Musical Notes

A Pilgrim’s Progress through J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor

  • October 3, 2011

Post-performance reflections by Howard Dyck.

Wrestling with the angel who has been described as “the fifth Evangelist”, J.S. Bach, is always a daunting prospect. And spending time in the white heat of his towering Mass in B Minor means you’re going to be burned as well as blessed! Herewith a summary of thoughts and reflections from the vantage point of the conductor.

We begin. It’s Good Friday. Earlier in the day I’ve heard a performance of the St. John Passion on CBC Radio Two. I’ve tried not to pay too much attention. I have the B Minor to conduct, after all: no extra energy today to focus on yet another masterpiece. Shut out everything else…concentrate on that first choral eruption.

Kyrie eleison…the choir explodes with those opening four measures and the ensuing fugue, conveying the desperation and hope and pain and exultation that Bach must have felt as he neared the end of his life and the end of a faith-based era. Christe Eleison… from the soprano and mezzo soloists. The mood lightens, the music begins to dance in that unique cosmic pas de deux between God and his creation. It’s clear – the Muse is present. This could be good!

Gloria in excelsis Deo! Yes, it’s an exuberant outburst all right, a kind of Baroque speaking in tongues, but soon enough, in the et in terra pax, a strange wistfulness…if only there were peace on earth! It’s Johann Sebastian Bach, the all-seeing prophet, showing us the whole picture from his exalted vantage point.

We emerge from the Cum sancto spiritu having survived the technical challenges of Bach’s contrapuntal minefields. Intermission!

Credo, credo, credo! Forty three times we hear it sung by the various sections of the choir. Lord, I believe – (sotto voce help my unbelief)! We’ve prayed for mercy in the Kyrie, we’ve celebrated Christmas in the Gloria, but Bach knows the reason for the Incarnation is the Cross, and Golgotha is where we’re headed now. Credo… Section by section, key by key, this imposing via dolorosa marches us relentlessly towards the Tree. And there it stands, Crucifixus, movement 5, the epicentre, the supporting pillar of Bach’s 9 movement edifice, the marrow, the quintessence of Christian faith, hulking over everything we know and believe. The music is a wondrous supra-textual thing, a gentle lullaby over 13 lucky/unlucky repetitions of that bass passacaglia. The hammer blows of execution are there too, the Lamb of God expires, and as we lay Him to rest, Bach reveals a miracle. At the most somber moment of the entire Mass, just before the triumphant trumpets-and-drums Et resurrexit, the mood changes from a dark E minor to a gently comforting and serene G major. It’s still Good Friday (literally and figuratively), but Bach has told us it’s already Easter. Amen!

We’ve come through the theological/philosophical (not to mention vocal) thorn thickets of the rest of the Creed (let’s face it, the Church believes too much!), and we’ve affirmed the resurrection from the dead. We’re beat, exhausted, spent. Much more of this, and we’ll need resurrecting! Do we have the stamina to invoke the Holy of Holies in…

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus! A volley of massive, triplet-driven D major chords! The choir and orchestra, every fibre straining now, summons up the Thomaskantor’s vision of Divine majesty. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory”. Osanna! Just when you think you’re stretched to the very limit, Bach raises the bar – he splits us into 2 choirs! Singing praise to Almighty God is no bagatelle – we’re wrestling with Jacob’s Angel, remember? And we will be bruised and blessed! The tenor soloist replies with Benedictus – “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord”. The Holy Spirit’s divine flute hovers beatifically. We respond…Osanna!

Bach, infected by pietistic fervour, influenced by his Anabaptist mother, and immunized by his strict Lutheran environment, is putting the finishing touches to his great liturgical cri de coeur. It ends as it must, in prayer. Agnus Dei – “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”. Prayer, for Johann Sebastian Bach, is serious business. He believes that his prayer will be answered, for as he and we gasp Dona nobis pacem, we demonstrate our faith that peace will indeed come by singing it to the same Gratias music of thanksgiving that we heard an hour and a half earlier in the Gloria.

The audience roars its approval, and we go through the motions of acknowledging applause. Bach’s holy dove has descended. We have been through the crucible, physically, emotionally, intellectually, theologically. We are older, maybe wiser. We are not the same as we were 2 and a half hours ago. Gratias…Dona nobis pacem.

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