Single Voice Choir – Not for Luther!

There is something slightly different at the next concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 12th of March when the renowned Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment pays a visit.

Bach cannot be called unfamiliar, although with the exception of the Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in the all-Bach affair, the other three works on offer will not be as recognisable: the Sinfonia from Cantata No 42 and two of his four so-called Lutheran Masses.

However, the latter means singing voice involvement, not exactly splashed in publicity for the concert, but four soloists are on duty and will also be the single-voice SATB chorus!

The theory that Bach’s choral music, including in the Passions and B minor Mass, was written for one voice per part (OVPP) was postulated by the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin (of Scott Joplin-fame!) in 1981 and generally met with derision and laughing in the aisles.

Three decades later it can be said to have been accepted as a distinct possibility by Bach scholars and specialists, including John Butt (directing the 12th of March concert), and many illustrious conductors are also recording Bach’s choral works using OVPP in the choruses.

Bach’s Lutheran Masses owe their existence to his huge cantata output and are thought to have been penned around 1738/ 39. Each comprise a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria only and has six ‘movements’, the Gloria been divided into five.

Three movements are always choral: the Kyrie, the opening of the Gloria and its conclusion from Cum sancto Spiritu which book-end three solo arias in between.

Being a Lutheran church musician, Bach wrote very little religious music in Latin and actually titled the four works with the Latin Missa. They attained the name ‘Lutheran Mass’ because the regular use of the Kyrie-Gloria combination in Lutheran liturgy.

The Masses were created almost entirely by using the music of movements from various, earlier church cantatas (all in German) that Bach had written. For the most part, he only altered the music slightly to align it with the Latin words.

In the OAE performances of Mass No 3 and Mass No 4, it is all previous cantata material and in No 3 almost exclusively music from Cantata No 187, first performed in 1726.

Four of the six movements are from it, the cantata’s opening chorus becoming the Mass’s Cum sancto Spiritu finale and, in an occasional change of voice part, the tenor gets the music of soprano’s cantata aria before it.

The Mass No 4 has two movements drawn from Bach’s Reformation Day cantata in 1725 (No 79) and two from Cantata No 179 dating from 1723. The remaining four movements over the two Masses are from four different cantatas.

The concert boasts four excellent soloists in soprano Mary Bevan, American mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Thomas Hobbs and baritone Ashley Riches, also the OVPP (SATB) chorus – and a quartet with the potential to make the irresistible opening da capo Gloria in excelsis of Mass No 3 and virtuosic Cum sancto Spiritu of Mass No 4 absolutely spell-binding!


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