September 23, 2012
The Musical Canon: The Sanctus from Bach's B Minor Mass
Since MOJ readers may be tiring of my occasional musical interjections, I thought it might be fun to create a little structure and inaugurate a tradition. So here's something new about something old: each Sunday, I'll post about a work that belongs in the musical canon of classical religious music. What is the canon? It's comprised of the pieces that are on my list! I invite informed and elegantly composed comments about the music.
Here's a worthy lead-off hitter: Bach's magnificent, soaring, mighty Sanctus from his powerful B minor Mass, finished late in his life for the services at St. Thomasschule in Leipzig. (It says in one of my reference works that Bach left his previous post as Kappelmeister at Cöthen because his patron's marriage "brought about a change of musical values. The serious and the artistic were now shunned."). His time in Leipzig was not happy, and included the death of no less than six children. Somehow neither his industry nor his sheer brilliance ever flagged. As my book says, "He lived but to worship God and to write music."
My favorite part of the Sanctus is right at the beginning, before the six-parts break out into the typical Bach beauty. The B minor Mass is, in my view, the greatest Mass ever written and one of the greatest works in all of music. This recording is by Otto Klemperer (himself a very interesting figure), who conducts it a little bit faster than you sometimes hear it, which is a good thing.
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Another Sanctus worthy of attention (and WAY more than it receives, alas), is the Sanctus from Gounod's Mass for St. Cecelia. It is a truly glorious piece of music. If one cannot hear it in person, the best way to listen to it is with the volume turned way up. Incredible.
Marc, I hope this is on your list. If is it not, I encourage you to listen to it immediately! Indeed, the whole Mass is wonderful, but the Sanctus is unbelievable.
Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Sep 23, 2012 9:20:02 AM
Ellen, thanks for this excellent recommendation. I do know it and agree with you entirely on all counts. I will be sure to include it on a future Sunday!! Marc
Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 23, 2012 9:26:18 AM
May I recommend this interview with Hilarion Alfeyev? http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/an-interview-with-metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev
He is himself an accomplished composer, and a Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church. He had this to say in the interview on Bach:
I do not know anything in classical music more sublime, meaningful, profound and spiritual than Bach’s works. Bach is a colossus; his music contains a universal element that is all-embracing. As the poet Joseph Brodsky said, “In every piece of music there is Bach. In each of us there is God.”
Bach was a man who managed in his creative work to combine a magnificent and unsurpassed skill in composition, rare diversity, melodic beauty and very profound spirituality. His music, even his secular music, is permeated by a feeling of love of God, of standing in God’s presence, of awe before Him. One can say that music for him was the worship of God.
Bach was a true ‘Catholic,’ in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos meaning ‘universal,’ ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God, and he believed his music to be but a single voice in the choir praising the glory of God.
With that said, I prefer Mass settings meant to be used liturgically, so I have a strong preference for masses by Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina. I like the tradition you have begun, and look forwards to more!
Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 23, 2012 1:01:48 PM
And Ellen, the Gounod is beautiful. Thank you for mentioning it!
Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 23, 2012 9:50:14 PM