Buried Alive: Bach Society Revives High Culture at Columbia | Chris Bolton

Over the years, Columbia has borne witness to, and even launched, her fair share of successful musicians—from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Vampire Weekend—but it’s fair to say these have steadily declined in quality. So too with the music that students stream. These days, most of my peers eagerly abominate their ears with soulless alternative rock, insipid indie, and raucous hip-hop, meanwhile salivating in anticipation for Beyoncé’s next album to drop. Few appreciate good music—by which I mean the kind of music that characterizes a civilization.

Far too often, Music Humanities fails to inculcate a real appreciation for high culture. The Core Department’s objectives, while noble, are probably unrealistic. Neither do students walk away with a sophisticated understanding of Western musical traditions, nor are they likely to explore the “extraordinary richness of musical life in New York” without coercion. Your average Music Hum class “awakens” nothing but a slightly more informed distaste for Gregorian chant and the “dead, white, men” responsible for other Masterpieces of Western Music. After Music Hum, most students probably won’t return to the Metropolitan Opera House, which, while tragic, is at least forgivable—even in spite of discount student tickets. What’s more difficult to understand is students’ willful ignorance of the thriving classical music scene at Columbia.

The Columbia Orchestra, Bach Society, Classical Performers, New Opera Workshop, something I just discovered called the Mid-Day Music Series, and numerous other groups regularly perform canonical pieces of classical music, from Handel to Wagner, right here on campus. Among these groups, however, the best is perhaps the Bach Society, whose biannual concerts draw massive crowds to St. Paul’s chapel, shifting New York’s center of high culture from Lincoln Center to Morningside Heights. Since 1999, they’ve performed a stunning array of oratorios and fully-staged operas, empowering talented students and musicians from Columbia and the greater New York City area to refine their craft.

On the program this year: Mozart’s Great Mass in C-minor. A formidable piece of music, the Bach Society’s modest performance did it justice. The Mass, of course, was written in part to showcase the voice of Mozart’s young bride, Constanze Weber, who sang the soprano solos in its Salzburg premiere in 1783. Knowing that Mozart composed much of his work with the capabilities of his performers in mind, we ought to marvel at Constanze’s virtuosity, range, and easy coloratura in the opening “Christe Eleison.” We ought also applaud Ms. Jessica Gruenstein’s gallant imitation, which recalled a religious zeal foreign to most people today. Somehow, she was able to capture the depth and passion of the Kyrie’s plea for mercy—something not easily feigned—purging us with hyssop in preparation for the Gloria.

At first sent heavenward by the blast of horns over the four-part chorus, we were returned to earth by the depressive line of “et in terra pax.” As the Gloria neared its zenith, the tension between heaven and earth became increasingly palpable, until at last the firmament was shattered by the “Agnus Dei.” Here, Artistic Director Kevin Lee chose to heighten both awe and intimacy of the “Domine Deus” with a violin, rather than a soprano, duet, shining a humble spotlight on the interplay between the Father and the Son—the innocent and humble Lamb of God who “bears the sins of the world.” The intended climax, the “qui tollis,” was a bit subdued but nonetheless frightened us with depressive, chromatic chords that seemed to add lashes to Christ’s back. The drama of His suffering, and the vulnerability to which we were first exposed, was subsumed by the assertive “miserere nobis.” This natural result of an overpowering bass section added something unique—though I cannot quite identify it—to the Mass. As serenity melted into ecstasy—or the peace of death was shattered by the joy of the Resurrection—it became clear that neither event lacks in passion, and that passion is God’s instrument for refining suffering into bliss.

The final movements of the Gloria were earnest and powerful, leaving us trembling before God. Then came the famous “et incarnatus est,” but where I expected a soprano soloist, I heard only the bassoon, flute, strings, and Mr. Arnold Zahn’s flawless clarinet solo. Both energetic and passionate, he drew us nearer still to the Throne of God, and flawlessly infused the Mass with something florid, sensuous, and intimate. Here, the Incarnation was quite the mode: that marvelous moment where God became man and Love, pure Love, was born. The carnality of the event as Mozart imagined it, the sheer ecstasy of the Word made flesh, left awe streaming from the vaulted chapel ceiling. As the Credo transitioned to the majestic Sanctus, the whole orchestra carried us towards the monumental fugue “Osanna,” recalling Handel and once more demonstrating the tension between sensuality and terror, between God’s love and His holiness, manifest most when He brought the world’s suffering upon Himself.

Unfortunately, that’s a kind of Love Ed Sheeran will never be able to translate into song. But then neither could Mozart; although it’s fair to say that he got pretty damn close. Better than any artist alive today, he was able to bring together seemingly disparate aspects of the human experience—love and terror. He showed us that Christ’s Death and Resurrection was not merely a redemptive event, but a statement about God’s miraculous and sacrificial love for mankind; Mozart’s Mass, then, is the response we all owe Him.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there are certain forms of expression that are lost on today’s youth. Some of us like esoteric, underground rap, while others stick to Top 40 hits, and still others prefer “music” composed entirely of electronic “beeps” and “bops.” Of course it’s not all terrible; hell, some of this stuff you may even find inspiring, but too much popular music will inevitably numb your sense of true beauty. More often than you might think, folks who want sincerely to appreciate high culture in this day and age are incapable of understanding a piece’s real depth, myself included, precisely because we’re up to our ears in so much auricular rubbish. But this Mass is brilliant because it overcomes all that. You don’t need to be familiar with it to be awestruck by it. You don’t need to be a lover of classical music; you don’t even need to be particularly familiar with Christian doctrine to recognize the entangling of the sacred and profane, divinity and carnality, wrath and love.

There are countless opportunities to experience grace like this in music, but we have to make time for it. We can’t allow any music to happen to us, polluting our hearts; we’ve got to consciously separate the wheat from the chaff to hear beautiful things.


NB: The penultimate paragraph of this article was edited to clarify the opinions of the author.

Chris Bolton is a Columbia College Junior studying Mathematics-Statistics and what it means to be human. He is also the Beacon’s art-critic-at-large and managing editor, and he maintains a steadfast commitment to BREAKING THE CONDITIONING.


    • I’m afraid that’s not much of a challenge. The title of the first betrays its insipidity; “This Song” is spectacularly generic, essentially the same as every alternative rock song since the 90’s. As to the second, it is lacking in more soul than a graveyard. Mozart still wins. You’ll have to do better than that m’boy.

  1. Hithertoo there has never been such a display of the wondrous sumbline. Like a heliotrope caught adrift in the entropic sway of the windy winds, I have lived, apart from all that is beautiful. Oh eternal word, how this piece captures the immutable interpolation between number and man. I entreat, how I have lived a life without experiencing the orgastic pleasure of Chris’ delicate prose. Enlighten me fair muse, take me under your supple wing and teach me your song, deny me beauty no more.

  2. As a classical musician, I want to say that this sentiment is not support by the vast majority of our profession. This is the kind of “holier than thou” snobbery that society, including myself, abhors. I’m not saying that you musical tastes are invalid, but that your words and ylsentiment shout supremacy, which is not welcome in our community.

  3. I’d like to echo Nick’s sentiment above and expand on it. As a preface, I am a serious “classical” musician, and I don’t really listen to any music that couldn’t reasonably called “classical.” I used to sing with the Bach Society and am glad you enjoyed their concert — they indeed perform with a high level of artistry and are a culturally important group on campus.

    You and I seem to agree that more people should engage with classical music. As is obviously evidenced by your account, it has the power to teach us about our inner humanity and connect with us emotionally in ways that words alone cannot. More people, particularly more young people, should give it a chance and explore what it has to offer. I have no numbers on this, but classical music organizations seem not to be thriving, at least in this country, and this is a serious problem you, I, and every other lover of classical music must face.

    “Even the folks who want sincerely to appreciate high culture are often incapable of understanding a piece’s real depth.”

    Putting aside the insufferable arrogance in this sentence, there are multiple points here that are problematic. First and foremost, I strongly object to the notion that classical music is “high culture.” It’s exactly this attitude, not the existence of the alternatives that you so abhor, which fuels the problem. Read the above sentence again as if you were one of your classmates in music hum — would it make you want to buy a ticket to the Met? I didn’t think so. Why must I be a member of high society, eating caviar and playing shuffleboard, to watch Le Nozze di Figaro for the millionth time and find it as hilarious and profound as ever? Figaro, arguably the magnum opus of your favorite (?) composer, and in my opinion the greatest piece of music ever written, is literally about how ridiculous “high *anything*” is. This snobbishness is a primary barrier for everyone else. It needs to stop.

    I should point out that putting Mozart up against the average piece of pop music is not quite a fair comparison. Mozart endured the test of time because he’s great, sure. But what about his contemporaries? How many Salieri operas can you name? Would I know Salieri’s name if not for that one movie? (Answer: no) Who among all current musicians, classical or not, will similarly stand the critical test of time? We don’t have a way of knowing — that’s up to the audiences of the future — but surely these people will be more historically and musically important than Salieri will ever be.

    To the point, the idea that classical music is somehow inherently better than all other kinds of music is ludicrous, short-sighted, and off-putting to the people who we both want to get excited about the art form. Why on earth would they want to go hear the New York Philharmonic with you if you think other stuff they listen to is trash? Yes, many pieces of classical music have real depth, and I’m glad you see it. You have sophisticated, well-thought-out reasons for feeling a connection with Mozart’s C Minor Mass, especially from a Christian perspective. As it turns out, so do serious Christian writers with Beyonce’s Lemonade: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/05/beyonc-and-the-fertility-of-forgiveness. You are perhaps incapable of understanding this piece’s true depth — how sad!

    Classical music moves you and me. I happen to be more easily moved by classical music than other genres because it’s the musical language I grew up with, understand, and continue to spend my life trying to perfect in my own music-making. Other music speaks to other people in different ways — rap music, for instance, often speaks to the experience of, say, growing up poor in urban centers, and offers relevant social commentary on race and class issues (starting to sound kinda like Mozart, don’t you think?). This resonates with a lot of people who have (or have not) had similar experiences, and thus this music moves them. Because of their own life experiences, as deep and human as yours, they find visceral meaning in this music, whether or not they express it as pretentiously as you. What gives you the moral or academic authority to judge them for it?

    You wish these people would try out classical music, because maybe they can be moved by it and find meaning in that too. It’s time you take the stick out of your ass and let them.

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