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Bach's Missa in B Minor

This sounds as if it should be a repertoire issue, but I thought I'd put this message in this forum because it's partly a followup to my message of 10th November about notation getting in the way, and follows on directly from the comment in that message that our choir was rehearsing the Missa in B Minor (i.e. the Kyrie and Gloria sections that he wrote as a complete work in 1733).
Firstly, thanks to the many informative responses to that message, all of which I will be taking on board. But it appears there might be another answer to the question of how to get an amateur choral society singing difficult music: make sure that music is Bach.
I've conducted choirs for decades, but never have I had an experience quite like this. The Missa (never mind the whole Mass) is one of the most notoriously difficult works in the choral repertoire, and for a couple of reasons our rehearsal period was cut from 11 or 12 weeks to seven. We started with some trepidation, and some of the first sopranos voted with their feet during the first three or so weeks. Fortunately enough were left to carry the part.
The planned schedule involved long sectional rehearsals during the first month, so that the individual choral parts could thoroughly master their parts before we put the whole marvellous machine together. After the first two rehearsals we scaled these sectionals down, and quickly thereafter phased them out altogether. It quickly became evident that the way to rehearse this music, at least for our choir, was simply to repeat it over and over again in full rehearsals rather than sectionals, because the wonderful musical logic that is just one of Bach's supreme achievements can only be appreciated when each of the individual glorious melodies is contextualised with the other three or four. Our untrained singers, many of whom lack the sight-reading skills to (strictly speaking) be able to perform a work this difficult, struggled along by listening to the others and working with Choraline and other rehearsal tapes at home. We called two extra Saturday rehearsals, and by the final, seventh, week, it had all come together, due fundamentally to the genius of Bach in writing music that was challenging, but for purely musical reasons that any choir can appreciate as a whole, even if only subliminally. The performance was, as a result, a triumph. 
If I ever needed convincing (which I don't) that Bach is the greatest composer certainly since 1600, this experience would have been it. Comments from various choir members, most of whom had not sung it before, and many of whom were not proficient readers: "It's total music"; "It dances"; "The struggle was so worth it"; "When are we doing the whole thing?"
The effect was only heightened by the short first half, which consisted of the original 1888 version of Faure's Requiem. I offer this experience for what it's worth in terms both of repertoire, but more generally of the necessity to tailor rehearsals to the music being prepared.
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on November 4, 2013 7:41am
Thanks! Informative and inspiring! I also "conduct" (quotes because I'm at the keyboard 99% of the time) an untrained choir of enthusiastic non-readers. I've also been pondering this morning some political quandries having to do with my pastor's tastes and mine and the community's and the realities of what we can produce. Bach could very well be the answer! Or, an answer. : ) 
on November 5, 2013 2:25am
Could be, depending on your circumstances. Of course, he wrote (relatively) easy and just as rewarding music too, which would definitely suit your situation - namely, his hundreds of harmonisationss of Lutheran chorales. The lower parts are melodies in themselves - in fact, they're much more interesting than the soprano tunes, which are just pegs to hang the ATB parts on. They would challenge a lower-ability choir and thoroughly reward a medium to higher-ability one. 
In fact, your quandry sounds a bit like Bach's own in Leipzig: see Apologies if I read your email the wrong way, but the relationship between musical practice and institutionalised religion has always been somewhat fraught.
on November 5, 2013 10:44pm
Regarding "not proficient readers" and "enthusiastic non-readers", there's the old joke, told in both jazz and folk music circles:  "Can you read music?"  "Not enough to hurt my playing."  Music reading is a valuable skill, of course, but not indispensable, and if you consider all the musical traditions around the world, readers are probably a small minority.  There comes a time to get your nose out of the book, listen to the music, reproduce what you hear, and sing it so "it dances".
on November 6, 2013 7:06am
Bart Brush writes about 'the old joke, told in both jazz and folk music circles: "Can you read music?" "Not enough to hurt my playing."'
Notice that this joke is related as being told in 'jazz and folk music circles.' Bach, however, is playing a different game, one with different rules. In this particular game, moves on the board are governed by a text, which represents the various functions and vectors imagined by the composer and fixed in a permanent form in that text (hence the enormous effort performers make to find an authentic text, sometimes going so far as to consult or otherwise have contact with musicologists, you should pardon the expression). The latitude allowed for improvisation is strictly limited and requires considerable understanding if the performer is not to be called for a foul, either in this world or another.
But seriously: The inability to read and understand the text would be (and sometimes is, in the case of 'understand') dangerous, if not fatal, to a successful performance.
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
on November 6, 2013 10:57am
Valid points Jerome, and thank you for clarifying that.   However I was not intending to make a comment about improvisation; I was trying to say that over-reliance on the written page, especially by poor readers, can interfere with musical expression, and that learning parts by rote, as described in the original post ("listening to the others...and rehearsal tapes'), is a viable alternative.  The ultimate goal certainly is to recreate Bach's intentions.
on November 6, 2013 5:26pm
Here's where I need to clarify my previous post, or perhaps Bart Brush and I differ in our understandings of how the classical music game is played. I wouldn't say that the ultimate goal is to recreate -- or even realize -- Bach's intentions; the goal is to realize -- or recreate -- Bach's text. The text may or may not be a perfect representation of the composer's intentions, but it's what we have; anything else is merely conjecture. So what we work with is the text alone, which makes every jot of it 'sacred,' so to speak. As musicians, we're fundamentalists.
That being said, it must be understood that Bach's text (just as anyone else's, say, Xenakis') must be read with an understanding of the textual conventions within which it was written, which in Bach include details such as appoggiature, notes inegales and tempo indications (or their lack).
So there can be no such thing as 'over-reliance on the written page.' When amateur singers and/or players are insufficiently literate, sure, use any crutch available, but with care: rehearsal tapes, whether individual-part instrumental or MIDI reproductions or published recordings, as a rule reflect 'interpretation' and take the listener away from the text. I have found some benefit in giving singers access to these, but also a cost, as (especially) weak readers tend to be swayed by what they hear the first time, which makes it that much more difficult to retrain them.
Might it be better to take the long view, and decide that over ten years or so you'll raise the standards of your singers such that you'll ultimately be able to accept only relatively competent readers into your ensemble? If you do it well, you'll even have singers reading without their realizing it.
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
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