A few days before this past Christmas it was reported by researchers at the Bach Archive in Leipzig that a letter written in 1751 by Gottfried Benjamin Fleckeisen suggests that in the last decade of his life J.S. Bach may have grown tired of his duties as kapellmeister and allowed others – in this case including Fleckeisen, a former member of the St. Thomas Choir – to direct music at the St. Thomas and St. Nikolai churches. The headlines associated with the article suggests that Bach was burned out or was “fed up with church.”
“Fed up with church” I can understand, but “burned out” doesn’t ring true to me at all. This is the man who wrote and assembled the B Minor Mass during the last three years of his life, to say nothing of The Art of the Fugue.
But it doesn’t take much for me to get my back up about Bach. It is his music, and the B Minor Mass in particular, that is largely responsible for my deciding to become a musician. Here’s the story.
When I was 18 and in my last month or so of high school, I sang in a performance of the B Minor Mass conducted by my teacher and mentor Theodore Morrison.
Now, the B Minor Mass is massive – pun intended! There are 26 separate movements and it takes over two hours to perform. Its greatness is both in its imposing architecture and in its intricate detail.
As we were singing the last movement of this piece, the “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”), I had an experience I will never forget. Without warning, and while I continued to sing, I had an incredibly vivid visual image of myself standing on a railroad track as a locomotive bore down upon me. In this vision, though I was not tied down in any way, I was powerless to move. It seemed inevitable that this locomotive was going to run me over.
And it did. The accumulated power and inexorable force of Bach’s B Minor Mass totally flattened me. I burst into tears. I mouthed the words to the rest of the piece while gasping for air. After the music was over, I staggered off stage, and backstage met a friend from high school, who I had somehow dragooned into coming to the concert. She, in a gesture of awareness that I will forever love her for, simply held my hand without talking, while I tried to blubber through my tears what I had just experienced.
That experience – the power of music, the image of the locomotive about to run me down, and my friend’s sensitive awareness of the significance of the moment – all came together and helped me decide that I would become, somehow, a musician.