Bach's Missa in B Minor
Date: November 4, 2013
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.
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