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.