one of the most prestigious jobs in all of Germany [kantor at St. Thomas].

CA: So why did he want this other job?

DS: He was always applying for jobs. His entire life he did that. He wanted to better his circumstances, whatever that may have meant. It was in his personality to keep on striving for something more.

CA: So Bach did not conceive of the B Minor Mass as a complete work to be performed.

DS: Right. There have been lots of conjectures over the years about dating the composition of the disparate portions of the B Minor Mass, but research these days is pretty much in agreement that the "Sanctus" was written for Christmas Day 1724, the "Missa" (the "Kyrie" and "Gloria") in 1733, and the remainder between 1747 and 1749. No one really knows when the assemblage actually took place. We call it the B Minor Mass but officially it is referred to as the "so-called B Minor Mass." Bach called it by its disparate parts: "Missa," "Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)," "Sanctus," "Osanna," "Benedictus," "Agnus Dei," and "Dona Nobis Pacem."

CA: So where does the B Minor Mass fit into the whole body of Bach's work?

DS: It's important to note that he assembled the Mass at the end of his life and that he wanted to show his mastery in all the prevalent styles of the time. Consequently, we have Baroque styles that were common throughout Germany and we have Renaissance styles that were prevalent in Catholic repertoire. Representative of the Baroque German styles are the concerted movements such as can be seen in the beginning and ending movements of the "Gloria," the fugues (such as the opening "Kyrie"), and the soloistic styles of the arias. Representative Renaissance styles are the point-of-imitation polyphonic movements such as the second "Kyrie," "Gratias," and "Confiteor."

CA: What is it that singers confront when they come to this monumental work?

DS: It is epic. It is often equated with some of the more recent epics like Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or the Mahler Symphony No. 8, in that it is so demanding and there is so much music there. Other favorite choral pieces are different in that way. When we think of the Mozart Requiem, for example, there is just not that much music there, nor is its scope as grand. The first thing a choral singer faces with the B Minor Mass is the amount of music and the challenge of the music. So the question is, how do you meet the challenges and come out in the end not too damaged?

Just as an athlete prepares, a choral singer should prepare. You should not go into any rehearsal vocally fatigued or not warmed up. It is really critical to warm up and to do exercises that are germane to the work itself—fast passage work that is light and will get the vocal mechanism ready. And then pacing oneself is really important. One can easily peak too soon or give too much and wear oneself out.

The first "Kyrie" is eight or nine minutes long, then you get to the "Gloria" and it is so exciting, it is easy to give your all. But then you have the "Credo" and then there is the "Sanctus," which is the hardest of all. So I think pacing is a critical issue, more so than in most of the other great choral masterpieces.

To sing this piece, you need a vocalism compatible with the Baroque style and you also need different kinds of vocal articulations. You can't bring a Modern, post-Romantic voice to the rehearsals or performances and you can't use your voice the same way in every part of it.

I remember my first B Minor Mass performance as a college student. [The performance] was big and heavy and dark; everything was diaphragmatically produced. It was hideous. I remember saying to the director, "If this piece is so great, why does it sound so bad?" Nothing could be that hard and that rough and that punched and that overwrought and still be called great. It did not compute. Over the years, I realized that [performing it heavily] was the wrong approach. No one today is going to try to diaphragmatically produce every single note.

CA: You mean in those long, fast sections? It would be impossible to sing each note heavily.

DS: It is impossible. Fortunately, we have gone beyond that. One of the newest areas of performance practice is concerned with metric accentuation: looking at the strong and the weak beats, and the long and the short. With four beats per measure, we know that beat two is the weakest, so you have long, short, long, short. If you can move from strong beat to strong beat and lessen the other beats, you have done a great service to your vocal health. You are not giving equal stress to each note—that is an enormous help when singing this piece.

You need to be able to use throat articulations on those long, fast passages. Singers during the Baroque era were facile at articulating melismas and ornamental passages (called passagi) with a light kind of ricochet mechanism that was produced in the throat. Keep in mind that the Baroque singers were famous for their ability to sing incredibly complex and fast ornaments. If needed, singers would use their tongues to help articulation.

CA: Singing the B Minor Mass seems like going on a journey—it's exhilarating in parts, difficult, and, yes, even boring in some parts. But it seems with the B Minor Mass, the effort is worth it.

DS: That's what makes it an epic masterpiece. For singers to have the experience of joy singing this piece, preparation and pacing is the key. You need to get your mind and your body ready to do this. That is the most important thing. If choral singers would just sit down and look at the piece, from beginning to end, they would come to lots of understanding about how best their body can do it.

Given that there are so many challenges in the B Minor Mass, there are that many more responsibilities. If it were an Olympic athletic event, each choral singer should go into it like a Michael Phelps. I mean that sincerely. Then there is the possibility of matching the performance experience with the greatness of the piece.