Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


The B-minor Mass and Japanese people: a problematical issue of ‘universality’

Tadashi Isoyama

(Kunitachi College of Music, Tokyo, Japan)

The B-minor Mass was premiered in Japan in 1931. The whole work was divided into two concerts and all of the performers were Japanese. Incidentally, this performance preceded the premieres of Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, which were conducted by Klaus Pringsheim in 1939 and 1943 respectively. The premiere of the B-minor Mass was epochal. This is apparent in contemporary reviews: one reported, ‘I was so shocked that I thought it was a dream, as I was under the impression that I would not be able to hear this piece [in Japan] for another 50 years’. As a matter of fact, the school which premiered the B-minor Mass, The Tokyo Koto Gakuin (a newly-formed, privately-funded Music School, now the Kunitachi College of Music), exploited this premiere to overcome an internal division by getting the entire school to be involved in the performance. Unfortunately, their performance received strong criticism for their lack of understanding of performance styles.

Prior to this, in 1890, around the time when Western Music was systematically introduced to Japan, The Tokyo Ongaku Gakko (the first public institution to teach music in Japan) premiered the ‘Crucifixus’. With the exception of performances of selected Chorales, this was the first performance of Bach’s sacred vocal music in Japan. According to Terschak’s report, it ‘achieved much more than expected’. Yet such a historical fact does not mean that the B-minor Mass played an important role in the reception of Bach’s music in Japan. Indeed, the reception of this work has remained deeply problematic in the Japanese musical world.

One can point out three features in the Japanese reception of Bach’s music, which began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Firstly, from the beginning Bach was recognized through cursory studies as the acme in the history of Western music. In such studies, the Well-Tempered Clavier was frequently used to demonstrate his outstanding achievements. Secondly, it was the intelligentsia from the Protestant community who supported the Bach reception and stimulated reverence for the composer. They constantly emphasized the element of ‘Bach’s religiosity’ but showed no sympathy to the liturgical text in Latin. For this reason, there was a tendency in the early Bach literature and the history of music to discuss the St. Matthew Passion in great length but make only passing reference to the B-minor Mass. Thirdly, while the ideology of the work was pursued from the beginning, there were few opportunities or means to appreciate the work as ‘sound’. It therefore seemed inevitable that the musical structure of the B-minor Mass would be received with difficulty.

Still, within about a decade of its premiere, there emerged some descriptions of the work that praised its serene construction and recognized its essence as the combination of a Catholic appearance and a Protestant spirit. After the Pacific War, Yoshio Nomura first recognized the essence of the B-minor Mass in its ‘universality’ and described this in his own words (1964). In 1985 Yoshitake Kobayashi argued the ‘ecumenical’ intent of the B-minor Mass in his detailed research, the view which was then widely accepted. Even so, the concept ‘universality’ is still difficult for ordinary Japanese to actually comprehend. The issue, about which we should discuss, is not only whether our Mass can overcome the disparity between denominations of Christianity with its peculiar idea, but also between Christianity and other religions. To explain about this possibility would be Japanese researchers’ subject, to which we could find the first step in the reconsideration of the 'parody' problem.

Last updated on 12 October 2007