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The need to perform Bach - The Mass in B minor

Interview with Philippe Jordan

The need to perform Bach - The Mass in B minor

After the symphonic extracts from the Ring and Mahler's Ninth, the Paris Opera Orchestra's concert season continues with Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. Philippe Jordan discusses this milestone in the history of music and the importance for all musicians to rub shoulders with the great composer.    


Why include Bach’s B minor Mass in the Paris Opera season?

The “Mass” provides the opportunity to continue the work begun with the Chorus last year on Moses und Aron. The demands made by Schoenberg’s opera enabled us to make great strides forward, particularly with phrasing, intonation and homogeneity. The “Mass” represents a considerable challenge for us today –for chorus and orchestra alike – on the same lines as “Moses” and the cycle of Beethoven symphonies, the latter resulting in significant progress from the orchestra. The health of an opera chorus is a question of maintaining suppleness and lightness, and the inclusion of Bach – a form of veritable musical gymnastics – seemed to me indispensable. It may be only one, single concert, but the results of its preparation will be felt throughout our opera season.

I also wanted us to consider the style in which we would perform this music. "Traditional" orchestras are once again starting to play this repertoire, once the monopoly of Baroque ensembles, who succeeded in establishing the idea that only they, with their knowledge and their authentic instruments, could interpret Bach with accuracy. Their appropriation today of the music of Berlioz, Beethoven and even Wagner gives us, in our turn, the courage to take our place in the Baroque world. We should not restrict ourselves on the pretext that we are less well documented. It is a question of getting back to our common origins. We have all worked on Bach: he remains our daily bread. Obviously, we will not be able to satisfy audiences desiring to hear the work senza vibrato, sung by purer voices … . That is not our objective. We are offering an alternative: that of an orchestra with technique born out of its mastery of Verdi and Wagner. I really believe in the mutual benefits of this: if the Baroque repertoire allows us to make our playing more supple and to work on clarity, we can also give it a new freshness, besides bringing it to the attention of our audiences. The question of vibrato, for example, is only a means, not an end. My intention is to give a meaningful interpretation whilst remaining as faithful as possible to the work.


Where should we situate Bach in the history of music and what was his contribution to it?

In my eyes, Bach is the greatest composer of all, even including Mozart and Beethoven. He is the author of a universal language that addresses both the intellect and the emotions. In spite of its rather mathematical quality, his work is an invitation to pray, to dream and to dance… There is nothing that Bach’s music, both sacred and profane, does not tackle: the human being in his entirety and beyond; the universe and its essence are perfectly synthesised in his works. His immense knowledge prompts one to regret he never composed an opera… the dramatic and theatrical dimensions of opera resound through his scores far more strongly than in the operas of Handel, in my view.

Living at the end of the Baroque era, Bach accumulated a vaster knowledge of Western music than any of his contemporaries. His work constitutes a musical legacy to be seen as the basis for all the music that came after it: that of Mozart and Mendelssohn, who in the mid-19th century popularised Bach's work, of Wagner and Brahms. Wagner’s treats his choruses in a very similar way to Bach in the Passions, the texts of which greatly influenced Wagner when writing his libretti. Schönberg, Berg and Webern used fugue, passacaglia and dance forms as the structural foundations of their musical revolution. Incontestably, Bach is fundamental to the musical education of all musicians but also to a very large body of creation.

Philippe Jordan
Philippe Jordan © Jean-François Leclercq / OnP

The term “synthesis”, which you employ to define Bach’s work, is also appropriate for the B minor Mass, which brings together pieces composed throughout his life.

It is a synthesis of both his era and his life. Almost nothing in the “Mass” was written for the “Mass”, which is essentially a collection of pre-existing works, of extracts from cantatas. Furthermore, it testifies to Bach’s transposition into the realm of the sacred of the intimacy and rationality in The Art of Fugue and also the abstract character of The Musical Offering. Bach’s work of recontextualisation permitted him to produce a piece of unique dimensions, a veritable legacy for large ensemble. The exceptional amplitude of the “Mass” makes it longer than either Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mahler’s Second Symphony or the Verdi Requiem.


What are the points of comparison with the Passions – other sacred works of monumental proportions that predate the “Mass”?

In the B minor Mass, Bach dispenses with the narrator - the Evangelist of the Passions – and with recitative. The soloists remain but from now on the collective forces take pride of place. The involvement of the chorus has clearly evolved since the Passions. Its role is no longer limited to the initial chorales and the large-scale narrative ensembles, it sings throughout all the important passages and all the big fugues. Tenors and sopranos are required to sing in a particularly high register and this demands great vivacity. The counterpoint, which is particularly complex, obscures the clarity of the ensemble … Few works are as difficult for the chorus.

The “Mass” is also, to my mind, more abstract than the Passions, notwithstanding the presence of texts, - the basis of this pure, non-narrative music -, and despite the marks of the profoundly terrestrial preoccupations to which Bach was attached. The theatricality of these texts must not be erased but well and truly brought into relief: like that of the Et incarnatus est (B minor), the lamento character of which evokes great sadness – and that of the Et resurrexit (D major), which, like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, depicts Christ’s resurrection using rising scales. This is music that is both spiritual and theatrical.    


How does one approach conducting such a work?

The B minor Mass is a disparate work. It is therefore difficult to establish stylistic unity between its movements. By nature, a mass represents all aspects of life and must build a bridge between life and faith – a link particularly complicated to illustrate. Bach’s solution was to unify tonality. The key of B minor, traditionally associated with death, finds a parallel in that of D major, perhaps the work's true tonality since it is heard in every movement. This tends to confirm the idea that, over and above the key of B minor, the Mass is principally a celebration, in Major keys, of the glory and universality of God.

The first part, the Missa, comprising the Kyrie and the Gloria, was initially composed by Bach in order to obtain a post in Dresden to which, finally, he was never appointed. It is interesting to see it as the work of a protestant in search of recognition from a catholic court. Indeed, catholic joie de vie can be clearly discerned in it. Let us not forget that this religious joy was inherent to Bach’s period, in which religion was lived, danced and celebrated every day. That is why the religious intentions one attributes to the work must be nuanced. The purity of this music must on no account be an end in itself. It is important, I think, to play with contrasts. The introductory Kyrie indicates this from the start: it begins with a fugue in the Baroque style – the Kyrie eleison – followed by the Christe – a highly secular duet for two sopranos that could have come straight out of an opera by Scarlatti or Pergolesi; this is followed by a second Kyrie eleison – a fugue in tones approaching the palette of Palestrina. All this thus forms an alliance of styles and tonalities.    

Interviewed by Marion Mirande

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