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Bach - The Mass in B minor
The Mass in B minor holds a very special place in J.S. Bach’s output: a work of grandeur, an opus ultimum, it was not composed as such but is the result of an assembly of pieces written at different times and for different circumstances. Bach worked on it during the years 1748-1749, until his eyesight, which had gradually deteriorated, was completely lost - a letter of recommendation for his son Johann Christoph Friedrich, dated 17 December 1749, was written by Anna Magdalena, who imitated his signature. It was rumoured in Leipzig that the cantor’s health had deteriorated to such an extent that the city council, on the orders of the all-powerful minister of Saxony, auditioned a conductor from Dresden on 8 June 1749, who had been recommended to him for “the future post of cantor of St. Thomas if the director musices Sebastian Bach should pass away”. By this time Bach was working on his Mass, which was larger than anything that had ever been conceived before. His rather pale successor had to wait another year to replace him, Bach having died on 28 July 1750.
A monumental mass
The idea of bringing together pieces drawn essentially from the vast corpus of cantatas was not unusual; a similar approach was taken by several of his contemporaries, such as Handel, and Bach himself had done so for the short masses he composed in the late 1730s. These were called parodies. Moving from the German text of the cantatas to the Latin text of the masses meant adapting the vocal lines, with additions and deletions, polyphonic and harmonic enrichments, and changes in instrumentation. Throughout his life, Bach never ceased to revisit his works with a view to improving them.
Imagining the production of a monumental Mass, which can be seen as a musical testament to him, Bach began by exploring the repertoire of his own music, while studying various Masses by other composers that were available to him (and among the scores he studied was Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, which he himself had adapted). He decided above all to use a mass (Missa in Lutheran language) composed in 1733 after the death on February 1 of Augustus the Strong, ruler of Lutheran Saxony, on which Leipzig and Catholic Poland depended. It consisted, as was the case with the Lutheran masses, of the Kyrie and the Gloria, the music of which was largely original (only four of the nine pieces in the Gloria come from earlier compositions). But Bach wanted to compose a Mass with the different parts of the Catholic Ordinary, with the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Faced with the magnitude of the two movements of the Missa, each as impressive as the other, Bach was compelled to write a large Credo.
The 1733 Kyrie was conceived as a tribute to the deceased, with the Gloria celebrating his successor, who was none other than his own son (they were both great advocates of the arts). It is not known whether the work was performed in Leipzig, or whether it was created in the capital of Saxony. Apparently not, no document mentions it. In any case, the score was sent to the new ruler at the end of July, with the separate parts that several members of the Bach family had hastily copied; it was accompanied by a request in which the cantor complained of the “affronts” suffered in Leipzig, hoping to strengthen his position by obtaining a position as court composer, a purely honorary position that carried no obligation. A month earlier he had had his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, appointed as organist of St. Sophia Cathedral in Dresden. However, Frederick Augustus II was then caught up in the war of succession for the Polish throne, which was being contested. Bach’s request, reiterated three years later, came to fruition as he was battling with the new rector of St. Thomas and the Leipzig Council, whom the sovereign ultimately ordered that Bach be allowed to exercise his musical authority.
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 The Mass in B minor lasts about one hour and forty minutes, making it a very unusual work, which could not be integrated into a religious ceremony. Zelenka’s Missa votiva, which dates from 1739 and has a structure quite similar to Bach’s, lasts a little over an hour (Zelenka, whose music Bach knew, was a composer at the court of Dresden).
 In addition to the Missa of 1733 discussed here, Bach composed four Lutheran masses (consisting only of a Kyrie and a Gloria): BWV 233 to 236.
Ten singers for a Mass in B minor
For years now, musicology and musicians have been addressing the question of the vocal forces that Johann Sebastian Bach had at his disposal for his cantatas and passions. With the help of occasionally newly discovered sources and in-depth studies, we have been able to find enlightening answers to a problem that is essential for the interpretation of his music. In this context, it seems important to me to make it clear that we did not approach the Mass in B minor if with an ensemble of ten singers for the sake of authenticity, nor to assert our point of view on how things should or should not be done. We sometimes forget in the quest for authenticity that musicians, then as now, have always been pragmatic and have always been willing to adapt to different constraints: budgets, tuning forks, numbers, available instruments, etc. Historical reality alone is therefore not systematically a notion as relevant as all that, and we have no ambition to take part in the often-fascinating debates that such research gives rise to. If our work can contribute to the development of certain points of view, give relevance to others, cause people to react, and help the progress of certain ideas and convictions, so much the better, but our own motivations are different.
From its creation in 2005, Gli Angeli Genève has approached Bach’s music with two singers per part: i. e. eight singers for most of the cantatas, eight singers for the St John Passion, sixteen for the St Matthew Passion and its two choirs (as our recording published by Claves in April 2020 shows), ten for the Magnificat (where the choirs have five parts) or for the Mass in B minor (where a complement of twelve singers would be more logical because of the six-part Sanctus). Two singers per part in the choirs is the number of singers in Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach’s choir for many of his great oratorios, and the number of singers in Joseph Haydn’s choir for many of his masses. But here again, these historical realities are not the basis of our approach and choice. A musician may be justified in his need to legitimize his aesthetic choices by his knowledge of history, but if the search for authenticity becomes the sole driving force behind his work, he may go astray. It is therefore another factor that attracts and motivates us.
In Bach’s time, singers in Leipzig, regardless of their precise numbers, sang in front of the instrumentalists and not behind them. Religious music existed according to the verb it magnified, since instrumentalists and singers shared the same language and culture at the time. By placing the singers in front of the instruments today, as we do with Gli Angeli Genève, we are restoring the word to its rightful place: the first, the one that founds and inspires this vocal music. And if the choir sings in front of the instruments, it doesn’t need to have many members, as the balance between voice and orchestra is much easier to achieve. That is the difference between the classical position of a large choir behind the instruments, the layout with which my generation grew up, listened, played, sung and learned this music, and which is still the most common today in churches and concert halls.
Finally, two voices singing the same part cannot merge into a single sound or a single colour of register, as is already possible with three. This is a far cry from the fullness of sound of the great Romantic choir. On the other hand, the voices of such an ensemble are more individualised, both in sound and interpretation. In the case of Gli Angeli Genève, they are the voices of a group of friends who have decided to sing together, and to let their respective timbres express their happiness and pleasure in letting music speak for itself.
Gli Angeli Geneva was founded in 2005 by Stephan MacLeod. A formation of varying size, playing on period instruments (or copies thereof), the ensemble is made up of musicians who have careers in the field of baroque music, but who are not only active in this field: they do not play solely early music. Their eclecticism guarantees the vitality of their enthusiasm. It is also a driving force behind their curiosity.
Right from the beginning of a musical adventure that for several years concentrated solely on live performances of the complete Bach Cantatas in Geneva, with three concerts per season, Gli Angeli Genève has been the setting for encounters between some of the most famous singers and instrumentalists of the international baroque scene and young graduates of the High Schools of Music of Basel, Lyon, Lausanne and Geneva.
Internationally acclaimed since the release in 2009 and 2010 of its first two CDs, which won numerous critical awards, the ensemble now gives seven or eight concerts per season in Geneva, as part of its Complete Bach Cantatas on the one hand, a series of annual concerts at the Victoria Hall on the other, and since September 2017 in a new complete series dedicated to Haydn’s Symphonies. The ensemble is equally in demand in Switzerland and abroad for performances not only of Bach, but also Tallis, Josquin, Schein, Schütz, Johann Christoph Bach, Weckmann, Buxtehude, Rosenmüller, Haydn, Mozart and others. In recent seasons, Gli Angeli Genève has been in residence at the Utrecht Festival and the Thüringer Bachwochen, and has also performed in Basel, Zurich, Lucerne, Barcelona, Nürnberg, Bremen, Stuttgart, Brussels, Milan, Wroclaw, Paris, Ottawa, Vancouver, Amsterdam and The Hague. Gli Angeli Genève is a regular guest at the Festival de Saintes, Utrecht festival, the Musikfest in Bremen or the Bach Festival in Vancouver. The ensemble made its debut in 2017 at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva and in 2019 at the KKL in Lucerne.
Gli Angeli Genève’s penultimate recording for Claves, Sacred Music of the 17th Century in Wroclaw, won the 2019 ICMA prize for best vocal baroque music recording of the year, and his latest, The St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, is receiving an enthusiastic reception, both from the public and critics, in Switzerland and around the world.
All texts translated from French by Isabelle Watson