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Sabrina Yang
Olivia Bloechl
Helen Rowe
MUS HST 63-1
Varying Interpretations of Bachs Mass in B Minor, Kyrie Eleison
Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most respected and renowned composers within all
of classical music history as long as classical music has been composed. His music, though not
considered to be great during his time, became a defining element of High Baroque period
classical music and contemporarily part of typical standard performance repertoire, or musical
canon. Though Bachs musical influence and reception stayed within his home country Germany,
he had an innumerable amount of composed works that had many different styles typical of
French, Italian, Polish, and other regional styles and so his music had variation. Different
performers and conductors interpreted his music in multiple different ways; just one piece could
have multiple different readings and interpretations and therefore, varying executions. One of the
pieces that have been played timelessly is Bachs Mass in B Minor, focusing specifically on the
Kyrie Eleison.
Karl Richter's interpretation started off with a very regal, dramatic, and grandiose feel
with all of the voices and instruments coming into the exposition and ending on this dark minor
chord. As it progresses, the voices begin to stagger off in the manner of concerted polyphony.
Then a bright, very soft instrumental comes in as the organ and the orchestra and becomes a light
break between the dark start of the piece and the orchestra creates its own sort of melody with
the higher pitched instruments like the violins and woodwinds. Between the instruments and the

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organ, there is a conversation going on between the two as almost subjects and
countersubjects, coming together in a smooth, yet back-and-forth manner between the two,
creating a complex accompaniment to the voices all singing their own lines. The dark tone of the
piece set in the beginning lingers throughout the instrumental as well, with the strings and the
woodwinds coming together in creating that unobtrusive lightness while maintaining the minor
key. Then the deeper male voices come back in with a low, resonating sound that blends with the
established orchestral background so cleanly that it almost sounds like the cello part of the
orchestra. The female voices then more noticeably enters almost cutting through the dark tone
and adding a small, brighter element. As all the voices and melodies start coming together, the
piece as a whole becomes stronger and more regal, but almost darker and a little storm-like. The
sopranos carry the main melody with all the other instruments and voices having harmonies or
variations of the melody and all together serving as a deep background. Further on, an
instrumental portion comes back at the end of the conversation between all the different
elements, bringing a brighter feel to the minor tone with shorter, staccato-like notes. As the
voices make their ways into the instrumental, the basses complement the already dark tone with a
slightly brighter sound than before, with the female voices come in and the music is played in a
way that it makes it seem like a conversation between the two voices with a consistent,
unobtrusive background accompaniment. At the stretto, the different voices are highlighted with
their individual complexities with the sharp brightness of the female voices and the dark softness
of the male voices and then come together to form that regal feeling reminiscent of the beginning
of the piece, becoming more majestic and grand with the entire piece ending on a bright note.
Richters interpretation really highlights the dark elements of the piece and the minor key, really

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embellishing the minor tone and emphasizing the unique beauty of each element of the music as
well as the beauty that comes with their unification.
Joshua Rifkins interpretation is already different in that the instruments used for
accompaniment are only period instruments rather than the modern orchestra that Richter used
for his Kyrie and there isnt a whole chorus but rather just two people per vocal part (soprano,
countertenor, tenor, bass), which allows for better highlighting of the individual voices and has
the effect of creating short breaks between the dark minor tone. The tenors and basses also play
an active part in the accompanying along with the instruments, acting as a kind of basso
continuo. The use of the period instruments makes it so that there is already a brighter sound than
Richters due to their naturally almost tinny sound and lack of flow between all the
instruments, making it so that there are more slight breaks between notes. The mood of Rifkins
interpretation, though still keeping on to that minor key, is not dramatic but is instead played in a
way that the tone is more somber and soft than regal with a more thoughtful sadness than the
powerful, dark vibe the Richter interpretation had. Because of the softer tones, it allows for the
ability to better catch the individual components of each instrument and how harmonious they
are together despite their separate elements. Also with the existence of the countertenors, it
allows for a female alto range being sung with a male voice that also allows for unity and a
cleaner, softer sound that better resonates with the bass male voices as well, making the
difference between the higher and lower vocal tones not quite as striking. Here in Rifkins, the
voices definitely are more showcased than the accompanying instruments while in Richters,
both were almost equally important in staying true to the minor key tone of the mass and the
Kyrie. The soprano is also much softer here allowing for a much smoother, gliding, light tone

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rather than the harsh almost grating sound of the Richters. The instrumentals overall are brighter
with the light notes with a sound similar to staccato and cuts through the somber mood of the
minor key while still maintaining it in contrast to the more quiet mood of the entire Kyrie.
Theres a lot of brightening of the tone from the upper registers with both voice and instruments
that has the effect of almost negating that minor key. This bright feel also makes the dialogue
between the instruments and the chorus almost like a dance where they go back and forth
between each other and yet display each individual voices virtuosic capabilities (despite the
repetition of similar motifs) and come together in a harmonious, collected, and smooth manner.
The closer it gets to the end of the piece, the more the variations of the subjects are showcased
and well as increase in complexity until all of the voices and instruments come together for a
strong and firm yet bright and glorious ending.
Lastly, Phillipe Herrweghes interpretation of the Kyrie Eleison is almost like a mix
between Richters and Rifkins. The start of the piece sets this dark, powerful, and regal tone
with modern instruments much like Richters set but with only one or two people per part and an
organ much like Rifkins set. Once it gets past the dark, thundering start, it becomes much like
Rifkins set in that the entire tone brightens up with the shorter, staccato-like notes while still
maintaining the minor tone. Because of its softness, the instrumental part almost mimics human
singing voices, creating a quasi vocal feel with the mimicking of exposition and stretto with
sometimes different subjects playing at the same time or harmonizing with each other in different
ways. The emphasis on accenting the notes that come at specific beats within the measure (also
seen with Rifkins set but not as strongly as in Herrweghes) allows for more short pauses
almost which creates a lighter tone amongst the continuous background minor key. When the

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basses enter again after the instrumental, similarly to Rifkins style, the basses and lower register
voices come in softly almost as to blend in with the instruments and the sopranos and higher
register voices also come in softly but more brightly but are not abrasive as they come in with the
male countertenors. After some time, the voices return to their original regal feel but flow
together nicely and has a prominently dark, minor background with the light almost dancing of
the female and countertenor voices being soft yet pronounced and cutting through the dark
regality of the Kyrie. But in Herrweghes version of the Kyrie, the motifs repeated throughout as
subjects and countersubjects are much softer and less pronounced than those of the previous two,
the pauses between notes or between different voices coming together are more defined, and
theres more conversation between the vocals and the instruments, creating a much more
involved feel between the singers and the orchestra than the previous two. This version also has a
quasi-vocal feel to it but also in a switched way in that sometimes, the instruments almost take
over the subject while the vocals become the accompaniment, creating a smooth and unending
atmosphere. The use of dynamics with crescendo and decrescendos at different times really help
to highlight the virtuosity existent in all the different parts that make up the entire Kyrie as a
whole and with this, also really makes use of the mixing and separation of the subject and
countersubjects. Towards the end with the stretto, all of the elements come together with the
sopranos and countertenors joining in with the woodwinds all while brightly getting louder and
ending with a grand repetition of the motif (though softer and with more decoration) and ending
with a very soft, bright ending. Herrweghes interpretation best highlights the dissonance and
unity and harmony between all of the different elements of a piece vocals and vocals, vocals

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and instruments, and instruments and instruments and the capability of the instruments and
vocals to evolve to become like the other.
Though it was the same Bachs Mass in B Minor, the three conductors Richter, Rifkin,
and Herrweighe presented the Kyrie Eleison with so many different tones as each had varied
relations between the instruments and the vocalists and those individual preferences accounted
for the divergent ways in which people understood and perceived the same piece to be. By
manipulating styles and dynamics, honoring different elements at different times in relation to
separate vocals and instruments, and other stylistic techniques, each conductor created an
interpretation of the Kyrie to be something unique, demonstrating the flexibility and timelessness
of Bachs works and how, because of Bachs own virtuosity, came the ability to showcase
subjectivity