I’m cheating a little bit this week. I’m in the middle of three different books, all of which will make appearances in this space in due time, but I’m neither finished nor far enough along in any to give a thorough accounting. It is also slightly disingenuous for me to say that Bach’s “Mass in B minor” is what I’m listening to this week – in truth, I have been listening to it regularly since I discovered this masterful 1998 recording, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, in a tiny record shop in Tel Aviv in April 2006. I was living in Israel at the time, and my father and sister had flown in for a visit. We rented a car and drove up the coast toward Haifa, and I still remember so vividly the dark grey storm clouds forming on the horizon when I put the disc into the CD player and listened as if I was hearing sound for the first time in my life.
From that moment, the “Mass in B minor” became a minor obsession of mine – and I’m far from the only person to have become so entranced. Herreweghe has recorded two other renditions of the“Mass in B minor,” because recording it just once was not enough. When I joined the Cornell Glee Club in 2007, in no small measure due to the effect that the Mass had on me, our conductor, Scott Tucker (now artistic director of the Choral Arts Society in Washington, D.C.) said in one of our first rehearsals that year that there were only two great masterpieces of choral music: Bach’s “Mass in B minor” and Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” – everything else was simply commentary. Bach didn’t live long enough to see his magnum opus performed publicly. The composition of the Mass in B minor spanned decades, and Bach only completed the work in 1749 – the year before his death. Indeed, the first documented public performance of the Mass didn’t come until over a century later in 1859. Bach was so far ahead of his time that it took a century for people to appreciate his work.
In the booklet that accompanies this recording, the Italian musicologist Alberto Basso summarizes the piece better than I ever could: “The Mass in B minor is the consecration of a whole life: started in 1733 for ‘diplomatic’ reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach’s life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.” That is the reason, I think, the “Mass in B minor” has had such a powerful effect on me and so many listeners over the centuries. In the wake of the religious wars that had torn the fabric of Europe apart, Bach composed an auditorily applied healing salve, a reminder of the things that made human beings similar rather than different. It’s hardly a surprise that it fell to a man like Bach to do this hard work, for Bach was not only comfortable with dissonance – he was the master of making dissonance sound natural. His harmonies, which were avant-garde for his time, were not grating. They were a prelude to inevitable resolution, even if long-delayed.
We are all full of contradictions, as Walt Whitman so poignantly said in his “Song of Myself.” My father’s family is Jewish and my mother’s family is Christian; to complicate matters, I’ve always been more attracted to Athens than to Jerusalem in my own thoughts, which is to say, I’ve never cared much for arguments or assertions that require belief as a necessary prerequisite for illumination or grace. The reason I return to the “Mass in B minor” time and time again is because it deals with the great mystery of human existence in a way that I can understand – with constant dissonance. For me, it represents beauty without dogma, hope without naivete, and mystery without mysticism. In that spirit, then, let me recommend Bach’s “Mass in B minor” to you, and let the irony of someone raised in a Jewish home wishing peace on earth to all men and women of good will at this time of the year not diminish the sincerity of those wishes in the slightest.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
When I was seven, my older sister, then 14, told me Bob Marley was the king of Jamaica. I was skeptical – Bob seemed like a funny name for a king – so I asked my dad about it. After what felt like a thoughtful pause my father replied, “In many ways he was.” That explanation, though not so helpful at the time, turned out to be pretty much true. It wasn’t until I became acquainted with Trojan Records as a teenager that I learned there was more to Jamaican music than Bob Marley and the “Cops” theme song. Lloyd Bradley’s “This Is Reggae Music” makes it clear that there’s a whole lot more.
Bradley’s is a comprehensive history. He traces the evolution of reggae all the way back to its roots, which, as it happens, are pure geopolitics. In the 1950s, growing interest in Jamaica, both as a travel destination and as a source of bauxite, brought an influx of cash to the island nation. Many residents suddenly found themselves with disposable income and even the capacity for upward mobility. The flip side, though, was that those still in the sprawling slums of the capital, Kingston, felt poorer than ever – the new bauxite mines employed far fewer people than they displaced from the countryside, many to Kingston’s shanty towns – and hungered for a culture to call their own. The rival deejays, or sound systems, already at the center of local urban life took on renewed significance. More important, they started turning away from the American rhythm and blues rarities that had been their mainstays in pursuit of a truly Jamaican sound.
My oversimplification of the birth of ska – the buoyant predecessor to rocksteady and reggae – does an injustice to Bradley’s rendering. He treats his subject with the depth and seriousness it deserves, whether in explaining the role of Haile Selassie in Rastafarianism or in describing the indigenous record industry that sprang up in Kingston in the 1960s. But he manages to do so at no expense to fun or readability. Bradley, a music journalist, knows a good story and how to tell it. He preserves the Jamaican inflections of his interviewees’ speech and deftly works the lexicon of reggae, with its sound clashes and riddims, into the text. There’s no mistaking his enthusiasm for the music and the people he writes about, and it’s hard not to feel some of that passion as a reader.
Of course, I imagine it would be harder still to approach the book with no prior interest in or knowledge of reggae. Bradley goes to great lengths – the book clocks in at well over 500 pages – to explain and contextualize whatever concept he’s discussing, be it Garveyism or rocksteady. Even so, the pace at which he drops names of tracks and people is dizzying at times. As someone who once spent six years trying to figure out the name of a particularly catchy tune I had heard on a jukebox somewhere (“Hard Life” by Merlene Webber), I may have been readier than most for all that “This Is Reggae Music” has to throw at readers.
Serena Reiser, editor