Last weekend, the Chamber Choir performed Bach’s Mass in B minor. The epic piece is the last work finished by Bach and arguably the most influential and supreme accomplishments of classical music and especially the Baroque period. The choir is composed of 36 singers who are all students at Tech and somehow find time to rehearse this daunting work in their overfull schedules.
It was never performed in its entirely in the short remainder of Bach’s life and was actually largely forgotten, along with the rest of Bach’s music, until the mid nineteenth century.
It is a Catholic mass, including the Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. This is only unusual because Bach was a devout Lutheran during a time of strict religious adherence. This mass was the only missa tota Bach ever composed. This edition of the mass was edited by Joshua Riffkin, a preeminent Bach scholar who tries to “undo” a lot of the posthumous edits made by Bach’s son, C. P. E. Bach. The Chamber Choir concerts were the Southeastern US premieres of this new edition, which was just released a few years ago by Breitkopf music press. The previous edition came out over 30 years ago.
The Chamber Choir performed in partnership with the New Trinity Baroque, an Atlanta-based baroque orchestra who perform in baroque pitch using entirely baroque instruments. Baroque instruments use different, more poorly-made strings that would have been easier to produce than the impossibly modern manufactured ones of today. These instruments sound a little rougher and less refined than the smooth, controlled nature of modernly produced instruments. The bows of the violins have a different curvature and make achieving the same tone and volume as modern ones difficult. The trumpets do not have any valves, so they cannot play as many notes. The whole ensemble together sounds less strange than the individual instruments, but all of these small differences added up to make a timbre unlike anything around today.
Although this work is usually performed with a small (less than 12 people) group of professional soloists, in Bach’s time, it would have been performed by a larger group of young singers such as the choir he led at Thomaskirche. Thus, the Chamber Choir, composed of 36 singers in their early twenties, is much closer to what Bach would have had in mind than the small soloist groups that are typically used today.
The Chamber Choir was the highlight of the performance. The group’s sheer number and the source material combined for an exhilarating performance surprisingly devoid of lulls. Clocking in at two hours, it would seem easy to be overwhelmed by the high-brow culture of the whole affair, but the performance engrossed and moved the audience as long as they were paying attention. The Austro-German pronunciation of the Latin was not noticeable to the commoner, but a frequent reader or speaker would have to keep a sharp ear to keep up.
The lowered pitch did not affect the layperson’s perception of the performance. A musicologist or particularly keen musician familiar with the B-minor key would have been intrigued, but most people did not notice a thing was different.
Overall, given the scale and difficulty of the work, this is the most challenging undertaking of the Chamber Choir since its founding in 1998. This accomplishment is the biggest feather in the Chamber Choir’s hat to date. The historical details and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking magnify the laurels even more. Performed in Ala., Fla. and Ga., the Chamber Choir is sure to gain notoriety and respect as a left-brained choir able to do whatever they set their mind to with hard work, determination and great support from the director and assistant.