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Joan Wickersham

Looking for structure and order? Listen to Bach

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Bach’s Mass in B minor does not usher you in gently. The orchestra and full chorus leap in together on the first note, gravely and emphatically asking for mercy. Kyrie, kyrie, eleison, eleison. I am sitting in a packed church in Cambridge, on the Friday night before Thanksgiving, listening to a group of young singers from Juilliard and the Royal Conservatoire The Hague perform this music, led by the great Dutch conductor Ton Koopman. He’s taking the opening pretty fast: a charioteer exhilarated by the speed and strength of his young horses, letting them run without letting them run away. The sound is lush, fresh, elegant.

I’m listening and thinking about how shocked Bach would be, if he were to walk into this
church and find people singing and playing and raptly listening to this music nearly 300 years after he wrote it. Bach himself never heard the entire B minor Mass performed. He composed it in sections, over a period of years, revising some of his earlier vocal music and adding new sections almost up until his death, in 1750. As far as we know, the piece wasn’t performed for another hundred years.

I’m listening and thinking about a friend who told me, in the weeks after 9/11, that when she admitted to her father how scared and angry she felt, he told her to listen to Bach, for its underlying structure and order.


I’m listening and thinking about one of my favorite performances of Bach’s vocal music, the cantatas recorded by conductor Karl Ristenpart in Berlin between 1947 and 1952. Working with a small group of young singers in a divided and devastated city, Ristenpart began recording Bach’s cantatas as a postwar antidote to the Nazi craze for Wagner’s monumentalism. The performances are small in scale, natural, heartfelt, modest, and — both musically and because of the story and history behind them — intensely moving.

I’m listening and thinking about how young tonight’s musicians are. I’ve been listening to this piece of music since before they were born, but they already know it much better than I do, and they’ll go on to perform it and teach it and understand it even more deeply in the decades to come.

I’m listening and thinking about what a relief it is not to be thinking about the election, for a little while at least. The Domine Deus, my favorite movement: a duet for soprano and tenor, only it’s not a duet, it’s a trio, with the flute insisting on full vocal citizenship. At intermission, somebody sitting a few rows behind me says something indignant about Paul Ryan, but I don’t hear whether she’s indignant about him or indignant on his behalf, and happily whatever else she’s saying gets lost in the general murmur of the crowd. Tonight I just want to listen to Bach. It’s not that I want to hide from what is happening in the country, to be oblivious or passive or fatalistic. It’s that I need something else, too — not a simple distraction, but something consequential, something rehumanizing. A counterweight.


I’m listening to the second half of the Mass, to the Credo, and thinking that over the last few centuries a lot of people — scared, or just slogging along, in circumstances better or worse than whatever we are facing now — have listened to this music. Even if you are not a musician, as I am not, you can hear that it makes sense. It is deeply beautiful and deeply sane. That is what I need right now along with all the other voices I’ve been listening to, and the ones I’ve been trying not to listen to.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.