Guest Blog: The 18th-century Curiosity Cabinet

Chorale Guest Blog

Bonnie Gunzenhauser

Our upcoming concert marks my second time through Bach's Mass in B Minor with Chicago Chorale. When we first took on the Mass five years ago, it was a glorious enterprise, but also (for me, at least) a bit of a survivalist one: with so many notes, and so much to learn, the trees often eclipsed the forest. Our return journey through the Mass hasn't exactly been relaxed, but the second time does offer more perspective and a chance to step back and to reconsider the work as a whole. When we started rehearsals this January, I revisited the marginal notes I'd scribbled from Bruce's direction the first time through. In addition to that signature Tammen blend of offbeat imagery and sublime wisdom, I was struck by the stylistic and sonic variety Bruce had described in the various movements, from "stile antico" in the Kyrie and elsewhere, to "like early opera" in Et incarnatus est, to "Gregorian chant set by a genius" in the Credo, to (my favorite) "here, you get the whole kitchen sink" in Et expecto. Those marginal notes, and our first few rehearsals, really drove home to me the astonishing diversity of style and sound in the Mass.

I'm an English professor in my day job, and I focus on eighteenth-century literature -- roughly Bach's own historical moment, but in England. People in eighteenth century England (and, really, throughout Europe) were obsessed with tales of curiosity and wonder from the world around them. Travel literature describing the diversity of life and experience in an increasingly global society was hugely popular (second only to sermons on eighteenth-century bestseller lists). These armchair travelers also tried to capture the astonishing variety of the world in what they called "cabinets of curiosity" -- personal collections that were essentially tiny museums of physical wonders from around the globe, collected from an ever-expanding universe of things available as trade and travel routes opened and grew. Bach was a lifelong German who moved only within a limited scope as he climbed the musical-career ladder, so he wasn't exactly participating in this eighteenth-century wanderlust. Nonetheless, I see him as very much a man of his moment, because the diversity of the B Minor Mass feels to me like his particular version of the 18th-century curiosity cabinet -- a mélange of styles and modes that gathers together, in one place, a remarkable sampler of what was most curious, interesting, and best from his contemporary and historical musical scene.

In some ways I think of Chorale itself as this kind of "cabinet of curiosity." Its sixty singers -- relatively few of whom are officially "singers" in a vocational sense -- represent a surprising range of experience, training, geography, career, age, and more. Yet, gathered together in weekly rehearsals and, finally, in our concerts, Chorale turns this diversity into a focused and unified sound that (if all goes well) connects our audience with some of the finest wonders of our musical heritage. The B Minor Mass surely is one of those, and I look forward to joining with Chorale, our soloists, and our orchestra next weekend to recreate Bach's wonder yet again.

Bonnie Gunzenhauser teaches English at Roosevelt University in Chicago by day, and sings alto by night.