Friday, April 15, 2011

WordWays on Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
Written by John Hale for his column WordWays, published in the ODT on Thursday 14 April 2011:

At Rehearsals
Bach’s B Minor Mass will be performed on Saturday by the City of Dunedin Choir and the Southern Sinfonia, directed by David Burchell. In moments of respite during strenuous rehearsals, I’ve been wondering what’s in this supreme work for the wordsmith.

Why Latin?
The text is in Latin because Latin was the language of internationalexchange for Western Europe for centuries, till after Newton or Linnaeus (and Bach), and for the Roman church till Vatican II. It was a language of the earliest Christians, along with Greek and Aramaic. A few words and phrases from those other languages, and from classical Hebrew, remain embedded like nuggets in the text of the Mass: respectively, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), Amen (Truly I say), Osanna (Save now!). Kyrie eleison as archetypal Christian words comes from the gospels.

Singing Latin
Latin is a friendly language to sing in. To see what I mean, compare Bach’s German. It’s hard to sing menschliches Geschlecht mellifluously, whereas Dona nobis pacem comes naturally. I’m not criticising German, only praising Latin for singing, and for the words of the Mass. Bach won’t compromise the
music to help his singers, so be thankful his Latin poses no tongue twisters. It means the singers can relish the long pure vowels, whether sitting snugly on a prolonged Saa–aa-aa-nctus, or doing the semi-quavers helter skelter. Bach gives the singer’s mouth and ears a gratifying work-out. You can use the words to get the rhythms right. He dwells on the words, in loving repetition, variation within repetition. Sounds, words, and meanings are defamiliarized.

No composer surpasses Bach in expressiveness either. The opening Kyries move in strange wide intervals: they yearn and plead. The parts wander around uncertainly at Expecto (“I am waiting” for the life to come). Most obviously, the Crucifixus sings very slowly, moving down to a solemn low close, then we burst out in a high quick contrasting Et Resurrexit (starting in a different rhythm, halfway through a bar). Phew. That close was not the close: the narrative continues. The words imply emotions which the music then expresses. It’s all high drama. A pity Bach didn’t do opera.

These examples mimic meanings of the words, and conjure up the corresponding feelings. Though such word-painting is usual for composers, something singles Bach out. Is it completeness, intensity, or accuracy? Or the ordered beauty and self-replenishing energy?

My first answer to these questions is from the experience of the singing. When the men’s parts sing In gloria, they get some lovely sustained notes (comforting the nerves and resting the tonsils): we pour forth steadily on one note while the ladies’ notes wriggle around rapidly. There’s just time for action and contemplation combined, a sort of energetic trance.

Bach’s conception 
My second answer is about Bach. I actually have no clear conception of what words like glory or holy or blessèd mean. Life doesn’t seem to visit them much. So I can’t call Bach’s settings expressive mimicry, unless one or both of two things is true. Does Bach endow us with his knowledge of glory, a musical radiance? Or does music itself, at certain times, when words must fail, translate the unknown?

Making Sense or Not?
If this rave isn’t making sense but you’re still reading, then as they say, I guess you have to be there; rehearsing, making the music, and feeling it go through you. But Bach will be speaking for himself, in the Dunedin Town Hall, Saturday 16 April, 7:30 pm.

1 comment:

Leta said...

Thank you John, I found this a mesmerising read. Well said!