Lent is, paradoxically enough, a joyful time in New York City, because it tends to feature some of the world’s very best performances of sacred choral music. Tonight offered one such, the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It is my opinion, and not mine alone, that this is the greatest work by history’s greatest composer; and the Philharmonic and its associates did an excellent job of traversing it. Among the featured soloists were celebrated mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and soprano Dorothea Röschmann (I don’t follow the music world closely at all, so I hadn’t heard of her before; she has a great voice, and the pictures of her do not do justice to her physical beauty).
The B Minor Mass reminds me vividly of how true Ratzinger’s remark of many years ago really was: There are as many ways to God as there are people. Picture a packed house at Lincoln Center, enraptured by a theological document composed when the Roman Empire still existed. The central section of a full Mass setting is devoted to the Nicene Creed, a traditional summary of the basics of the Christian faith, and Bach spent part of his final years on earth working on precisely this section of the Mass. How many people in that auditorium endorsed each of the exactitudes specified in that document? How many would have been agitated by the word “filioque” — which once split Christendom in two? How many paid attention to the words at all? And yet the work speaks to all of them, because the God who is beyond words is in the music every bit as much as in the words.
Bach started work on the B Minor Mass a couple of decades earlier, and never saw the work performed in its entirety. (Indeed, the first complete performance did not take place until 109 years after his death.) Now, the purpose of a Mass setting is to provide music for a specific type of liturgical celebration — and yet Bach knew that this particular Mass setting was inappropriate even for the most elaborate cathedral Mass. The whole composition takes one hour and 50 minutes to perform — and represents only about one-quarter to one-third of the texts to be prayed at a typical Mass. This was a Mass, then, for listeners who would not be at a Mass.
It’s a personal statement of the composer’s faith, and it remains compelling even for people who are indifferent or hostile to that faith. It is a time capsule preserving that faith, and even a time bomb unleashing it on our vastly different age. In the few days after the election of the new pope, there has been a ferocious debate as to whether Pope Francis’s preference for simplicity betokens a hostility on his part to liturgical beauty. But as Elizabeth Scalia has so ably pointed out, a man whose favorite author is Dostoevsky is not likely to forget Dostoevsky’s assertion that it is beauty that will save the world. The B Minor Mass is one channel it might use to do so: It reaches, with its music, even those who think they reject its words.
Bill Buckley used to say that one could sense divinity in even the secular works of Bach. In this Mass for non-Massgoers, that divinity was very much alive tonight, in Avery Fisher Hall. Some of Bach’s faith left the auditorium, even in the hearts of people who do not use his language to express it.