The most remarkable thing was that every boy in the school was involved in performing Bach's great choral work; As preparations are made for a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass in Cardiff, James Stewart reveals here how his own second-hand copy of the score unearthed an historic music event.
SEVERAL years ago I bought a second-hand copy of the score of Bach's B Minor Mass in London.
On the fly leaf was the name R D Hewart Jones. I later discovered that Jones was a Welshman, brought up in Radyr, Cardiff, the son of the Professor of Chemistry at the university in Cardiff.
Tucked among the pages of Jones' score was the programme for a large and impressive performance of the Mass on December 19, 1926. There were 280 singers in the choir, but for 10 of the choruses they were reinforced by another 200 voices.
In an unusual departure, the Quoniam tu solus sanctus, written by Bach for a solo voice, was sung by all 114 basses of the choir.
To match their combined vocal power, the accompaniment for this section was re-scored by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The scene of this performance was Oundle School, near Peterborough, and the most remarkable thing about it was that every boy in the school was involved. Those not in the choir or the orchestra - the "non-choir" - sang in the 10 massed choruses.
This choral tradition at Oundle had begun five years earlier. Carrie Tubb - a well-known singer in her day - was the mother of a pupil. She made an offer: if the school would put on a performance of Handel's Messiah, she would supply top soloists (herself included) and key orchestral players, including the great Leon Goossens on oboe.
There was one condition - that all boys in the school would be involved. The day after the 1921 performance of Messiah, there was a meeting in the headmaster's study and he asked what the greatest choral work in the world was.
The B Minor Mass was mentioned and it was decided to perform Bach's work the next year in the same way. The piece was performed again in 1923. They next sang Bach's Christmas Oratorio before returning to Messiah in 1925. In 1928, the Christmas Oratorio was broadcast by the BBC. By the early 1950s, the B Minor Mass had featured 12 times. The 50th and final concert came in 1971 with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Robin Miller, head of music at the time, said: "In the end we reckoned that Novello had sold us some 25,000 bound vocal scores, most of which the boys took away when they left school."
It was one of these scores which I had bought, the one from which Roger Daniel Hewart Jones sang in the bass section in 1926. He went on to lead a remarkable life - but that's another story.
Did he continue to sing? We don't know. But Arthur Marshall, in Life's Rich Pageant, recalled his own introduction to Bach's great choral work at Oundle and said the Mass stayed with those who sang it for the rest of their lives.
* Bach's B Minor Mass will be performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales and five soloists at St David's Hall, Cardiff, on Friday at 7pm. Tickets are available from 0800 052 1812 Meet the singers the Bach B Minor Mass is a brilliant starting point. Although it's a big piece, it features some of the most exciting and accessible movements he has done."
Elin Manahan Thomas, a 32-year-old soprano from Gorseinon: "Bach seems, to me, to get across the most human side of early music. There's real emotion in his music. You might think of Baroque as semi-skimmed but the Bach B Minor Mass is absolutely full fat - it's the most stunning, monumental piece. I just love the fact it takes you through so many variations of emotion, style and speed."
Peter Harvey is a bass, from Harrow: "I'm seen as a Bach specialist. For me, his work is an extraordinary combination of incredibly tense, intelligent and complex music. I first did Bach's B Minor Mass at the age of 12 with the school choir and we took it to Berlin. It completely switched me onto Bach. Just because it's difficult music to perform doesn't mean it's difficult music to listen to. There's a big difference there." Robin Blaze, 39, is a Manchester-born counter-tenor: "I sing a lot of Bach. There's a great depth and intensity to his work, which I find powerful. People can be put off by Bach as it's heavyweight music but favourite to sing. If you could get more people to listen to Bach they would realise it's the most accessible music. It's clever music but you don't need to be clever to understand it. It has lots of different textures and colours. The words and sentiments come out so brilliantly." Tenor Toby Spence, 40, is from Hartford: "Bach happens to be one of my favourite composers. I spent most of my time listening to Bach as a kid. It's difficult to sing. While it's very rewarding for the listener it's not so rewarding for the singer - it's like walking a tightrope, you feel you could fall off any second. It really is a balancing act. Bach uses the voice like a chamber instrument."
Joanna Lunn, 34, is a soprano from Leicestershire: "Bach is my
GRAND TRADITION: Elin Manahan Thomas is performing at Bach's B Minor Mass concert at St David's Hall in Cardiff.