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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Choral Society to Sing Bach in ‘B Minor’

Inaugural concerts of 'Masterworks at San Roque' to be held Saturday and Sunday

For the inaugural concert of their “Masterworks at San Roque,” music director JoAnne Wasserman and the Santa Barbara Choral Society will offer two performances of one of the supreme achievements of Western polyphony — Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, BWV 232 — at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in San Roque Catholic Church, 3200 Calle Cedro in Santa Barbara.

Off and on, Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last 17 years of his life writing the Mass in B-Minor.
Off and on, Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last 17 years of his life writing the Mass in B-Minor.

The soloists will include Deborah Mayhan (first soprano), Tamara Bevard (second soprano), Cynthia Jansen (alto), Jonathon Mack (tenor) and Dean Elzinga (bass), with the ensemble and the 26-piece Choral Society orchestra under the baton of Wasserman, and San Roque music director David Potter supplying the organ continuo.

What we now know as the Mass in B-Minor (though Bach never called it that, nor, indeed, anything else) grew out of a kind of Rodney Dangerfield moment midway during Bach’s tenure (1723-50) at the Thomasschule at Leipzig, where the bulk of his great choral works were written.

Feeling ill-treated and disrespected, in 1733 he attempted to tuck himself under the protective wing of elector Friedrich August II of Saxony. Part of the application for the position he sought was the submission of a substantial work of church music. The hitch was that Bach was a devout Lutheran, while the Saxon court had converted — or, as Evelyn Waugh preferred, “reconciled” — to Roman Catholicism in 1697. Bach’s solution was to deposit the parts of a Lutheran missa, a work comprising the Kyrie and Gloria of the Latin Mass, along with a cover letter chock full of ingratiating flattery punctuated with complaints of his treatment at Leipzig.

Recent scholarship has confirmed what was long suspected, that Bach had more or less cobbled the missa together out of the best bits from a wide variety of earlier works. Being a peerless genius, of course, he fashioned a unified and deeply moving work for the elector’s approval. Depositing the parts in Dresden and the autograph score in a file, Bach returned to Leipzig. Three years later, having heard nothing from the elector, he wrote again to jog the man’s memory.

This time, it worked, and he got the title of “Church Composer to the Court of Dresden,” but the missa doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it. The parts lay moldering in Dresden, while the autograph score lay in a drawer for 10 years, emerging briefly to provide a substantial part of his Latin Christmas contata, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, BWV 191, then filed away again until the very end of his life.

In the late 1740s, Bach took out his missa and continued it to produce a setting of the entire Latin mass — except that the text he used was cut according to Lutheran practice, which precluded its use in a Catholic service. No one is exactly sure why he did this — there is no record of any commission or request — but we can only suppose a creative urge that could not be denied. Probably, he had always suspected that he was in the middle of making what the Thucydides called a ktema aei, an everlasting possession. Then, finally, it came to him how to finish it. So he did. Amen.

General admission tickets for the concerts are $25 and student tickets are $10, and may be purchased at Chaucer’s Books or at the door. For reservations, click here or call 805.965.6577.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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