Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Vocal Ripienists and the Mass in B minor

Andrew Parrott

(Oxford, UK)

Despite its apparent lack of an early performance history, the Mass in B minor offers exceptionally fertile ground for an exploration of J S Bach’s expectations of choral performance in his own time. Its sixteen (or eighteen) choral movements constitute a distinctly higher proportion of the work than those of any of his other large-scale vocal-instrumental composition.

Drawing on musical, iconographical, and documentary sources, my previous published work on the nature of Bach's vocal choir (mostly recently in the 2003 German edition of The Essential Bach Choir) has focused on the composer’s practice in Leipzig, viewed from a number of perspectives: the institutional background, the repertories performed, the functions of concertists and ripienists, the performance materials and their use, Bach’s extant ripieno writing, the 1730 Entwurff, the availability of additional performers, conventional instrument/singer ratios, and questions of balance between vocal and instrumental forces. Here, differing understandings and subsequent scholarly commentary on each of these topics and on each strand of argument are in turn carefully examined, alongside newly introduced evidence, including items from the writings of Kuhnau, Mattheson and Zelter and from the documentation of practice in Wittenberg, Hamburg and other German towns.

The implications of the accumulated evidence on the roles of vocal concertists and ripienists are then systematically explored in the context of each chorus within the Mass in B minor. Does this ‘great’ work perhaps offer any suggestion that Bach might have wished to transcend the performing conditions of his own time with the aid of exceptionally large vocal forces? While I have previously restricted myself almost wholly to historical discussion of the subject, my own and others' practical experience adds a further useful dimension, drawing on more than twenty-five years of performing the Mass in B minor (and other Bach choral works) on the principles discussed.

Last updated on 24 June 2007