Monday, 22 October 2012

Agnus Dei from the Bach B Minor Mass

On my desert island I would be hard pushed not to take all eight recordings of arias from the great Passions and Masses of J S Bach.

Today I was teaching my gold dust alto M, the Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass. One so easily forgets the sheer majesty of these arias. The strength of melody and the resonance of the text in the way Bach sets the glorious words of the Latin Mass.

I just adore it. It is so huge and so complex, yet so immensely accessible for the listener. How did he manage to combine these two elements in such an emotional and heartbreaking way.

The tempo is not marked on the original score but the tear drop feel of the opening accompaniment must lead us to believe it really is very slow. That, of course makes it all the more challenging for the singer with the endlessly long phrases, yet the whole aria is just so wonderfully 'singable' it feels worth every last drop of effort simply to be part of the whole.

The first time I ever sang it within the work was in Hexham Abbey Northumberland and I think I was about 23 or 24. It was in December and the abbey was so cold I wore jeans under my evening gown and I could literally see the words flowing out of my mouth in my frosty breath ! The Arctic conditions utterly bypassed me, all I could think of was how glorious it felt to be musically wrapped around by the small orchestra, with each instrumentalist being almost a soloist. The violin's delicious threaded tone hanging in the frozen air and the cello giving me such comforting security in the bass.

It was probably not my greatest singing, I was young and green then. It was my very first B Minor Mass, and I was petrified before we began. I remember saying to my teacher, post Middy, the wonderful alto of the 1960's and 70's, Marjorie Thomas, that as I stood in my place in front of the cello desk, my only thoughts were that this work is so much bigger than I am and how would I ever travel the journey to the end. Her reply was along the lines of, ' My dear, I never sang a Bach Oratorio in my whole career which did not make me quake with fear, wonder and a sense of climbing a mountain '.

Click on the YouTube to hear Dame Janet Baker singing this aria. It makes me weep.

Maybe this is one time when I am heartbroken at the loss of my own voice. Not to be able to be part of this deep and rich and unforgettable whole is like losing a dear friend.

"Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World, have Mercy on us"

Hexham Abbey in the snow

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