Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Intensity, Complexity and Musical Rhetoric in Performances of the Mass in B minor

Uri Golomb

(Tel Aviv, Israel)

Recorded performances of the Mass in B minor can offer a fascinating case-study into expressiveness in Bach performance and reception: the attribution of emotional expression and/or extra-musical meaning to Bach’s music, and the degree and manner in which performers seek to bring these to light. There is a prominent tendency in Bach reception to separate musical symbolism from emotional expression, and to argue that the value of Bach’s music resides in its avoidance of expressive intensity. By contrast, there are also those who view the expressive power of Bach’s music as its greatest strength.

This spectrum of views is reflected in, and influenced by, major trends in Bach performance – one notable example being the growing prominence of a speech-like approach to musical performance, inspired by Baroque theories of musical rhetoric. Rhetorical performance is predicated on the idea that expressiveness in Baroque music arises from “small figures in the surface”, rather than “larger musical processes, such as the extended crescendo or the prolonged dissonance” (David Schulenberg).

This discourse is reflected in changing approaches to expressivity in performance. In the middle of the 20th century (and earlier), espressivo was associated (inter alia) with legato articulation and a wide dynamic range, applied across long stretches of music (“the extended crescendo”). In Bach performance, sharper articulation was often associated with terraced dynamics, and employed by performers who believed that Bach’s music should be rendered with expressive restraint and austerity. With the emergence of rhetorically-inflected performances (starting with the work of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt), varied articulation gradually became a vehicle for expressive intensity. This was associated with a narrow dynamic range – yet also with localised dynamic inflections, tracing the contours of individual figures. Rhetorical performers do not necessarily endorse the either/or approach implicit in Schulenberg’s and similar formulations: many seek to project “small figures” and “larger musical processes” alike, using the former to underline the latter.

In this paper, I will attempt to demonstrate these developments through two contrasting case-studies: the Crucifixus, often viewed as the most intense movement in the Mass – and the Et in unum dominum, often portrayed as richly symbolic yet expressively neutral. Performers sometimes narrow this gap, either by injecting greater intensity into the Et in unum or (in rarer cases) by treating the Crucifixus in an ostensibly ‘objective’ fashion.

Rhetorical performance contributed substantially to the projection of affective variety in the Et in unum. Modern-instrument performances in 1950-1980 usually treated this movement in a strict, uniform manner. Even those conductors who attempted a more expressively varied treatment (most notably Eugen Jochum) did so primarily through changes in tempo, dynamics and timbre; they drew little or no attention to individual figures and motifs. ‘Rhetorical’ performers, on the other hand, were able to suggest a subtle expressive narrative in this movement (usually from an incisive, light-hearted beginning to a broader, more lyrical conclusion) by underlining the development of its opening motif and the introduction of other rhythmic and melodic figures later in the movement. The starkest realisation of this approach can be found in Thomas Hengelbrock’s rendition, yet other performers (e.g., Andrew Parrott, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe, Frans Brüggen) also adopt differing articulations to accentuate the emergence of specific figures and to emphasise changes in other parameters (e.g., the darker harmonies towards the end of the movement).

The Crucifixus, too, was treated in terms of Unity of Affect by most modern-instrument performers in 1950-1980: even the more “romantic” post-war conductors (e.g., Eugen Jochum, Hermann Scherchen) did not differentiate between the movement’s sections (one notable exception, however, was Karl Richter). The advent of HIP approaches widened the interpretive range. In several performances of the Crucifixus (e.g., Harnoncourt 1986, Harry Christophers, Thomas Hengelbrock, Konrad Junghänel, Jeffrey Thomas), greater attention to texture, to the independent shaping of individual parts, resulted in a clearer realisation of the contrasts between the movement’s homophonic and polyphonic sections, as well as underlining clashes between strands in the texture. Such performances arguably lend support and aural realisation to the view that Bach’s polyphony contains internal clashes and discords.

Performances of both movements therefore reflect the changing attitude towards performative expression which emerged, inter alia, from rhetorical ideals of performance. These ideals inspired a more dialogic mode of performance, emphasising both textural complexity in specific moments and thematic variety across the length of the movement. The result undermines the notion of unity of affect: through a focus on local details, performers revealed more vividly the affective variety, and the patterns of tension and resolution, in each movement.

Last updated on 24 June 2007