Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Performing Bach’s B-minor Mass: Some Notes by Heinrich Schenker

Jan-Piet Knijff

(Queens College and Purchase College, USA)

On 27 October 1926, Heinrich Schenker—widely regarded as the most influential music theorist of the twentieth century—attended a performance in Vienna of Bach’s B-Minor Mass by the Berlin Singakademie conducted by Georg Schumann. The next day, Schenker recorded some of his thoughts on the performance in a review-essay, the manuscript of which is now part of the Oster Collection at the New York Public Library. The Oster Collection also contains some voice-leading graphs by Schenker of excerpts from the Mass. The essay was apparently intended as an aide de mémoire for Schenker’s projected book on performance (as is evident from the earmark “Vortrag”), but neither the essay nor the graphs have ever been published.

Although Schenker discussed aspects from the B-Minor Mass in Kontrapunkt (1910) and later in Der freie Satz (1935), the 1926 essay and graphs are by far his largest contribution to the study of the work. They shed important light on Schenker’s ideas on performance in general and Bach performance in particular. Some of these ideas are confirmed by Schenker’s comments on Bach interpretations of other noted performers, such as Pablo Casals, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Karl Straube. Schenker’s ideas on dynamics in Bach—in which dynamics (including crescendo and diminuendo) are based on aspects of harmony and voice leading—are found not only in the review-essay but also in his published essay on Bach’s Sonata in C Major for Violin Solo in Das Meisterwerk in der Musik I (1925). Although Schenker may later have abandoned the idea of a specific dynamic structure being suggested by the music itself (as Charles Burkhardt has suggested), it was clearly an important characteristic of his musical thinking in the mid-1920s.

While some of Schenker’s criticisms concern only the performance he witnessed in Vienna, many of his remarks about tempo, dynamics, structure, and balance can be as helpful to understanding the B-Minor Mass today as they might have been in the 1920s.

Last updated on 12 August 2007