Mass in B minor and Winterreise

Both ensembles I conduct are preparing major works: Chorale presents the Bach Mass in B minor April 3, while Chicago Men’s A Cappella is learning selections from Schubert’s Winterreise for a March 11 concert. The two works occupy similar positions in the canon of Western art music-- each at the pinnacle of its respective genre; and they occupy these positions because of the all-encompassing nature of each composer’s achievement. Though I have prepared and presented each work several times in the past, I have never prepared them simultaneously; and they compete constantly for my total involvement, heart and soul.

Bach effectively spent his entire career composing Mass in B minor-- it consists of complete movements, and fragments, from throughout his compositional life, recomposed, reworded, reconfigured, stitched together with newly composed music -- Bach scholar Christoph Wolff calls the mass a “specimen book,” a collection of examples of genres and techniques which covers not only Bach's personal history, but the history of Western music. In the process of compiling this music, Bach seems intent on summing up what he has learned, and what he believes his successors should learn. The Sanctus was first performed in 1724; movement 4 of the Credo, Et incarnatus est, is though to be the last music he composed, dictated to an assistant because Bach himself was blind, in 1750; the rest of the music reflects the experience of the intervening 26 years.

Winterreise occupies a similarly late position in Schubert’s tragically short career-- he corrected the proofs of Part II on his deathbed, in 1828. In all, Schubert composed over 600 songs; one presumes he had learned a great deal by the time he got to Winterreise, not only about composing single songs, but about planning and compiling cycles, and that Winterreise, like Bach’s Mass in B Minor, is a compendium of what the composer knew about his craft. Certainly, performers, composers, and critics since Schubert’s time have regarded this song cycle with the same sort of awe and reverence that Bach’s work inspires.

Performers and audiences alike are confronted with the daunting task of unpacking these works-- James Joyce said, “One needs my education to understand my books,” and a similar problem confronts the musician who dares approaches Bach and Schubert. But both works are so much more than the sum of their erudition, skill, and historical references. One sets aside a well-written textbook for another day; one lives and breathes Bach and Schubert—they take over, inside and out, waking and sleeping. Such is the creative, emotional, spiritual energy of these composers, I often feel like Jacob, wrestling all night with two angels—they don’t let go, and neither do I.

I read somewhere that Bach shows us what it means to be God, Mozart shows us what it means to be human, and Beethoven shows us what it means to be Beethoven; I agree with the Bach part, at least, and I put Schubert right there with him. Beyond the notes, the rhythms, the historically informed performance practices, one experiences these works as living beings, as manifestations of God in the world—and though they disturb me and rob me of my rest, they also demonstrate that we humans are better than we think we are, and convince me that it is always worth it to keep moving ahead, not just out of habit, but because we, like Bach and Schubert, are capable of holy things.