Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Reception History of the B-minor Mass in Russia

Tatiana Shabalina

(St. Petersburg State Conservatoire «Rimsky-Korsakov», Russia)

Although the reception of J.S. Bach’s music in Russia began more than 250 years ago, the reception history of the Mass in B minor is not so long. Moreover, this work had a very difficult path in Russian concert life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a path that turned out to be much more complicated than those of Bach’s instrumental works or his Matthew and John Passions.

The most significant stages in this history are connected with the Russian composers Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804—1857) and Nikolaj Andrejevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844—1908). Glinka became one of the first significant Russian composers to display a special interest in J.S. Bach’s works with the Mass in B minor forming the centre of his interests. I present statements of Russian musicologists, as well as fragments from Glinka’s letters connected with the Mass and his understanding of the work. By contrast, Rimskij-Korsakov’s attitude to Bach’s works was not simple and some of his statements shed light as to why only fragments of the Mass were performed in Russia during the nineteenth century. It is peculiar that the Crucifixus from the Mass in B minor was especially revered by Russian composers and became one of the most beloved and frequently performed fragments of this masterpiece during the early periods of its reception history in Russia. Surely this choice was not accidental but rather was rooted in the specific perception of Bach’s vocal works in nineteenth century Russia.

The first known complete performance of the B-minor Mass in Russia took place in the concert season of 1910/1911 and was connected with the activity of the Moscow Symphonic Capella conducted by Vjacheslav Aleksandrovich Bulychev (1872—1959). The performance of the Mass in its entirety was a great event in Russian cultural life. However, according to critical reviews in newspapers and journals, the quality of this first performance was quite far from perfection. The critics noted ‘distortions’ of the work, such as the performance of all of the solo movements by a massed choir, ‘the cacophony of the second Kyrie and strange freedom of rhythm of many-many N. N. of the Mass’.  The imperfections of the next performances of the Mass (a year later by the Moscow Symphonic Capella and in 1914 within the series of Bach concerts of Sergej Kusevitskij) again dominated the critical reviews. On the basis of such reviews, as well as statements of Russian composers and musicologists, I try to demonstrate that the ‘colossal’ dimensions and ‘extreme’ difficulties of the Mass performance are the main reasons why it took so long for the work to be accepted in the concert life in Russia. Today, it remains at the pinnacle of the canon for Russian musicians and music lovers.

It is significant that religious differences were never an obstacle in the understanding and performing of Bach’s Mass in Russia. On the contrary, the B-minor Mass was always regarded by Russian musicians as ‘mounting’ over Catholic or Lutheran interpretations. This idea was already expressed in one of the first Russian works dedicated to the Mass and is apparent in many other works in Russian literature, including the most recent ones. The idea of the ‘universality’ of the Mass, which has been so sharply discussed in Bach research in recent decades, seems to be close to ‘Russian thought about Bach’, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century. The problem of ‘why the Lutheran Bach wrote die große catholische Messe’ was not a ‘drama’ for Russian Bach lovers of that time. This work was understood by them as standing beyond different denominations. Although the way of the Mass in Russian concert life was initially problematic (and its first public performances here took place much later than those in other countries), the view of this piece as ‘the greatest musical art-work of all times and for all people’ in the spirit of some universal religion was typical for ‘Russian thought about Bach’ in all the times of its history. This is consistent with the view of Hans Georg Nägeli, Johann Nepomuk Schelble and other pioneers of Bach research in the nineteenth century, as well as with the modern conception of unity and integration as ‘an essential feature of Bach’s compositional activity.’

Last updated on 12 October 2007