Last weekend I spent a lot of time with Bach. Over the last four and a half months, I’ve spent a lot of time with Bach. “But you produce a show called The Bach Hour. Of course you’ve spent a lot of time with Bach!”
Yes, well, there is that. But this has been exceptional. Being at four different performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor since October has left me with two takeaways, one of them expected, the other unexpected. Neither takeaway is the, dare I say, cliché, “I heard things in the Mass I had never heard before.”
The truth is that I know this piece pretty well as it is, so there wasn’t really something about it that was going to reveal itself to me for the first time. And what was revealed - the unexpected takeaway - was far more important anyway.
When I mentioned to friends last fall that I would be hearing the same 2-hour long piece of music four times in the space of a handful of months, the most common reaction was something along the lines of, “OK, good luck with that. And by the way, how many times do you need to hear something to get it?”
I went on my merry way, inviting others to join me as they wished. And as I listened to David Hoose lead the Cantata Singers in a deeply felt, impeccably paced performance of the Mass last weekend, with every detail of transition, dramatic buildup, and release attended to with exquisite care, what struck me was that the paradigm of “hearing the same piece four times” completely misses the point.
Yes, I heard the Mass four times (from Boston Baroque, Boston Early Music Festival, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; read my impressions of those three). But what really happened was that I met four groups of people, each of them committed to a vision and a journey. Importantly, none of them was perfect, and each experience was the better for it.
My experience of four B minor Masses is that, while musicians channel the work of composers, they also channel themselves, and all of what’s beautiful, strong, quirky, and uncertain about us goes into it. I could have listened to four recordings of the B minor Mass. But, for all the perfection (more or less) of commercially released recordings, they simply don’t replace the experience of sitting in a room with people who are putting their skills, their training, and, maybe, their souls on the line in an effort to bring something valuable to the rest of us listening. The slight imperfections of the moment only add to the humanity of the situation.
So what was the takeaway I expected? What so many people have said before and will continue to say about Bach’s music: it’s a source of strength and never lets you down. It’s not hard to find someone who says that, when confronted with life’s challenges, small and large, it was Bach that got them through it.
And without getting into unnecessary details, this was my experience precisely. Life threw a big speed bump in my way during the course of the last few months. And returning to the Mass in B minor has been as effective as anything else - literally - in keeping my eyes on the road ahead and what it takes to navigate through difficult times.
There’s not much use in trying to explain why that is, but certainly one characteristic of Bach’s music I find endlessly fascinating is probably at the heart of the matter. It’s that quality of keeping two or more very different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, aspects of being human in front of us simultaneously.
We all live with hope and fear, joy and sadness, anticipation and regret. Bach not only knew that as well as anyone, he also knew that each of those qualities doesn’t really exist without its counterpart. (In fact, the most important dichotomy to Bach was probably faith and doubt.) And beyond all that, he somehow knew, more than any of his contemporaries, how to create music that embodies those contradictions in equal measure.
As a result, when we hear something like the Mass, or the Goldberg Variations, or practically any of the sacred cantatas, as well as loads of other music Bach wrote, we’re seeing ourselves. And we’re affirmed that, no matter what it is we’re facing, it’s part of being human.
I hope you’ll join us on Sunday night, March 5, for WCRB In Concert with Boston Baroque. Martin Pearlman conducted the first of the four major Mass in B minor presentations this season, and you’ll hear it, beginning at 7pm, and on demand beginning on Monday morning.