Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mass in B Minor

A blogger who calls herself a Lutheran and a soprano could hardly pass up an opportunity to blog about singing Bach's Mass in B Minor on a Sunday afternoon in Lent. But (sigh!) that same soprano blogger is overwhelmed by the size of the topic, especially now that she's finally winding down from the performance with the help of a greasy cheeseburger and a couple of beers.

We may have to make do with the recording of random observations. Let's see where this goes. (You may wish to stop reading here.)

To orient you: I sang the Mass in B Minor with the Bach Cantata Vespers choir and Chicago Choral Artists this afternoon at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, Michael Costello conducting. It was lot of work getting ready for this. There were a lot of notes, many of them flashing by at great speed while climbing to sinus-rattling altitudes.

It went well. The church was packed and enthusiastic. This was a Big Event.

One thing that has kind of freaked me out since one of the thrilling trumpet finishes in the rehearsal yesterday: I get to hear this music and Bach never did. Or probably never did, at least not the Symbolum Nicenum.

(The Kyrie and Gloria are from an earlier work, yada, yada, yada, and the Sanctus was from Christmastime in some year or other. Read more about the sources here in Wikipedia.)

Someone said to me, well, even if Bach never heard the work performed, he heard it in his mind as he composed it.

My thought: His musical mind being hard-working, flexible, creative and brilliant, he probably did hear it clearly in his mind, and it probably was more perfect in his mind than it could ever be in the actual playing. But that's still not the same as hearing it—is it? Or was Bach chasing an idea in the Mass in B Minor, an idea of perfection, or the very best he himself could do, as in the Art of the Fugue--something else not actually performed in his life, but perfected on paper? So hearing it didn't matter.

Wow, I was going to do random observations and I've now found myself in the middle of an argument pitting–I don't know–Platonic ideals, or some higher musical ideal of the German Enlightenment against something about incarnation and God entering an imperfect but very Baroque world. How many books might I have to read to puzzle that one out with any authority?

What I hear in my mind is Bach's "Et incarnatus est," in descending chords, choral dissonance suspended above the continuo, the mystery of God taking on human flesh. In that and the "Crucifixus" that follows Bach wrings out what it means to be made human, and for God to redeem humanity by being present in it--in the very human pain of life, of being alive. Then boom! the music catches it all up and transforms the pain into resurrection and life and faith ("Confiteor") and dancing holiness ("Sanctus") and finally mercy and peace.

The "Et incarnatus" was the last original piece of choral music Bach wrote in his life. He pulled the text out of the preceding aria and made it into its own movement--scholars say, to give the Credo section its symmetry, with the "Crucifixus," the cross, at the center, as it is in Lutheran theology. What did "incarnatus" mean for Bach–God incarnate, in human flesh–at the time in his life when his flesh--or at least his eyesight--was failing him? What did the "sepultus est" text mean--Christ died and was buried? Does perhaps the "incarnatus" sing of God's presence, not just in the birth of Jesus from the virgin Mary, but also in the imperfection, in the wasting away and the dying that are part of being human?

I don't know what Bach was thinking, how theology played out in his life. But it's in the mystery of that music of the "Et incarnatus." That movement, to me, is music that must be heard, not just imagined, even if it trembles slightly on the imperfect side of the pitch. Because even as we go through life desiring the good and the perfect and the ideal, but falling short, God has entered that world and sanctified it with God's presence.

Sanctified, too, in the music of God's servant, J. S. Bach.