NRO’s Michael Potemra noted the return of several renaissance-era Christmas Masses to churches in New York City, and wrote a but about why such transcendent music is still necessary today.
But whether a Midnight Mass features the compositions of Victoria, Haydn, or Richard Shephard, the music is a potent symbol of the underlying feast itself. Just as music touches the eternal by communicating thoughts too deep for human speech, this annual celebration proclaims the faith of Christian believers that a Word deeper than our words broke in upon human reality. Bill Buckley said about J. S. Bach that his music “disturbs human complacency because one can’t readily understand finiteness in its presence,” and that observation is true in an eminent way of Bach, mankind’s greatest composer. (In the same column, WFB quoted Carl Sagan quoting the biologist Lewis Thomas, when asked what message we should send aboard a spaceship to extraterrestrials, should any such be encountered: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”) Still, while Bach’s achievement is an outlier, even the works of much humbler musical figures point toward transcendence, toward a different order that coexists with — and irrupts into — the one we take for granted; an order beyond words.
I will add nothing to this save this performance of the opening piece of Bach’s Magnificat directed by Nicholas Harnoncourt. Though the work is not strictly a Christmas piece nowadays, he originally wrote it for Vespers and it borrows its text from the canticle of Mary, in Latin, as told in the book of Luke. So it fits nicely.