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).
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.