Heaven and its angels never felt so close as when she sang the St. Matthew Passion.
- Posted on Feb 22, 2015
The library at the Cleveland Institute of Music was having one of its sidewalk sales, getting rid of carts full of old scores, sheet music, scholarly journals, outdated encyclopedias. I couldn’t resist checking out the titles, running my fingers along dusty spines, opening brittle pages of music. Looking for a bargain but also looking for something I could sing.
Maybe that’s what attracted me to the red hardbound volume. It was large, 14 by 16 inches, with gold lettering on the cover, “Joh. Seb. Bach’s Werke Band IV.”
I was getting my master’s in early music performance at Case Western Reserve University down the street, one of a handful of sopranos in the program. That my degree would be in vocal music and not piano was still something of a surprise.
Although I’d always sung in church choirs and school choruses as an alto, I felt most comfortable behind the keyboard, not in the limelight. Certainly not standing in the front of the stage, a full orchestra and choir behind me.
But at the University of Louisville, where I was a piano major and also sang in the collegium, the music director pulled me aside after a chorus rehearsal and asked, “What are you doing in the alto section, Kathy? You’re a soprano.” He played through some scales and arpeggios, taking my voice higher and higher, the sound bouncing off the walls.
It was scary and thrilling all at once. I had no idea I could sing that high, up in angelic terrain. Finally the director declared, “Not only are you a soprano but you should be singing solos.” And just like that I had a new calling and a new repertoire. I stayed in Louisville after college, performing with the Bach Society before applying to grad school.
There were a ton of arias and oratorios I wanted to learn first. Somehow I made room to add new vocal scores to my shelves. Getting rid of my old piano music—or any music book, for that matter—was out of the question. When I was accepted to Case Western, all my books came with me. Not that an overflowing bookshelf would keep me from a library sidewalk sale!
I balanced the big red volume in the crook of my arm and flipped through the pages. It was part of a facsimile of the complete edition of Bach first printed in 1850 and in beautiful condition. My voice teacher had been telling me that I should study the soprano solos in this very volume. “Someday, I hope you get to sing them,” she said.
In the St. Matthew Passion, Bach set the biblical text to luminous music, with original solos that mirror the disciples’ feelings during Holy Week: the guilt, the pain, the sorrow, the terrible loss. Often the chorus and soloists address Jesus just as one would in prayer, “mein Jesus,” my Jesus.
When Jesus himself sings he is accompanied by strings only, “the halo” as it’s called. At the very last, as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” even the halo disappears. He is never more human, never more alone.
I couldn’t believe the price of the score. “Five dollars” was scrawled in pencil on the inside cover. Maybe it was low because it was an orphan from a 46-volume set. Maybe somebody had made a mistake, not realizing what a treasure it was. But I didn’t argue. I bought it on the spot.
Indeed I did study the soprano arias, the music expressing feelings that were almost impossible to put into words. If anything, singing opened me up to the mysteries of faith. It took courage to get up on stage, wondering if I’d be able to reach all the notes, and yet, never did I feel closer to God than when I sang.
After I earned my master’s I returned to Louisville, taking my lone volume of the St. Matthew Passion with me. I joined the board of the Bach Society. We gave four concerts a year and I often did the solos.
One evening we had a meeting at the founder Melvin Dickinson’s house. That night after going through the usual business of budgets and tickets and marketing for our next concert, Melvin announced that a donor had an extraordinary gift for us.
“A set of Bach’s works, a facsimile of the 1850 edition,” he told the board. “The forty-six-volume set has only one flaw. It’s missing a volume.”
I smiled to myself, thinking that my 46-volume set had 45 flaws!
“Which is missing?” I asked.
“Volume four. St. Matthew Passion.” The next day I brought over my copy. Volume IV from the same facsimile printing, the missing volume that completed the set. My orphan had found its siblings. This was one book I had to give away.
Before I moved to New York to continue my career, I had reason to borrow the volume one last time. I was asked, as my teacher had predicted, to sing the soprano solos in the St. Matthew Passion. I wanted to study the score.
“Ich will dir mein Herze schenken,” the soprano sings, “I will give my heart to thee...” It’s an expression of love for God, and his infinite love for us. “And if the world is too small for thee, ah, then for me alone shalt thou be more than world and heaven.”
Heaven and its angels never seemed so close than when I sang those words on stage. God gave everything to us. What joy to give this back to him.
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