article 108: THE THIRD MASS

In 1985 a colleague fell down his stairs and I was summoned with one day’s notice to play organ continuo in Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Bach’s Mass in B-minor, BWV 232. The Zürich publisher Nägeli announced its first appearance in print (1833) as “the greatest work of music of all time and all nations”, and I would be the last to disagree with him. Bach’s figures for the harmonies to be improvised on the organ come to a halt after the Gloria (and dare I say it – some of them need emendation). Luckily I had used part of the work as an exercise in figuring from orchestral notation. All I had was a miniature score, which I would now have difficulty reading with a magnifying glass. I worked through the next night figuring the rest of the Mass, and arrived at the church in Haarlem with my mind reeling from all the dissonances. But the sessions went smoothly. Four years later I used the same little book for Frans Brüggen’s 25-concert Moscow-to-Lisbon tour of Europe and subsequent recording of the Mass.

Frans had a copy of the facsimile of Bach’s score which he let me drool over. Since then I have hoped to find an affordable one of my own. But even the normal Neue Bach Ausgabe edition of BWV 232* always seemed overpriced. Anyway, there would have been no real point to having either. I have never been asked to play the work since, and conducting it never entered my mind. But I just felt my library was incomplete without it.

Then the other day I stumbled on an incredible offer: 28 Euros for the NBA edition, full-size, for sale in Vienna. When I unpacked the volume, I was surprised to find it oddly diminished from the copies I had handled in the past. The paper was brownish and fragile-looking.

The answer to the puzzle came on the title page: it was published by the Deutsche Verlag für Musik Leipzig, the German Democratic Republic’s (a.k.a. East Germany) confiscated, consolidated, collectivized music publishing house. Leipzig had been the location of most of the established music printers, in first place Germany’s oldest, Breitkopf & Härtel. The title further stated that it was edited by the Johann-Sebastian-Bach Institut Göttingen and the Bach-Archiv Leipzig. This was an uneasy cooperation between scholars and refugees in the old university town which lay almost in sight of the Iron Curtain, and Bach’s final place of employment. After the walls, fences and watchtowers came down after 1989**, most activity moved to Leipzig, and the Göttingen side closed down in 2006 after the NBA was completed.

I wondered why such a Cold War artifact had wound up in Vienna. Then I remembered Carol Reed’s 1949 film “The Third Man”, with its zither theme and bombed-out Vienna under control of the four Allies, patrolling together in their Jeeps. I didn’t realize that the whole country had been divided into four zones, just like Germany. Nor did I know the date the occupation ended: 1955, the very year the NBA brought out the B-minor Mass now in my possession.

The impoverished, bitter Viennese (“Of one thing I am certain: I imagined the liberation very differently!”, squawked Alida Valli’s elderly landlady in the movie) had no choice but to buy the Leipzig version, produced on low-grade paper in the part of Germany writhing under the Soviet boot. Or a later resident may have exchanged his Shillings on the black market and carted it off from East Germany for a song. I am sorely temped to expound on the Austrian invention of Nazism, the country’s rapturous welcome home of its native son Adolf Hitler after the Anschluß, the postwar cover-up of his Nazi past by Herbert von Karajan, and the entire myth of “Martyred Austria”...but let it be.

August 14, 2023

Vol. I of Series II: Masses, Passions and Oratorios, ed. Friedrich Smend.

** I watched the process from fairly close to the border, at my then home in Karlstadt am Main. I went to greet the first train of refugees from the Prague embassy when it arrived in Hammelburg, and the stream of Trabis driven at a snail’s pace by East Germans tasting free travel for the first time congested traffic for weeks. Nobody minded. Euphoria was general; nowadays, not so much.

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