A Work That Houses Us All
Conspirare returns to its musical inspiration: Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’
The Bach Mass in B Minor is a paradox. A Latin Mass by a devout Lutheran, it is held in high esteem for its musical architecture, even though Bach pieced it together from reused works in seemingly contradictory styles over the last two decades of his life. The work is hailed for its completeness, yet it was never performed as a complete Mass in his lifetime. Although the work gives spiritual inspiration to Protestants and Catholics, many of its deepest admirers are neither.
It is the center around which Conspirare orbits. Next week, the choir will be performing the work for the third time since it was founded in 1991 as the New Texas Festival. "It feels like a return to our foundation and our roots," says director Craig Hella Johnson. "It was the first thing we did when we started the New Texas Festival, and we knew then that it was something we would want to do regularly. People often ask us when we are doing it again."
Martin Luther had no complaints with the Catholic liturgy, so a Lutheran Mass in Latin wasn't unusual in Bach's time, and to determine its denomination misses the point. "To call it Catholic or Lutheran or even ecumenical diminished its potential," Johnson says. "Bach chose the Mass as a form because to that point, that was the vehicle that composers had used for their most enduring work. He knew this would have longevity and permanence."
Johnson still felt the presence growing up in the more evangelical Lutheran traditions in Minnesota. "We had regular Mass, and we sang the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria' in English," Johnson said. "It permeated the tradition without question. It was ever-present."
The music also represents Bach's ecumenical reconciling of his own diverse musical influences. "It is a catalog of all the styles of music in which he composed, coming together over that last 25 years of his life in such a way that it appears he was writing it for himself or for his God. There are intentionally archaic works and concerted music in the Italian style and chant insertions. It is an amazing array of both his technique and diversity."
"I think catholic with a small c fits: universal in the broad sense." Johnson says. "I come to it because of its diversity and its ecumenism; it seems to be a work that houses us all. From every corner, it is such a monumental structure in which we all enter an experience. But it dwarfs us all when we enter. But any place where we enter into this mountain, we are invited into a sense of awe."
Conspirare performs the Bach Mass in B Minor Thursday, Sept. 25, 7pm, at Emmaus Catholic Church, 1718 Lohman's Crossing, Lakeway; Friday, Sept. 26, 8pm, at St. Martin's Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th, Austin; and Saturday, Sept. 27, 8pm, at Festival Hill, Round Top. For information, call 476-5775 or visit www.conspirare.org.