Quite be accident tonight, I experienced pure sonic perfection. It was late, and I was doing some writing while listening to Pandora.com, when Gratias agimus tibi from Bach’s masterful Mass in B Minor began playing. A lump in the throat, spontaneous rapture. The Mass in B Minor is rightly regarded as Bach’s preminent masterwork, the greatest product of his mature genius. The Gratias agimus tibi section holds a special place in my heart.
Virtually innumerable composers have set that text–it’s from the second part of the Mass (the Gloria), which has been set both as parts of complete masses and and stand-alone works since the Medieval era. Yet, in my view, no one before or after J.S. Bach ever supplied those words with such a gloriously perfect musical setting. Bach’s soaring melodies, his magical interweaving of choral and orchestral parts, the sense the listener gets of constant ascendancy, express splendidly the magnificence of the text: “Gratias agimus tib propter magnam gloriam tuam (“We give you thanks for your great glory”).
There are many times when we sit down deliberately to listen to our favorite music. Occasionally, however, that music comes to us unexpectedly, like the surprise visit of a dear friend. This was certainly one of those times for me. A far as I can tell, Bach’s genius lies well beyond anyone’s ability to express in words. This is to be expected: as Heinrich Heine trenchantly put it, “Where words leave off, music begins.”
I was trained as a classical guitarist, and had the pleasure of learning to play several transcriptions of Bach’s works for solo lute, violin and cello. One of the truly striking aspects of Bach’s music is that it works extraordinarily well in transcription. There are many great composers whose works have been successfully transcribed: the orchestration of Mussorsky’s solo piano work Pictures at an Exhibition is an excellent example. But Bach’s music seems to have a uniquely elastic quality to it. Pieces written for harpsichord or violing sound just as excellent–or more so–on the guitar, organ works have been successfully adapted to brass ensemble format, and there are beautiful orchestral versions of pieces originally written for choir. Never do any of these works lose any of their piquancy, their unique perfection, as they move from medium to medium. Never have I heard a Bach transcription and said, “Ugh! Loved the original, but this just doesn’t work!” What is it about his music that makes it so infinitely malleable? Is it somehow quantifiable?
I’m delighted to have had this chance encounter in the dead of night with Herr Bach. I know that most people have music that provides profoundly moving spiritual experiences for them. Music as an art form is unique and powerful, a universal human preoccupation. Along with fine art and literature, it’s part of what defines us as human beings.