Mind-blown in B minor: Hearing Bach's Mass for the first time

by David Lindquist, Special to MPR
February 12, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As a young child I saw Disney's Fantasia, which features a segment that pairs Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with quasi-abstract animation. It sparked in me a love of Bach's music that continues today, and I've loved every opportunity I've had to absorb his work through listening, analyzing, and performing. Somehow, though, I had completely missed what is considered not only one of his finest compositions, but also one of the grandest and most esteemed works in the whole of music: the Mass in B Minor.

The journey from the piece's conception to its present status is a curious one. Since Bach typically composed music in the Lutheran tradition, writing a complete Mass, something inextricably associated with Catholicism, was somewhat unusual. The work, which requires five soloists, chorus, and orchestra, was never performed in its entirety in Bach's lifetime, who died in 1750; the first documented full performance was in Leipzig in 1859. Even by then it already held a formidable reputation that continued to grow until reaching its current status as a pillar of musical achievement.

Anyway, this misstep in my education was rectified when I saw the piece performed in 2012 at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis — performed by the Cathedral Choir of St. Mark's — and I was flabbergasted. Hearing the music was almost a physical experience, as though the sound waves created by the musicians fused together and pressed against my entire body. This feeling was generated, I believe, not from the speed or volume at which the music was played, but from — with apologies to Mozart — the sheer number of notes. I don't have synesthesia, the condition that can result in seeing images in reaction to hearing sounds, but if I did I think "seeing" the Mass in B Minor at many points would have been similar to watching a hailstorm. At other points it might have resembled a perpetually-crashing tsunami.

Sitting there, I could hardly believe a human being could be capable of conceiving so many musical ideas and assembling them in a manner that was not only cohesive, but could mesmerize and inspire audiences. I imagined Bach hunched over his writing desk, constantly refilling inkwells and reaching for new quills after manically scratching away with them until mere nubs remained. Another thought I had was, strangely enough, of Eddie Van Halen, the famous guitarist renowned for his virtuosic and flamboyant technical skill. I realized that if he played an excerpt or two of the Mass, listeners might not find it too different from some of his own Baroque-inspired guitar solos.

Really, though, the Mass in B Minor is total, complete music. It is music's equivalent of the cathedrals in which it's often performed: ornate, venerable, and intimidatingly massive in scope. There's the popular "desert island" question that aims to determine one's favorite things. If I was marooned and could listen to only one piece of music for the rest of my life, I might choose the Mass in B Minor. To fully consume and understand it would take years, or even a lifetime.

David Lindquist is a writer, teacher, and singer living in St. Paul.

Do you have a story to share about your first encounter with a great piece of music? Write to jgabler@mpr.org.

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