I have recounted many stories in this blog, some of which have been proven to be apocryphal. This one has the benefit of being absolutely true.
One Sunday morning in 1789, the boys’ choir at St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany shuffled to their feet to sing a dusty old motet that had been in the Church’s possession for generations. Doubtless, the boys considered the work to be both diffuclt and woefully old fashioned. In the middle of their performance, a young man stood up and demanded to know what the boys were singing, provoking gasps of outrage among the devout Lutherans around him. Faced with such a reaction and, perhaps, the realization that his outburst had been exceedingly rude, the man reseated himself for the duration of the service. At the end of the mass, the man strode briskly up to the cantor and demanded to see the score. Although no unified score existed, the church had a collection of the several parts, which the man proceeded to spread out across the church floor. Getting down on his hands and knees, the man began several hours’ study of the work, after which he asked permission to copy them. Permission granted, the man proceeded to create a unitary score, which remained in his possession for the rest of his life.
The motet, naturally, was by J.S. Bach. The young intemperate man was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
By the late Baroque period, motets had become a general classification for choral works that did not fit naturally into any other category. They were typically sung after the organ prelude at the start of the service. While the old motets of the Rennaisance had been sung a cappella, Baroque motets, particularly in Germany, were accompanied. Intrumental parts, including a figured bass in Bach’s own hand, survive to this day, laying to rest the debate as to whether the orchestral bits were added later. Debate still swirls around the number of instruments Bach intended and the motets have been performed with every conceivable option over the years.
Frankly, I don’t care. The motets are one of the singular glories in Western music. It is here that polyphony reaches its absolute zenith. The voices, true to Bach’s style, are all independent, moving from key to key seemingly without a break for the chorus.
The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the direction of René Jacobs, gets it the balance exactly right. Here they are performing the motet that so captivated Mozart. I find this music so stunning, I can only imagine what the effect of hearing it live had been on someone who could delve the very depths of the compositional technique that provoke such powerful human emotions.
Bach may have been best known during his lifetime as a peerless virtuoso at the organ and subsequently for his many keyboard compositions, but for me his real genius is revealed in his many choral works. These motets are a great introduction to what, for me, might just be the greatest music ever composed.
J.S. Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied: