Rehearsing the Bach Mass in b minor at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig

Right now I'm in the middle of John Eliot Gardiner's / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists Bach tour. As the ensemble is performing various programmes, the only one for me being the Bach B minor Mass, I have a little time on my hands. 

We performed the work in Barcelona a couple of days ago and the next day I had to get up really early to travel to Turin to start work with another ensemble and ended up writing a few words about performing the Quoniam from the B minor Mass. The Monteverdi's have a tour blog to which this was contributed but I thought I'd share it here as well. We'll be performing this work twice more on this tour, Monday 1st of April at the Royal Albert Hall and then the Sunday 7th of April at the Cité de la Musique in Paris.

To quoniam is a strange experience. It is regarded as one of “the” big baroque horn solos, if not one of the biggest horn solos full stop. The most obvious challenge is the first 45 minutes, the ones when you are not doing anything. Nothing at all. Bach doesn’t write a single note for the lone horn player. If you are sneaky you might quietly play along with the trumpets and timpani sotto voce. Then a leap of faith. A jump into the unknown. No time to check whether the instrument is in tune. After pirouetting around with the bassoons and basses of both the string and vocal variety, you’re done. No opportunity to redress any balances later.


Horn players normally come in pairs. You normally have a buddy or there is a little gang of four or five. Like minded fellow adventurers. Others who understand exactly what you’re battling with in your day to day valiant attempts to tame a notoriously fickle instrument. When quoniaming, their absence is keenly felt.

Musicians can have a type of gallows humour. Jokes about the Quoniam abound. To be honest none of them tend to be THAT funny but in the idle moments that precede “your bit” they can loiter in the recesses of the mind,

Q. Why should Bach be the trumpet players favourite composer?
Q. Because he doesn’t write anything for them in the slow movement of Brandenburg 2.

I warned you.

Q. Why should Bach be the horn players favourite composer?
A. Because he doesn’t start the Quoniam on the top note.

You see?

Not so long ago I fulfilled a long time ambition and had a flying trapeze lesson. Baroque horn players obviously are often thrill seekers. I once knew one who combined baroque horn playing with being a ski instructor and flying planes. Performing the Quoniam requires many of the same skills as flying the trapeze. When jumping off a 25 foot ledge onto the trapeze I learnt the worst thing you could do was doubt. If you did, you risked the trapeze pulling you out before you were ready and would probably end up tottering on the platform only to slip and plummet to the safety mat. You have to confidently hop off the ledge. Brace yourself, don’t fling yourself over the edge, just step, the trapeze and momentum will do the rest. So long as you are strong enough. Ditto with the Quoniam. Brace yourself and go with the music.

I also discovered that flying trapeze is a team effort. Before you jump, two colleagues have the job of getting the trapeze ready. They pull it in towards the platform and hold it steady for you so you can concentrate. The trapeze wants to pull you out. It takes three people to hold it. Once you jump, you trust others, especially the one controlling the safety harness, that between you everything is going to be alright. If you are really lucky then you start to fly. Again, ditto with the Quoniam. Despite what I said at the start, it’s not really a horn solo. It’s a jostling quintet for bass singer, basso continuo, two tremendous bassoon parts and a horn player. It’s a team effort. And if you are really lucky then you start to fly.

Another bad joke about the Quoniam concerns a horn player who, if memory serves me correct, was also on his way to the Royal Albert Hall. Wanting to avoid the walk from South Kensington he hailed a taxi only to get a particular chatty cabbie. The cabbie wanted to know what was the odd shaped bag and is told that it is a french horn. The horn player patiently explains that he is off to play the great Bach’s Mass in b minor. The cabbie seems nonplussed, Bach and the b minor mass do not seem to register with him. No matter. They arrive at the hall, the horn player pays the fare. As the horn player approaches the stage door he hears the cabbie shout after him “Don’t screw up the Quoniam mate”.

Everyone seems to have a Quoniam disaster story. It’s easy to sit there for the first three quarters of an hour obsessing about all the deadly corners that await. The large leaps, the sinuous runs. Even the relatively simple bits, such as the repeated low notes accompanying the bassoons, can become treacherous when they follow acrobatics. But focus beyond the technical challenges and the music carries you. For me the music in the Quoniam, like so much of Bach, somehow marries a simple, yet authoritative, declaration of faith,”You alone are holy, you alone are most high”, with something euphoric and joyous. The Quoniam should resist being ponderous, heavy and earth bound but instead be a shout to the heavens.

My final story about the Quoniam is often repeated. I do hope it is true, if not, it ought to be. The great horn player Alan Civil appeared on Desert Island Discs and choose the B minor Mass. Roy Plomley duly announced his request and dryly suggested he could guess which bit Civil would have selected and then was shocked to realise it wasn’t the Quoniam but the second half of the work. Civil’s rationale was that he had never heard that bit, he was normally half way home by the time the interval was over. However what he had heard of the first half was so good that he’d always wanted to hear the second half.

I’ve often worked with very well meaning musicians who assume that you will wait backstage and come the closing bars of the Qui sedes will stride on for “your bit”. I’ve always resisted this as it feels nonsensical. The Quoniam is a glorious part of a one of the most astounding pieces of music. As you sit there you are constantly inspired by the wondrous things you hear around you. Last night I sat and relished the interweaving string writing of the opening Kyrie, the woodwinds sparing with one another in the Ex resurrexit, the eloquent violin in the Laudamus te the first trumpet riff at the end of the Cum sancto spiritu. And the singers, to single things out is nigh on impossible but if I have to I’d take the basses in the Sanctus. Actually I’d take the Sanctus full stop. To perform it having not experienced everything either side makes one feel hollow and turns the Quoniam into a circus trick rather than part of something profound.

With JEG we perform the work without an interval. I suppose I could slip offstage in a tuning break but often I’ve made a home for myself somewhere amongst my fellow musicians. Last night I was an honorary member of the second violins, an utter joy. Every time I sit there, a good two hours of music, I hear new things. Details emerging, different, fresh each time.

Contrary to popular opinion, rather than suffering, the horn player in the Bach Mass in b minor really has the best seat in the house.

Almost as good as the third oboe’s seat I’d say. But that is someone else’s story…