Maxing out the enjoyment (with Bach’s B-Minor Mass)

Many years ago, I sang in the Princeton University Glee Club. We spent many months practicing Bach’s B-Minor Mass. I learned the piece through and through, and listened to recordings constantly, but I never performed it, because I left to study abroad in Australia two weeks before the concert. That itself was a fabulous opportunity, but it meant that another fabulous opportunity couldn’t happen. It is on my bucket list of things to sing in someday.

My favorite piece in the B-Minor mass, however, is one I’ll never sing in any performance I’d want to be part of. It’s the Agnus Dei. The penultimate song, it is the most gorgeous alto solo I have ever heard. Professional altos often have warm, deep voices. When they do sustain high notes, it is an entirely different, more piercing and pure quality, than a soprano can achieve. Bach has his alto go (relatively) high on some of the miserere lines, and in the minor, haunting key, it’s hard to believe that the lamb of God wouldn’t take away the sins of the world when asked like that.

Anyway, my church choir has a fabulous (professional) alto soloist. When I heard her sing parts of the Magnificat over Christmas, I knew I had to hear her sing the Agnus Dei from the B-Minor mass. She told me she hadn’t performed it, but something transpired in the church music planning process (possibly before — they tend to plan these things a year out) and next thing I knew the calendar called for her to sing it during the service on Sunday. Just with piano, not orchestra, but she would be singing it.

Fortunately, my years of writing on time and happiness helped me figure out how to maximize my enjoyment of the experience.

First, as soon as I knew she would be singing the Agnus Dei, I put it on the calendar. Because I sing in the choir, I’m committed to being in church most Sundays anyway. But I wanted to be sure I didn’t somehow skip this service.

Putting it on the calendar weeks ahead of time meant I could think about it weeks ahead of time. Some research has found that anticipation accounts for the lion’s share of human happiness. People who take vacations are happier than people who don’t take vacations, but not so much during or afterward. Instead, it’s this: knowing you’ll be sipping a cocktail with an umbrella on it on a beach in April can make a rainy February commute more tolerable.

In a similar vein, thinking of the Agnus Dei can make a flight home from California much nicer as one imagines those piercing notes above the din of the flight attendant reminding everyone that American Airlines has a great credit card offer.

In addition to putting the service on my calendar, I also highlighted it during my planning process to remind myself that I was going to be experiencing something special.

I always plan my weeks on Fridays. I look ahead to the next week, and I identify my top priorities in three categories: career, relationships, self. I chose “listen to the B-minor mass Agnus Dei” as one of my personal priorities for the week. So all week, looking at the priority, list, I was reminded of the importance of this event.

It’s good I did this much mental time-travel beforehand, as Sunday morning did not lend itself to any reflection whatsoever. I took all four kids to church by myself. This is always a frustrating process, as we’ll be on the way out and I’ll realize someone is wearing pants with holes in them or some such. The three big kids sat in the back of the choir loft during rehearsal, and I was dealing with them for the first part of the service.

But then they went to children’s church, and it was time. During the song itself, I paid as much attention as I could. First, I took in all my surroundings so I would have a mental picture to remember. Then, I let myself simply relax and enjoy it. I did my best to fully concentrate on the sound. And it was just as beautiful as I thought it would be.

All time passes, and while the Agnus Dei is not a short piece, it’s still only a few minutes. Eventually, the minutes were over. But I made sure to note on my time log that from 10-11 I was not just at “church” — it was “church with Agnus Dei.” And I am posting this here, remembering the piercing arc of those Latin phrases: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Time is what it is, but by doing these things, we can change the experience of time. As poet Mary Oliver writes “I look upon time as no more than an idea.” It is not a drumbeat marching toward doom. It can be manipulated as an artist might use her materials, as Bach might pull together those sounds, pulling something close to eternal out of just a handful of notes.

15 thoughts on “Maxing out the enjoyment (with Bach’s B-Minor Mass)

  1. Laura, this post makes me happy in so many ways. I’m glad you could have had this experience and that you could have enjoyed it thoroughly, I just listened to the aria on Youtube and it is lovely. I miss being a part of a choir!

  2. I hope you get to sing the whole B minor Mass someday! Having had the good fortune to do so twice–and spend SO MUCH TIME living that glorious music encompassing all the mysteries of the universe–has been one of the musical highlights of my life!

      1. Fingers crossed! 🙂 Now would not even be too soon to start prepping it to further heighten the anticipation–there are a lot of notes in that piece! 😉

  3. Longtime reader, first-time commenter–I’m a music historian enjoys time management literature and, coincidentally, also hosts a podcast about J.S. Bach (“Notes on Bach,” sponsored by Bach Society Houston). This was a fun post for me, marrying two of my interests! Glad you got to hear that aria in person and I appreciate the ways you found to enrich & deepen the experience.

  4. I love this post (and I love all your books). Handel’s Messiah is like this for me. I book it into my Christmas calendar and then savor every minute. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Laura,

    So happy to read this. First, it’s my absolute favourite piece of music ever. Not the Agnus Dei, but the whole mass. I so, so, so want to sing in it again.

    And second, because you say something very meaningful and quite important, and we forget it. Thank you dear.


  6. I love everything about this post, Laura. From the happiness of anticipation to the very deliberate way you went about enjoying your anticipated pleasure. Some great food for thought here, as we (I) tend to allow time to march on when we could be shaping it artistically–I may be stealing that concept for a future blog post of my own :).

    1. @Kathy – so glad you liked it! This is one of the themes of Off the Clock – shaping time, which is truly no more than an idea. I’m glad that came through in the blog post.

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