The second of the two Masterworks Series concerts concluded the American Bach Soloists’ SummerFest last night with a performance of the BWV 232 B minor mass setting by Johann Sebastian Bach. Academy Bach Society musicians were joined by both faculty and students of the American Bach Soloists Academy, all under the baton of Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. All six vocal soloists (two sopranos, two mezzos, one countertenor, one tenor, and one bass) were students.
If on Saturday night one could debate whether such an early oratorio by George Frideric Handel as La Resurrezione really deserved the “masterwork” epithet, the question regarding BWV 232 is whether it should be called a “work” at all. As Kristi Brown-Montesano’s essay in the program book explained so clearly, it would be fairer to call this a compilation of past efforts assembled during the last years of Bach’s life (1748–1749), whose sources date back at least as far as 1724. Thus, the result amounts to a collection of settings of liturgical texts, somewhat in the spirit of the “German Organ Mass” of the third part of Bach’s Clavierübung.
This then raises the question of what constitutes a “historically informed performance.” Any organist who decides to perform the “German Organ Mass” exactly has the hymn settings have been collected in the Clavierübung is probably acting out of academic interests, rather like an organist reconstructing the entire Church Calendar Year by playing the Orgelbüchlein from beginning to end in a single sitting. There is a good chance that, like the contents of the Clavierübung, the four manuscripts collected as BWV 232 were compiled for pedagogical reasons; and, as Brown-Montesano emphasizes in her essay, the result was never performed as such. The idea of this collection being a “composition” as such only emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. One might thus ask what “history” best informs today’s performances!
Another difficulty with “identifying the right history,” so to speak, concerns the extent to which history is not only a chronology of events but also the broader context in which those events are embedded. Bach’s accomplishments in both choral and organ music are, for the most part, products of his “day job” in Leipzig, not only as Cantor of the Thomasschule associated with the Thomaskirche but also as Director of Music in the town’s principal churches. It is easy to forget that in the eighteenth century the citizens of Leipzig did not go to their churches for concerts. They went to serve as members of the congregation for the religious rituals practiced in those churches; and those rituals carried a signification that is difficult (if not impossible) for contemporary secular society to comprehend.
(I am reminded of Anthony Grafton’s New York Review obituary for the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Grafton recalled walking by Geertz’ Princeton classroom and observing the students enacting a witchcraft ritual and then debating the fine points of its practice with intense seriousness. In retrospect I would hypothesize that Geertz’ students were more committed to their simulation than the vast majority of today’s churchgoing public.)
The point is that the largest body of Bach’s work was composed to serve the devotional needs of those who both celebrated and attended the rituals of the Church Calendar. Even when Bach’s own intentions were pedagogical, service to religion was the only priority. Pedagogy was just a way to assist the next generation at being as good at servitude as Bach himself had been.
From this point of view, any “concert performance” experience, even one that takes place in a church, can never be anything more than a “grand illusion.” This is not to dismiss performances in which the illusion may be enticingly deceptive or in which the listener easily succumbs to the grandeur. However, that very act of “serious listening” that provides the foundation for every one of my “examinations” is “historically inconsistent” with what Bach did and why he did it. Having established this premise, I can now state that there was no shortage of grandeur in last night’s performance of BWV 232. This was the largest ensemble to assemble for a SummerFest event, and it was very much a celebration of the present talents of the American Bach Soloists and the “next generation” talents of the American Bach Soloists Academy. As I suggested yesterday, this was an extended “graduation ceremony;” and I suspect that most of us in the audience could relate to the ritual of graduation far more readily than to any religious ritual. Last night we listeners on the audience side experienced a torch being passed, and that torch is definitely being received by capably excellent hands.
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