Friday, January 25, 2008

Bachin' in the New Year

In December a soprano I have sung with asked me if I wanted to sing the Bach B Minor Mass with a small chamber orchestra and chorus.

Oh, yes.

Bach scholarship tells us that his pieces were never meant for the large oratorio societies of 100 voices—-which is usually how Bach is performed in the city--but for a group of 25 or so voices, and that’s what this experience would be.

It’s hard in our world of constant hype to speak in superlatives; it’s hard to find vocabulary to talk about something superlative when you actually find it.

But that’s the B Minor Mass. “A complex system of thought at many levels went into the making of this great Mass, and lifts it not only above the rest of his oeuvre but also above the entire repertory of Western music.” (Chris Wolff, notes to the John Eliot Gardiner recording, 1985)

I know, it sounds like hyperbole. But this is an extra-ordinary piece.

I have sung the Latin Mass hundreds of times set by centuries of composers. But I am deeply struck by the sheer conviction that comes across in Bach’s setting. His “et incarnatus est” is the most reverent, most awe-filled I have ever heard. The “Gloria” is the most glorious; the man REALLY knows how to write for trumpets.

In the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” the bassoon and French horn somehow perfectly convey “You are the Most High.” His “et resurrexit” is the most joyous. And this from the arch, orthodox Lutheran, setting words that Luther had excised from the Roman rite.

Wolff explains a little of the historical incongruity of the German Protestant setting the Roman Catholic Latin Mass. In terms of musical history, “fashions came and went, one type of cantata was replaced by another. The mass, in complete contrast, stood above time and fashion.” It’s not surprising that Bach would want his legacy to include a contribution to that genre.

The fact that it is no mere “contribution” tells us more about the mind of the genius. Parts of the piece date from 1724, but the whole was not finished and assembled until 1749, the year before his death in 1750. It is a summation of his life, work, and unyielding faith. Stories persist about atheists, agnostics, and Jews converting to Christianity after performing Bach.

Well, it takes some sort of power to bring people together in 2008, after a long day of work of varying kinds, to give life to the notes Bach left on the page for us three hundred years ago. The group has every tier of instrumental and vocal musician, from the professional to the avocational amateurs. It is a thrill when things start to come together, when we collectively stop reading note . . . note . . . .note, and start inhabiting the phrases of the master. It is the closest thing to getting inside the head of a genius there is. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

TV doesn’t show music very often in the lives of our pop-culture characters. Morse sang with an Oxford choral group and amateur opera players; Bolander retired from the Homicide squad and concentrated on his cello playing; Frasier and Niles were seen playing the piano occasionally and singing.

Hmm, maybe when the strike breaks I can get a tv series about a wacky choral group into development: Cashmere Altos; Your Bass or Mine; Lend Me a Tenor. I feel the time is ripe . . .


dorki said...

I must be ultimately satisfying to be able to perform the works of J. S. Bach. My only experiences that might remotely compare are my few instances of scientific discovery and invention.

In my opinion "The Day The Music Died" refers to 28th of July, 1750.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki--right on!

And it is a privilege to be able to gather with others and perform Bach.