Tips on Playing J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor

Lots of standard orchestral excerpts have little tips or hints which can help in performance. Many of these hints involve understanding how the excerpt functions in the context of the entire piece, as well as knowing a bit of music history.  In his book The Early Horn: A Practical Guide, early music specialist John Humphries devotes an entire section to “Case Studies” on various works from the 18th and 19th centuries.  In these studies, he provides a wealth of practical advice for performers as well as historical context for each work and composer.  J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232 is  the first work Humphries discusses. The “Quonium” movement from the Mass features an obbligato horn solo, and is the only movement to include a horn.  Humphries explains why this particular passage can be problematic for the horn player.

On the few occasions when the horn plays an obbligato in the first half of the eighteenth century, its line is usually less complex than this, and it is most unusual for it to be the only treble clef instrument in the ensemble. Its high tessitura is unsurprising, for the Baroque horn could not play melodically anywhere else, but like the voice, the accompanying bassoons and the bass line, the horn has its own exclusive melodic material which it does not share with anyone else. Furthermore, as he does not play anywhere else in the Mass, the horn player has to sit in the orchestra for about fifty minutes, thinking of the vertiginous opening leap up to written top C (the sixteenth harmonic of the natural horn pitched in D) and the torrents of semiquavers [sixteenth notes] which follow. The long wait causes anguish even when the player has the assistance of an F-alto valve horn; pity the natural horn player whose conductor also asks him to stand up to play it! (p. 80)

Humphries touches on the major challenges of this excerpt: the long wait while both chops and horn get cold, the opening octave leap (from a’ to a” for horn in F), and the sixteenth note passage work.  In working on this excerpt in the past I have heard a couple of different ways to make it more manageable.  1) Play it on a descant horn, or at the very least a single B-flat horn or double with the F slides removed; 2) Use a practice mute to quietly get a few warm-up notes in during the preceding movements.  Humphries mentions yet a third strategy, and one which surprisingly enough has a historical precedent.

It is unlikely that Bach expected the part to cause so much trouble. At home in Leipzig, the horn part would conventionally have been played by a trumpeter, who would not have found its tessitura as awesome as it appears to the horn player today. He would also have had other work to do earlier in the Mass, and so would not have had to wait so long to play. It is, therefore, not outside the spirit of eighteenth-century performance practice for the modern performer to warm up, by agreement with the conductor, by playing the third trumpet part discreetly during the earlier movements. A copy of the vocal score reduces the feeling of loneliness, and, if you sit near the chamber organ, you will be able to hear the only other high-pitched frequencies in the ensemble. (p. 81)

I think this is great advice, and it also makes historical sense.  If I ever perform this work I will definitely consider his suggestion!  In addition to the Bach, Humphries also discusses in his case studies Haydn and Mozart’s horn concertos, Beethoven’s Sonata in F, Schubert’s Auf dem Strom, R. Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, op. 70, and Brahms’ Trio in E-flat, op. 40. The rest of the book is full of other information including chapters on historical background, equipment, technique, and style. Overall The Early Horn is a great little book worth adding to your library.

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I’ve played it before from the principal trumpet chair! I used a modern German-made corno-di-caccia with a flugelhorn mouthpiece and it lies very nicely within the range. Plus, you’re already warmed up and it was a nice break in the middle of the piece to play something in the middle register!


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