Reflections Easter's Musical Olympics Dr. Milt Sernett April 2014
Church musicians live for Easter. It is their Olympic decathlon, their last game of the World Series, their Indianapolis 500. During the rest of the liturgical year, perhaps with the exception of Christmas (when they are often upstaged by tiny tots and towering trees of green), they slog along in the trenches of anonymity and ingratitude. We pew sitters take it for granted that each Sunday’s service will have an accompanist, a term denoting secondary fiddle status. We are wrong, of course, but then we are thickheaded and do not appreciate the wonderful musical heritage left us by Christian composers. Too easily satisfied with the musical mush blared at us on contemporary radio and television stations, we look on in puzzlement when someone tells us that listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-minor Mass is too profoundly moving to be expressed in words.
I am among the musically challenged for whom the virtues of Bach’s B-minor mass remain a mystery. My budding career as a piano prodigy was cut short because of a dog. I took lessons from Mrs. Wilson back there in Iowa. Whenever she went off to answer the phone in the kitchen, the family dog, a black Cocker Spaniel, would rush into the living room and bite my feet. I complained to my mother who allowed me to quit (probably sensing that my keyboard talents were limited anyway). Later I played B-flat clarinet in Hampton High School Band. I was good at scales, lousy at timing. Mr. Feeze, our band director, caught on that I was leaning on others. Unable to count those long rests, I would start to play only after I had seen other second clarinets do so. Consequently, I came in a split second behind every one else. Feeze detected the same laggardness in marching band and once pointedly told me, “Get with it, Sernett.” This hurt, but then the fault may have been in my genes. No one ever called we four Sernett children “musically gifted.” You should hear my sister sing.
The Bach family of central Germany was a musical dynasty. It began with the baker Viet Bach (d. 1619) who delighted in playing the cittern (a kind of lute) while his grist mill was grinding. This, according to Johann Sebastian, his most famous descendent, “taught him to keep time.” Among the forbearers of the architect of the Mass in B minor were town musicians, organists, composers, conductors, and, to add variety to an otherwise phenomenally musical family, several highly successful painters. Johann Sebastian was born in 1685 in central Germany at Eisenach, known in all Protestant countries as the city of Luther. Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius, was town musician, and an uncle, Johann Christoph, was an organist.
Bach’s road to musical greatness is too complex to relate here, though it is instructive to note that his life was not without trouble and sorrow. Both parents died by the time he was ten, jealous rivals harped on him, his first wife expired while he was away on a trip, and seven of the thirteen children of his second wife did not survive infancy. Once Bach was thrown into jail for “too obstinately requesting his dismissal” from the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. Even at Leipzig, where Bach spent his most productive years (1723-1750) and where he was responsible for all of the music in the city’s Protestant churches, all did not go well. Bach described the city fathers as “strange people with small love of music” who forced him to “live under almost constant vexation, jealousy, and persecution.”
Perhaps the musically gifted in today’s world are tempted to echo Bach’s remark about “strange people with small love of music.” I for one am willing to learn and so once obtained a copy of Bach’s B-minor Mass. It is a monumental work of four sections, including the poignant Crucifixus, a set of thirteen variations on the same bass line, and the majestic Credo. “The colossal dimensions of the Mass,” said one musical authority, “makes it unsuitable for church services. It belongs to the concert hall, which under the impact of its awe-inspiring majesty turns into a church serving all human beings responsive to religious experience.” Another source says, “Certainly the work is liturgically inappropriate for service use in Bach’s Lutheran church.”
How about Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion as an alternative? It has been called “the climax of Bach’s music for the Protestant church,” radiating tenderness and love. We only need two mixed choruses (including soloists), two orchestras, and a group of boy singers. This how the hymn tune in the first chorus ought to sound: “Two wildly excited groups confront each other with terse questions and sorrowful answers, against a background of tears suggested by the heaving and milling orchestra. Above this depiction of humanity’s passionate grief rises a crystal-clear, serene, church tune, setting the stage for a discourse on mortal frailty and divine strength. Superb artistry is revealed in the employment of the chorale melodies.”
Easter Sunday at the Cazenovia and Nelson Methodist churches. I can hear the music now. Fine. Deo Gloria (“The end. Glory to God”)