Bach's Dance Lesson
As the Oratorio Singers practice a difficult piece, one member revels in the composer's playfulness.
By Caroline Castle Hicks
Special to the Observer
Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 03, 2009
Although I've sung in choirs large and small since grade school, the privilege of singing Bach's epic B Minor Mass eluded me for nearly 40 years. At long last, I'll have my chance and I can hardly wait.
In preparation for our performances with the Charlotte Symphony on Friday and Saturday, my fellow Oratorio Singers and I have been tackling one of the most challenging choral works ever written, a magnum opus routinely described as towering, monumental. Or as our director, Scott Allen Jarrett, puts it, "life-changing."
"This is choral singing for rock stars," Scott said recently, during a particularly grueling practice. "If you can sing this, you can sing anything."
He wasn't kidding.
Our rehearsals over the past few weeks have left me feeling like Bruce Springsteen after a three-hour gig at the Meadowlands - exhausted and energized all at once.
"Your whole body is the instrument," Scott says. "There's a pulse running through this thing that has to become innate. It's like a dance."
I think children understand this intuitively. Some of my earliest memories involve bouncing along to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos whenever my mother played her cherished LP on our clunky old turntable. Now, in the process of learning the intricate vocal steps to what is arguably Bach's greatest "dance," I've come to view his genius as almost otherworldly.
There is a pulse in his work, an underlying hum of constant motion, as if he somehow found a way to harness the energy of the universe and interpret it for mere mortals. Even his name conveys energy and motion. In German, "bach" means "brook," a natural element with a constant musical flow of its own.
That elemental energy is abundant in the Mass, making this centuries-old church music an absolute blast to sing. Symphony choir etiquette may dictate a certain level of decorum, but there are passages in this piece where it is almost impossible to keep still. More than a few of us are gleefully guilty of letting our inner child run free in rehearsal as we bounce our way through the more sprightly sections.
Somehow, I don't think Bach would mind. Although he was a devoutly religious man who dedicated all of his work to the glory of God, he must have believed in a God who allowed for fun. Despite its serious message and staggering complexity, the Mass is full of moments that sparkle with an undeniable playfulness.
For me, the balance between lighthearted joy and deep reverence, underscored by that organic, ever-present pulse, is what makes the B Minor Mass - and all of Bach's work - so addictive.
These days, as we polish the choruses in the Mass with their multiple DNA-like vocal strands, I marvel anew at how those strands converge and entwine, then go off in different directions, only to come together again in a final harmonic resolution that we can feel down to our toes.
Bach's music is all about resolution and whether we're singing, playing or listening to it, whether we already know the dance or not, something inside us is going to pick up on that irresistible energy and run with it, knowing that somewhere ahead is the "aaah" chord we long for, the one that brings it all home.
In the B Minor Mass, that chord comes at the end of the beloved final chorus, "Dona Nobis Pacem." And while the music may stop, the pulse continues - in us, around us and between us. Most of all, between us.
Dona Nobis Pacem - God grant us peace. When the dance comes to a close, we don't need to understand Latin to feel that God - through Bach - has done just that.
Hicks lives in Huntersville. Reprinted with permission.