Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BWV 232 in Our Time

For those who may find today’s title cryptic, BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach works catalog);  and the number is the one assigned by Wolfgang Schmieder to the setting of the mass text by Johann Sebastian Bach in B minor.  As I have suggested in the past, Schmieder’s decision to treat this as a single integrated composition is a bit questionable.  Much of it comes from compositions that Bach had composed earlier.  However, Bach was the one who in 1749 decided to pull those sources together and compose new music for the missing sections.

Why he did this is another matter.  The music was never performed in its entirety during Bach’s lifetime.  I personally continue to believe that much of what Bach chose to document was written primarily for pedagogical purposes.  Thus, it made about as much sense to have music for each section of the mass as it did to have a prelude-fugue pair for each of the 24 keys based on the chromatic scale.  Last year, however, I pushed this thesis to the following corollary:

From this point of view, any "concert performance" experience, even one that takes place in a church, can never be anything more than a "grand illusion."

I posed that corollary while writing about a performance by the American Bach Soloists as their final SummerFest event.  Recently, however, I discovered that their performance of BWV 232 is an annual event.  Is this making a bit too much out of a musical manuscript that may never have been intended for anything other than pedagogy?

There is, of course, no reason why music written for pedagogical purposes should not also receive concert performances.  I doubt that any keyboard performer would think much of excising both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier from his/her repertoire, not to mention the preludes and etudes of composers like Frédéric Chopin or Alexander Scriabin.  However, this pedagogical perspective might be useful in establishing a mindset for the serious listener.

At the final season concert by the American Bach Soloists at the beginning of this month, Conductor Jeffrey Thomas reflected on growing up in the Lehigh Valley, where one of the most important performance ensembles was The Bach Choir of Bethlehem.  This group was actually organized in 1898 to study BWV 232, and that mass setting remains a major part of its repertoire to this day.  Thomas recalled the solemnity with which they performed this music, long before Bach scholars began to make the case for the brisker tempos now taken for almost all of the movements.  What seems important is that the whole concept of religious rite may have meant more to the Bethlehem singers than did that of music performance.

By taking a more pedagogical stance, we can put religion off to the side and concentrate on all those virtues of the music itself.  Yes, as Albert Schweitzer asserted, one should recognize that the music is a reflection of the words;  but that is a matter of rhetoric.  While rhetoric is essential to effective performance, listening to Bach is a matter of appreciating his mastery of grammatical structure and the overall logic of architectural form.  In other words one can appreciate the impact of those words without believing them.  If, as listeners, we choose to make it a point to attend a performance of BWV 232 on an annual basis, that choice has more to do with celebrating Bach’s achievements as a musician than with celebrating the ritual embodied in the text he selected.

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