Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


The B Minor Mass in Nineteenth-Century England

Katharine Pardee

(University of Oxford, UK)

This paper will explore the performance and reception of the B Minor Mass in nineteenth-century England, contrasting it with that of the St Matthew Passion. The first performances of both have been detailed before (most recently by Basil Keen, “The Bach Choir, 1876-1928”, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of London, 2006). At first glance, there seem to be many similarities in reception: excerpts of both had been featured several times over the years in concerts, with a noticeable and ongoing lack of success; in both cases, choirs were eventually formed with the express purpose of giving the first performances of each work in its “entirety”; substantial cuts were deemed necessary to make each more palatable to the audience; and the performances reflected nineteenth-century practices, beginning with orchestras with modern instruments, and large choirs.

The differences in the reception of the two works however were significant, and stem only partly from the twenty years that separated their introductions. Acceptance of the St Matthew in England was a long and slow process, and necessitated turning it into something of an English oratorio—not only with English words, but also with performing conventions usually associated with Messiah. As a contemporary writer said, it was “the highest class of sacred music [and] a powerful agent in religious worship”, and was perhaps most effectively presented in a service, with sermon in the middle, people participating in the singing of its chorales, and standing in reverence for the Passion Chorale. In contrast, perhaps ironically so, the B-Minor Mass found its home immediately in the concert hall. It was not a work in which people could actively participate by singing along; it was not easily adaptable to a standard Anglican service; and it was not easy to fit into an oratorio mould.

By the turn of the twentieth century, both works were standards in the repertoire of English choirs, and both had, to some degree, been co-opted as English works. I propose to show how Bach was shaped in both these works to reflect “Englishness”, and how perhaps “Englishness” was in turn shaped by Bach.

Last updated on 24 June 2007