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October 21, 2009

Bach's Mass in Bm ("Agnus Dei")

By: Bernard Chazelle

Cruel of me, I know, to leave you Bach-less for so long, but the agony is over. This is the "Agnus Dei" from the Mass in Bm (itself in Gm). The Mass was never performed in full during Bach's lifetime. (Why Bach would compose a Catholic mass is a long story having to do with job advancement.) Just a voice on top of a spare continuo and violin obbligato: in other words, the music lives or dies on the quality of its melody. But this is no "Ode to Joy," with Beethoven drowning out a banal ditty in awkward arrangements. Bach's melodic gifts are here in full display.

We might be living through a unique moment in history: no truly great composer anywhere but great music and a plethora of great musicians. The conductor, Philippe Herreweghe, and the singer, Andreas Scholl, are two of them. Scholl's ueber-subtle, sustained-only vibrato is a model of control and taste. As to Herreweghe, I am no HIP snob, but the Belgian psychiatrist has made the trend as compelling as anyone could. To clarify, I love the sound of authentic performance, especially of that caliber, but I am dubious about the philosophy behind it. No one has a clue what Bach sounded like (no evidence he used countertenors), and Joshua Rifkin, who would know more about this than anyone, has argued that HIP performances are almost certainly historically wrong. No doubt Bach sounds best in a church but the greatness of the music is that you don' t have to be in a church to grasp it. An iPod is just fine. Musicians should be encouraged to fool around with the classics with their own modern sensitivities and outgrow this bizarre cult-like worship of "great art" as holy relics. (No doubt my gentle jab at Beethoven above will elicit screams of horror.) Today's musicians don't even improvise their own cadenzas, and Bach would have laughed at their poor improvising skills.

I also dislike the concert hall. The concert hall is a secular church. No one is allowed to express any emotion whatsoever unless prompted. And if you're such a peasant you applaud at the wrong time, the audience lets you know of your social status. But when Mozart conducted his symphonies, the audience would applaud and holler spontaneously whenever they pleased, just the way we would do at a rock concert or a jazz club. This sacralization of music (a byproduct of the Romantic era) is one of the major reasons classical music has died as an art form (say compared with hip hop and jazz, which is where the best and most vibrant western music is to be found today).

The Agnus Dei is a parody of the aria of Cantata BWV 11 that Bach wrote 10 years earlier: same music, different words. (And that aria, too, was cribbed from his wedding cantata.) Shocked by such shameless self-plagiarism? Well, remember that Bach's work was typically meant to be performed only once and then tossed, so why wouldn't he reuse his musical ideas? Imagine Charlie Parker performing Ko-Ko just once and throwing it away forever.

The Cantata 11 was written in 1735 for the feast of the Ascension. The preceding months had not be kind to Bach. He and his wife, Anna Magdalena, lost 2 daughters aged 3 and 4, one son aged 3, and one daughter only 3 days old. Bach adored children. Except for the St Matthew Passion, the only music he composed for posterity can be found in the instruction books he wrote to teach his children (eg, the well-tempered clavier). Like the Vietnamese and the Palestinians, of course, a devout 18c Lutheran musician wouldn't feel the pain of losing his children as we would. (I know this because I read the New York Times.) Yet I've been told by some of the world's greatest medievalists that Charlemagne grieved over the loss of his little daughter his entire life. Never could let go of it. So maybe what I read in The Times is crap, and perhaps Bach had departures other than Jesus' on his mind when he put his music to these words:

Thy departure and early separation
causes me exceeding great pain.
Ah, stay yet a while
or I shall be engulfed by sorrow.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at October 21, 2009 08:33 PM

Gosh! What a voice!
Now, only if I was a catholic!
Beautiful music!
Thank you Prof Chazelle.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 21, 2009 11:04 PM

Part of what it means to be a devout Lutheran (or Catholic) is that your child's death IS the death of Jesus (and vice versa).

Posted by: G Alkon at October 21, 2009 11:27 PM

I've always considered Beethoven's 9th a flawed masterpiece because the 4th movement seems so cobbled together compared to the near-perfection of the first 3.

That's not to say the 4th movement's not great as well, or that I have any idea how it could have been better (there's no point in saying there shouldn't have been singing, the way some people do; that's what B's vision was, he was going to attempt it, and that's that).

Posted by: Russ at October 22, 2009 05:49 AM

Very powerful music, I got tears in my eyes. This is pure music, the music Bach had to write, nothing more, nothing less. And that is the sign of any "true" music also today. You don't even have to like it, but you know it and you respect the art.


Posted by: mts at October 22, 2009 07:01 AM

I used to deliver calzones for a living, and when I did, I frequently listened to classical music at ill-advised volume levels. One fine night, I was approached by a belligerent drunk, who asked me if I was listening to Vivaldi. When I told him, "No, this is Beethoven's 6th symphony", he grew angry, and when I stood my ground, explaining that I prefered romantic and modern composers to the baroque, he attempted to settle the argument with his fists. Fortunately for all involved, his friends dragged him off. Sometimes I miss the nights of driving around a deserted campus at 2 am.

Posted by: Light Rail Tycoon at October 22, 2009 10:38 AM

LRT: priceless! (Beethoven's 6th, now that's my idea of a great symphony.)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 22, 2009 02:26 PM

Beethoven's 6th is my favourite of all symphonies. When I heard it for the first time, I felt like I was out in an open field with gentle breeze flowing and butterflies flying. It was so beautiful..... and I did not even know, it was called PASTORAL symphony! Gorgeous and gentle music that...

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 22, 2009 08:13 PM

I've been listening to a lot of Philippe Jaroussky lately and really loving it. I dont like this guys's voice quite as much but I would guess he's technically better - better control, etc. In any case, I'm totally digging the countertenor scene - thanks!

Also, I've been listening to Fritz Wunderlich's 1958 rendition of 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' from the Easter Oratorio and it's literally restoring my faith in humanity. I can't believe how beautiful it is. Just can't believe it.

Bach is so full of beauty!

Posted by: Guest at October 22, 2009 10:49 PM

about the 20th or so time of listening to liszt's piano version of the finale of lvb's 9th did i realize how craptacular it really was. whoever put that piece of junk on the Voyager...i hope nixon really shit-canned his ass.

Posted by: anemonous at October 23, 2009 12:33 PM

hey, by the way what do you mean by "sustained-only vibrato"? thanks much!

Posted by: Guest at October 24, 2009 06:28 PM

Vibrato was frowned upon in the Baroque/Classical era, but Scholl uses a very light vibrato over long, sustained notes -- never short ones -- and he does it only for dynamics, not for emotional effect. I don't want to think how many years of vocal training it takes to be able to pull that off.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 25, 2009 12:40 AM


Posted by: Guest at October 25, 2009 11:46 AM

wow, i'm sure i feel so edified by this...

Posted by: jerry at October 25, 2009 08:55 PM

The combination of Bach and Scholl is just wonderful. Thank you for posting.

Posted by: Svensker at October 26, 2009 09:07 AM

I guess, I am getting addicted to Bach music (thank you Prof Chazelle) now and I found this absolutely amazing piece of music by him so with your permission, here it goes...........

"Andreas Scholl - Bach - Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust"

ps this is specially for people like me who are getting familiar with Bach's music.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 26, 2009 03:15 PM