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The Music Box

By Jonas Barish

Never in the history of music has the work of one man embodied so completely all religious experience as does that of J. S. Bach. In the scores of his Passions and Masses are infused the mysticism, the love, and the exaltation of Christianity, with the devotion and piety of Bach's own nature. The great B minor Mass especially expresses no narrow sectarianism, is not devoted to the Lutheran or the Roman Catholic Church, but to the universal Church of God. Truly, if, as Henry Adams has said, Chartres Cathedral represents the Church architectural, and the work of St. Thomas Aquinas the Church intellectual, then the B minor Mass is the Church musical, a concrete symbol in harmonic and contrapuntal terms of the glory of the Christian religion.

It is true that the Mass was composed six hundred years after Chartres and St. Thomas, six centuries following the time when man held "the highest ideal of himself as a unit in a unified universe." Undeniably it was written following the Reformation, in a Europe torn by a chaos of sectarian dissonances; but for this very reason is it so all-embracing, for instead of excluding heresies, it absorbs and sweeps them up into the one gigantic scheme. Into the Mass is blended the simple humanity of Lutheranism and the grandeur of Catholicism, the eternal spirit of religion rather than the temporary whims of a set of ecclesiastics.

Other religious music pales beside the Mass. Mozart and Beethoven both wrote masses of unquestionable beauty, but since they were more in the secular tradition than Bach they did not succeed so well in pouring into these works their own greatness of spirit. The Easter music from "Parsifal" likewise, for all its magic, seems mere tour de force, coloristic effect, next to the Mass; Wagner was concerned chiefly with recreating the atmosphere of legend and not with creating a setting for Christian devotion. The Bach B minor Mass is, in fact, a unique work. Consequently, its performance next Sunday by the Harvard Glee Club (under Mr. Woodworth) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is an event not to be missed.

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