Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, American Bach Soloists (ABS) continued its summer tradition by giving the first of two performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting of the Mass text in B minor. Presented as part of the sixth annual Festival & Academy, the performance involved the American Bach Choir singing with an instrumental ensemble in which Academy students played alongside ABS members taking almost all instrumental solos. All vocal solos were also taken by Academy students.
While the above headline deliberately selected two words associated with Catholic ritual (“celebrates” and “belief”), there is much to be gained from detaching BWV 232 from its “obvious” religious intentions, beginning with the equally “obvious” fact that Bach himself was not Catholic. Indeed, the question of intentions is taken head-on by the first sentence of the notes by Jeffrey Thomas and Kristi Brown-Montesano in the program book:
Bach’s motivations to compile the Mass in B Minor, and the variety of styles that he chose to chronicle, give us tremendous insight into so many burning questions about his self-identity as composer, theologian, and craftsman.
Most important is that BWV 232 is a compilation, rather than an instance of the usual semantics of “composition.” It was one of his last efforts, completed in 1749, the year before his death; and the resulting document was never performed during Bach’s lifetime. The above use of the verb “chronicle” is particularly informative, since BWV 232 is one of several retrospective efforts through which Bach looked back on his achievements as a music-maker to affirm “his self-identity as composer.” Two other major “chronicle” documents are the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the unfinished BWV 1080 collection of fugues published in 1751 under the title Die Kunst der Fuge (the art of fugue). Thus, just as BWV 1080 collected a wide diversity of examples of imitative counterpoint that could be called “fugue,” BWV 232 pulls together an equally wide diversity of approaches to setting text to music, covering a gamut of resources running from the minimality of chamber music to a full instrumental ensemble performing with a double chorus.
Note that none of this has anything to do with Catholic ritual. (Remember, Bach was a Lutheran and occupied a significant position concerned with providing music for Lutheran services.) Ultimately, the text of the Mass signifies only as a structural framework for Bach’s exercise in “retrospective compilation,” just as the chromatic scale provides a framework for The Well-Tempered Clavier and a single fugue subject constitutes the “spinal cord” of BWV 1080. True, Bach understood how a repertoire of key rhetorical tropes could be engaged to reflect the meaning of the words being set; and in BWV 232 we see that he applies this technique to Latin as deftly as he applied it to German as part of his Leipzig duties. However, to regard those tropes as anything more than Bach reflecting on his own toolkit is to search for articles of faith as if one were digging for buried treasure. The substance of BWV 232 is in the music itself, and that is where its expressiveness must reside.
The great joy of these annual returns to BWV 232 thus has less to do with any religious connotations and far more to do with Bach’s never-ending concern with inventive expressiveness as a vital ingredient in making music. Every summer those who attend an ABS performance of BWV 232 are presented with new perspectives on how that expressiveness may be realized. Some of those perspectives come from the performers themselves; and, when faced with the challenges of invention, students often come up with points of view that their teachers may have overlooked.
However, much of the invention can still be credited to Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas, for whom BWV 232 is the musical equivalent of Heraclitus’ river, the one that no man can ever step into twice because it is always changing. Like Bach himself, Thomas knows how to approach BWV 232 as a framework within which any number of different dimensions of invention may be explored. Among the many impressions he conveyed last night, some of the most salient involved the ongoing give-and-take between large-scale and more intimate settings. One was reminded of a museum in which small studies share the wall with large canvases. One has to keep changing one’s point of view, but the virtues of the small are as stimulating as those of the large.
On that smaller scale Thomas had the good fortune to work with a really excellent gathering of Academy students. There was a confident solidity, most evident in sonorities that often come off as too fragile, such as the countertenor voice or the sounds of historical wind instruments that need so much more coaxing than their more “technically reliable” present-day versions. Through last night’s performance, one could appreciate just how much had gone into Bach’s compilation effort, bringing so much diversity into a single framework that could fill an entire evening with highly satisfying listening experiences.