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Inside look: Bach’s Mass in b minor

On March 24th Bach Collegium Japan will deliver a complete performance of J.S. Bach’s masterful Mass in b minor in Hill Auditorium. While this concert has always been a calendar highlight for us Bach enthusiasts, the natural disasters that shook the pacific region on March 11th have made the need for musical catharsis more important than ever.

If you haven’t heard, UMS committed to donate 50% of ticket purchases from March 16-24 to the American Red Cross Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Relief fund, an organization chosen by Bach Collegium Japan. I imagine the members of the Collegium will hope their performance of the Mass is as cathartic to this tragedy as the New York Philharmonic’s 2002 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 was in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The Bach Collegium could not be better suited to strike a universal chord than with the music of J.S. Bach, one of the most widely beloved composers in the history of Western Music. Local Bach lovers are many and passionate, and it is likely Hill Auditorium will be packed to the rafters. The Mass in b minor is one of Bach’s most transcendent compositions, insofar as it contemporaneously united Bach’s staunch Lutheranism with the textual backbone of the Catholic mass service.

Symbolically re-contextualizing the Mass in b minor like this is not far-fetched, particularly because the work’s first performance was at a charity concert in Hamburg 36 years after Bach died. Obviously, the Mass was meant to be part of a Catholic church service, but its immense length and the fact that Bach completed it only a year before his death prevented the work from achieving its intended purpose. The Bach Collegium Japan’s historical period instruments will present the Mass within an aural context akin to Bach’s own time and may even sound more ‘authentic’ than the first complete performance of the work in 1859 seeing as conductors in that period often re-orchestrated much older works to suit their modern ensembles.

The Mass in b minor is an enormous work lasting over two hours in length. It has four main sections that essentially consist of alternating chorus and small group or solo movements. Many parts of the work are well-known as excerpts, so try not to experience the complete Mass as a sort of ‘connect-the-dots’ from one familiar movement to the other. Although full of minute details, I believe the Mass has a pretty clear long-term emotional arc similar to the non-Bach work I mentioned earlier: Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9.

Beyond its trademark choral writing, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 uses an expanded brass section in its final, glorious movement and the Mass in b minor undergoes a similar coloristic journey from beginning to end. The first Kyrie sets a very dark, dense tone for the works thanks in large part to a general absence of brass instruments in the orchestral accompaniment. Plaintive, mournful movements such as the choral Kyrie, Qui tollis peccatta mundi and solo Qui sedes ad dexteram and Benedictus prominently feature flute or oboe obligatto (solo) parts against the individual singers or highlight these instruments against the larger vocal ensemble. Beginning with the Et ressurexit movement halfway through part 3 of the whole work, the trumpets and horns play a larger and larger role in the choral movements which are more triumphant in tone.

Of course, there are exceptions to the ‘rule’ I’ve laid out – prominent brass parts in the early Gloria in excelsis and Quoniam to solus sanctus movements and reflective minor keys of two of the final four movements – but, to my ears, there is a clear evolution in instrumental color from beginning to end of the Mass in b minor, just like Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. This is a powerful development on the composition’s largest scale: there is a transformation from the penitent darkness of the opening Kyrie to the mature confidence of the calmly glorious Dona nobis pacem, which closes the work.

From an emotional standpoint, I cannot yet imagine the power of the angelically soaring trumpet parts as the Dona nobis pacem (“Grant Us Peace”) drives to its final cadence, culminating both Bach’s masterpiece and the communal prayers the audience and performers. Bach Collegium Japan’s 3/17 performance in Grand Rapids was certainly reported to be a cathartic event, with a special meaning captured in this final movement. As I already noted, 50% of the proceeds accrued between March 16-24 will be donated to disaster relief, providing a spiritual and tangible act of support for the victims and survivors of the devastating earthquake.