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The Toronto Bach Festival singers and instrumentalists
Photo credit: Emily Ding

Yesterday afternoon the Toronto Bach Festival, ably organized and directed by John Abberger, concluded with a program of the composer’s protestant masses, and a free-standing Sanctus movement. Luther’s church observed the liturgy in German, but there were occasions on which it used the older, hence more authoritative languages Greek and Latin. The protestant mass, sometimes called missa brevis, consisted of the Kyrie and the Gloria, the only two mass ordinary movements that are sung back to back, with no intervening text or music.  

It is most likely that these short masses were composed for observance at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. J.S. Bach’s predecessor in that church, composer Johann Kuhnau, once wrote that “we pay closer attention to the words when the singing is in Latin”. How many singers would have performed this music in Leipzig? That has been a contentious question, but Bach’s letter to the town council, complaining that he lacked the performers needed, suggests that they may have had no more than the soloists plus one ripienist (chorister) per part, or eight singers altogether, the number of singers who performed this concert. Even if Bach exaggerated his difficulties in his letter to the council, it seems clear that he was working with a small musical ensemble, one of this size.

The friend who attended with me remarked that it was interesting to hear the singers and instruments featured in this way, soloists, and pairs. I thought of what the design of the genre, structured with these performing forces, may have meant in the period, what they meant for the artistic mythology of the time, as the author on myth Joseph Campbell might have considered it. The basso continuo might have represented the stability in society, the overall progress of the city. The soloists, in a high range above it could have represented individual achievement. Hearing these masses in the Thomas Church, with its sound architecture and intellectual strength, must have impressed visitors. The building itself showed the manufacturing strength of the city, as did the organ (the core of the basso continuo). The instruments, sounding well and in tune, showed the precision of manufacture, the ensemble demonstrated that the city worked together, and the soloists showed the virtuosic achievements of some of its outstanding citizens. It would have made Leipzig attractive for a stranger do business there.

Christine Passmore and Scott Weavers; Photo credit: Emily Ding

John Abberger, festival organizer, director, and oboist; Photo credit: Emily Ding

Toronto Bach Festival closes with Protestant Masses

Abberger played the lovely oboe solo, with its close, expressive dissonances between that part and the soprano solo (Brunet). Violinist Cristina Zacharias played very well as one of the virtuosi.

The Bach festival makes an important contribution to Toronto’s musical life, and the afternoon performance made a fitting conclusion.

​After intermission came Bach’s Mass in F major BWV 233. In this mass and throughout the performance, Bach’s counterpoint sounded beautifully and richly, of note the continuo instruments: Felix Deak (cello), Alison Mackay (bass), and Christopher Bagan (organ). Christine Passmore and Scott Weavers (horns) were lively, well tuned, nimble, and full of rhythmic energy in the section in which they were featured.

​​by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
oronto ON May 27th 2019