Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


A ‘fairly correct copy of the mass’?
Mendelssohn’s score of the B Minor Mass as a document of the Romantics’ view
on matters of performance practice and source criticism

Anselm Hartinger

(Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Switzerland)

Whereas today the B Minor Mass clearly occupies one of the most prominent positions in the international Bach repertoire, in the 19th century – despite the high esteem it enjoyed – it was generally overshadowed by the St Matthew Passion. In fact, neither the growing attention paid to Bach nor the large number of historically oriented concert series initially had much effect upon the reception of this “greatest musical work of all times and peoples” (Nägeli).

The reasons for this remarkable neglect, which so far has never been the subject of a systematic study, can only be sought through a careful and objective examination of the characteristic repertoires of the time and the particular interests of musicians and musical institutions concerned with Bach. The analysis and interpretation of specific editorial and performance projects therefore presupposes some general thoughts on the potential locality of this latently “displaced” work in the altered musical landscape of the 19th century.

The extraordinary difficulties in the practical realization of Bach’s musical text were always a significant obstacle preventing the acceptance of this particular work among audiences and performers alike. Since the “great mass” is a veritable compendium of almost every style, technique, and instrumentation employed by the mature Bach, this work also focuses every possible problem regarding performance practice that the 19th century had with Bach. In this respect the two volumes of Mendelssohn’s personal score of the work represent a unique and extraordinarily valuable source, for it allows us to reconstruct the way in which the leading Bachian of his time approached this piece. Here we can examine the numerous problems his contemporaries had with performing Bach’s music, and trace their more or less stylistically adequate solutions – solutions that have shaped the performance tradition of this work for many years. At the same time, Mendelssohn’s annotations and corrections, which are the result of at least two partial performances and a collation of the original parts at Dresden, reveal the outlines of a typology of how Bach’s scores were treated in the early days of source criticism. Aiming at a critically revised “Originaltext” and readily adjusting it to fit practical demands were not necessarily seen as conflicting postulates. Rather, these constituted complementary and equally justified strategies in the attempt to approach the remote figure of Bach in this epoch that was so crucial for the transmission of his oeuvre.

Last updated on 24 June 2007