Thursday, January 9, 2014

B is for Bach's Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)

Broadly speaking, my preferred spiritual experience is the unprogrammed Quaker Meeting for Worship. I am not one of those convinced Friends (i.e., a Quaker who was not raised in our Religious Society) who would list the lack of hymns as one of the traditional drawbacks of this type of religion. It is true that I usually go to a local Anglican (= Episcopal) church during the Advent or Christmas season for a performance of lessons and carols and enjoy “the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir,” but that usually suffices for the year. I don’t enjoy singing in small groups, and I do know what I am missing.

Having made this confession, it might seem surprising that I believe listening to the Mass in B Minor of J.S. Bach to be of the great contemplative experiences, and that I would also assign a high rank to a number of other renditions of the Ordinarium (sung Latin versions of the mass, whether Catholic, Protestant, or a hybrid, which are not exactly the same as what is spoken in a particular church). In fact, I have a reasonable collection of recordings of choral music in Latin, most of it liturgical, and every now and then some of it makes its way to my otherwise secular classroom where I teach Latin grammar and pagan Latin literature. Usually it illustrates some point of grammar. Most often I choose the “Dona nobis pacem,” “Grant us peace,” which students can translate before the end of the first semester.  If I have enough time, I play Bach’s majestic finale; if I am rushed, I am more than happy to substitute the end of Mozart’s Missa Brevis KV 275, which always reminds me of the truth in William Blake’s lines in his “Auguries of Innocence” about holding “Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” I sometimes refer to the observation of the great Japanese musicologist Yoshitake Kobayashi, himself a Buddhist, that the B Minor Mass is of universal significance. In any case, I try to avoid anything containing a creed, and not just because I am a Quaker teaching at a secular university.

When I listen to any one of the great sung Masses, I wrestle not only with the music and its social history but also with the words. This is primarily an issue with the Credo (creed); clearly, my reflections on the “Dona nobis pacem” are not related to fundamental disagreements with the concept. Although I am no theologian, my understanding is that the objections George Fox and other early Friends had with creeds are not necessarily in what is said (although questions of belief and interpretation might sometimes be paramount) but in the compulsion to say them rather than to think about them or to express one’s beliefs in actions and not just words.  My own concerns (I am essentially a Christian universalist) are first and foremost of this nature.

The fact that I do not recite a creed in my spiritual life is not an “easy out” when wrestling with the meaning of the Credo — quite the contrary. Nevertheless, I may find this task easier than some Friends precisely because I grew up in a non-liturgical strand of Protestantism and have now been a Quaker for more years than not. I am thus viewing the material with reasonably fresh eyes. All in all, respect and, indeed, affection are possible even when agreement is not — and in the case of the major sung Masses I also subscribe to the dictum that what cannot be spoken may nevertheless be sung.

Since I usually relegate singing to the shower and the car, it is reasonable to ask whether I have any adult experience of making music and not just listening to it. I do, but this a recent endeavor, after one attempt as an adult to start a new instrument at an inopportune time and another —overlapping with the Great Blackout of 2003 (speaking of divine thunderbolts)— to resume lessons on the flute, which I enjoyed in my youth but found less appealing as an adult. For my third attempt, the instrument I chose was the piano, which did not work out in elementary school, despite my mother’s valiant efforts with three teachers in as many years. (To give a Biblical comparison, when Jesus foretold that Peter would thrice deny him, he was right not only about Peter’s psychological make-up but in the significance of messing up exactly three times.) In the spring of 2012, after practicing diligently on my own for nearly a year, I clawed my way back to piano lessons, from which I was more or less booted at the age of ten.
Johann Sebastian Bach. Image via a Creative Commons license from Wikimedia Commons. Bach apparently said that playing the keyboard was simply a matter of putting the right fingers on the right keys at the right time.

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