© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Ahh, Bach': Two reason for fans to rejoice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 - In the first season of M*A*S*H, drafted doctors “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) and “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rodgers) try to help the hapless, teddy-bear-cuddling Corp. “Radar” O’Reilly woo a woman of some substance.

Smitten, O’Reilly discovers a visiting nurse who hardly travels light.

“'The Plays of George Bernard Shaw,' 'Plato’s Republic'? I see this one was signed by the author,” Hawkeye quips, as he surveys the title page of the latter.

He also notes her collection of records — yes, records (remember this show was made in the 1970s, and the story was set in the Korean War in the 1950s). Among her collection, she has Vivaldi, Shostakovich and, as she says, “And of course I never travel anywhere without good ole Johann Sebastian.”

When Hawkeye relays this information to Radar, he warns that the woman in question has “some pretty highbrow taste.” Trapper chimes in: “Mozart? Bach? All the biggies?”

“Bach is easy,” Hawkeye counsels Radar.

“If she brings up Bach,” he says waving a hand of a conductor, “you just smile and say, ‘Ahh, Bach.’”

Anyone who has seen M*A*S*H knows that this advice only leads to further “jocularity,” as Fr. Francis Mulcahy called it.

Still when Radar attempts to further the conversation with his thoughtful, “Ahh, Bach” (including his own conductor’s wave), she seems confused but then responds as if his comment made some sense. And in some ways, it did — in many circles Bach reigns supreme.

In fact, what Trapper notes is true: Few artists, conductors or composers fall into the league of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Conductor Hans Von Bulow slated him the first of the “Three Bs” of classical music: Bach, (Ludwig Von) Beethoven and (Johannes) Brahms. No question, Bach rides the crest of the crescendo in the world of classical playbills.

Which explains how within one month, St. Louisans will have not one but two chances to experience the celestial majesty and profound faith of this most noted (sorry) composer.

St. Matthew Passion

The first opportunity to hear this most prestigious “biggy” will be this weekend when the Bach Society of St. Louis will present St. Matthew Passion sung by tenor William Watson as the Evangelist, with bass Stephen Morscheck as Jesus. The performance will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 18, at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade, 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

Initially offered on Good Friday in 1727, the piece was designed, according to the Bach Society, to encourage listeners into a metacognitive state.

“Solo arias, which conclude each scene with opportunities for reflection and meditation, will be sung by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Lawrence Jones, and bass Curtis Streetman,” according to A. Dennis Sparger, music director and conductor of the Bach Society.

Credited as “the greatest of all Bach’s passions” by Bach biographer James R. Gaines, St. Matthew was composed during a rather contentious time in Bach’s life when he was going head-to-head with a subdeacon of the church over his right to select hymns for the church services, according to Gaines.

“One would think that the performance of his first version of the St. Matthew Passion the following Easter might have quieted [the church council and parishioners] down a bit. Besides being the greatest of all of Bach’s passions, besides being perhaps the greatest oratorio and one of the most ambitious and powerful works of music ever written, the St. Matthew Passion was also one that used to maximum effect the new forms of recitative and da capo aria with which Bach had been enriching the repertoire of Lutheran church music for several years.”

However, they apparently remained nonplused, Gaines suggests, as only one review of the event was recorded. According to Gaines it came from an elderly widow (think Dowager Countess of Grantham), and it was most unflattering: “God help us! It’s an opera-comedy!”

What a difference a century and a half or so can make — just the amount of time needed to recast a negative observation into a positive:

“The musical effect [of Bach’s musically emotive dexterity] ranges from piety to tragedy, from anguish to resignation,” says James Staley, professor of music at Webster University. “The emotional experience of the St. Matthew Passion is exhausting and overwhelming.”

B-minor Mass

And if this offering were not enough, our own David Robertson will lead the combined stellar forces of the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus in Bach’s ultimate tour de force. For two performances, they will crown the 2012 Lenten/Easter season with Bach’s masterpiece B-Minor Mass at 8 p.m. March 31 and at 3 p.m. April 1, at Powell Hall.

Against the decidedly Baroque accoutrements of Powell, this piece perhaps more than any other of all this season fits its time and place.

Rich and emotive, Bach brought the full force of his complexity and virtuosity to this work. And this work would have been quite appropriate for the Palace of Versailles (after which Powell is modeled), given its grandeur.

As Gaines explains: “The last great achievement of his life, which he finished over the course of his last two years, was the B-minor Mass — everyone in the family knew it only as ‘the great mass’ — and for this work, which he knew would be his final masterpiece, he pulled material from every corner of his life’s work.”

Bach’s goal, he continued, was to reach back the very core of music history and infuse those roots with those he cultivated in his own musical journey thereby synthesizing them into this work. Gaines concluded:

“The Kyrie and Gloria of the B-Minor Mass were from the mass he had dedicated to his elector in 1733. The Sanctus was based on a Sanctus he had written for Christmas in 1724, the Hosanna on a piece dated 1732, the Agnus dei on a cantata movement of 1725. For the Crucifixus of the mass he reached back to the mournful descending figure he had used in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, the figure that had rooted in his cantata for the town council of Mühlhausen and even earlier, in his time with Buxtehude. This appeared next to the very last choral composition of his life, the most modern section of the mass, the Et incarnates est.”

In his book "In Evening in the Palace of Reason," Gaines comments on this last choral composition, “Perhaps the most glorious movement of the mass, maybe the ultimate declaration of his life in music, reaches back beyond his even own life to the Renaissance style of Palestrina.”

Ah, yes. As Radar and Hawkeye so aptly said, “Ahh, Bach!”