The Johannesburg Bach Choir

in Literature

The following short story by Ann Cluver Weinberg gives a poignant view of "Life in the Bach Choir". It was printed first in Sesame Magazine and then in the Vita book of current stories, and then in the Reader's Digest for South African stories from Olive Shreiner onwards. Then it was broadcast, and then it was printed in the journal of the Pietermaritzburg Choir.
The Johannesburg Bach Choir would like to extend its thanks to Anne for permission to reprint the story.




 

THE B MINOR MASS – SOUTH AFRICA 1986

Ann Cluver Weinberg

For Eberhardt Künkel and the Johannesburg Bach Choir

 

 

The choir meets on a Monday night in a small hall of a primary school in Westcliff, Johannesburg. Those who arrive early collect piles of chocolate-white plastic chairs, stacked three-deep, light enough for eleven-year-olds, or even six-year-olds to carry. We distribute them in rows of broad semicircles.

            I sit down on a chair in the middle row of the Second Sopranos. A woman leans across the vacant chair next to me to say: “I wonder if you would mind very much moving up a seat – my two friends usually sit here.” “Not at all”. I move up one. The lady on the other side of me says: “I’m afraid that’s my friend’s seat.” I move to the back row. I shut my eyes and imagine it is June 1946. The war is over, and my best friend has saved a seat for me.

            Perhaps one day this war too will be over.

            Two of the ladies who have displaced me are recent grandmothers. They chatter on beyond the moment when the conductor taps his baton and says, in his shy voice with a German accent: “We start, yes?” Someone prods them, and we start rehearsing.

            It is the second of June. The concert is on the twenty-third. We have been rehearsing this work since last November. By now we should know it well enough to watch the conductor and not our books. But it feels safer to look at the notes on the page. Our conductor is in despair.

            “I don’t want to be so impolite as to say it is feeble,” he says. “I do all sorts of circus tricks and all I see is hair-styles. Face the danger open-eyed – then it goes better!”

            We wake up. We watch him. He stands there half-crouching, like a gorilla on a rock. He brings us all in together on our great opening shout: “KYRIE ELEISON!” Lord Have Mercy! We must spit out the k. We must sing in short sharp syllables as if we are striking matches: “Ki! Ri! Ay!”

            Supposing all twenty million of us cold shout like this, arms stretched out and up and forwards with fingers slightly apart, stretching higher and higher, looking up to where the sun comes over the Drakensberg, and then, at the very moment when it appears, all shout together: “God have mercy!”

            Would that help?

 

We finish singing the “Kyrie” and sit down. “Please God,” I say, “let us be all right, let us survive, let everything work out; why have you allowed this madness?”

            We sing the “Qui Tollis”. Very soft. Very slow. Each voice limping in after the other: “Qui tollis peccata mundi, Miserere nobis.” Thou who taketh away the sins of the world, Have mercy on us.

            Supposing we were all considerate, kind, honest, generous, sharing and faithful?

            Would that help?

            We sing the “Qui Tollis” three times, making different mistakes each time.

            “In the performance you have only one chance,” says the conductor, sternly.

            We break for coffee. A young blonde girl, with long straight hair clasped at the back, walks over and talks in Afrikaans to the girl sitting next to me. Then she goes away.

            “You look alike,” I say. “Is she related to you?”

            “She’s my sister. She’s the pretty one.”

            “Oh,” I say, nonplussed. She presses her lips thinly together and stares ahead.

            I join a group who are talking about their farms. Six people, all amazed to find that the others have farms.

            “I have not been there for two years,” says one man, a Wits lecturer, “but my family won’t let me sell it.”

            “What do you farm?”

            “Nothing.”

            “An empty farm!”

            “There are leopards. The farmer next door shot ten leopards last year, so they must be thriving.”

            I go back to my seat, strangely reassured by the survival of the leopards.

            The choirmaster, a jovial, red-faced man, addresses us:

            “Next Monday we rehearse in the City Hall – yes, I know it’s June the sixteenth, but we are doing it for HIM,” – he gives a humorous grimace and points at the ceiling, “so you will be protected.” We are not convinced, and we arrange to come to the next rehearsal in twos and threes.

 

It is June the sixteenth. The tenth anniversary of the Soweto riots. There is no news. The unrest has gone. We drive through the empty town and walk through the empty City Hall. The orchestra is tuning up.

            I chat to the oboist, an old friend: “We are quite powerless,” he says, “I just want a quiet life away from all this.”

            The choir change from random dots around the hall to a solid mass on the platform, ready to attack the mountains. But the conductor tells us to relax, as he is beginning with the soloists.

            We listen. The dragon mountains have dissolved. God has been made man. He is someone to talk to, as I was talking to the oboist: “Will you help me?” But the oboist is leaving next month.

            We listen. The shepherdesses dance in a green meadow, surrounded by resting sheep and lambs. The shepherd stands a little way off. The setting sun highlights the new white wool of the lambs. The sun sinks, and all sleep, except the shepherd.

            The choir are almost asleep. But now we must get up and sing the “Credo”: steady marching by the double basses and cellos, and long notes by us, with strong accents, striking the gongs of faith: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

            And I believe in the power of art and in living in harmony with the environment and in the possibility of a good society.

            “It is choirs like you,” said the conductor at one of our rehearsals, “who have kept this work alive for over two hundred years.”

            We sit down. There is a sentence which keeps going through my head: “After the Civil War there was remarkably little bitterness.” It was written about England in the seventeenth century.

            We drive home through the empty streets.

 

Thursday, June the nineteenth. Another rehearsal in the City Hall.

            We are ready to begin – but the conductor is having a long discussion with the horn player.

            Why can’t we begin?

            The woman next to me is reading a tract on The Accelerating Revolution in South Africa. I don’t want to read it. I want to begin singing. The conductor is laughing with the oboist. I glance at the tract. I read: “This slow agonizing death is often accompanied by stoning and sometimes eating of the burnt flesh, even before the victim has died. The intimidation impact of such atrocities on frightened black moderates is tremendous, especially since many black Africans believe in reincarnation and that if their body is burnt, they will return in a later life as an animal or insect.”

            I hope we will start with the “Gloria”, but we start with the “Crucifixus”. Why is he taking it so fast? The cellos play the theme they will play thirteen times. The theme is made of seven notes standing chromatically next to each other, as close together as people in a gas chamber.

            Why is he taking it so fast? This is chaos. We are not used to taking it so fast. He said there must be cruelty in it. “This is not the time to practise pacifism!” We tumble in like mobs appearing from five different directions: “Crucify! Crucify! Torture! Necklace!”

            The two Afrikaans sisters are standing in the row below me: the pretty one and the one who thinks she is not so pretty. Their hair is loose tonight. I see long fair hair in black tyres. The veld flares up in my head. The crisp charred stubble expands and expands. The leopards are leaping on the lambs. “You must bite the notes,” – knock in the nails, crucify, crucify.

            Later we sing the “Confiteor”: “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Confess your sins to the party. But the party will not forgive you. No one died for you, so you must die for yourself.

            I slink home and lie frightened in bed.

 

It is the night of the concert. Monday June the twenty-third. Concertgoers, like single drops of rain, join rivulets and streams and then converge into a pool beneath the Library Gardens. They leave their cars and flow through a tunnel and up the stairs to the foyer of the City Hall.

            The sound of their talking grows and grows until it is like waves on pebbles – but irregular, as if the waves were accumulated and then released randomly by some high-spirited sea-god.

            “Are they at a party?” I wonder, as I walk past these laughing, gossiping people, sedate and frightened in my long-sleeved white blouse and long black skirt. Yet they are ready to obey, to stop their talking and to listen – to listen! To us!

            I walk down the passage on the side of the hall and into our dressing-room. I talk to the man who owns an empty farm. He has sung with this choir for thirty years, ever since it began. It’s my first time.

            “Do you still get nervous?” I ask him.

            “Definitively! But the butterflies go when we start singing.”

            “Mine won’t go until the “Gloria”. There are so many possible wrong turnings in the “Kyrie”.

            I am handed a letter. I sit down and read it. It is from our choirmaster: “Convince each member of this audience that this is the finest live performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass they are ever likely to hear. Keep perfectly still, focus your eyes on the conductor at all times, smile at the audience and sing as if your life depended on it. We’ve got the dough. Now add the yeast.”

            We line up in four rows in the passage – one hundred penguin-people. We file in and sit in our rows behind the orchestra. The lights dim, the leader walks in, the clapping starts, the soloists walk in, the clapping grows louder, the conductor walks in, the clapping grows louder still. The conductor turns, there is silence. We stand. The conductor crouches like a gorilla. He springs his hands suddenly upward and we come in all together on the right note: “KI! RI! AY!”

            The “Kyrie” is over. No disasters. I laugh to myself. We have survived. Now the “Gloria”. This I have sung in my bath inside-out and up-side-down. The conductor brings in the Second Sopranos with a big smile and I smile joyfully back. “Gloria in excelsis deo!” We are all optimists now in the best of all possible worlds. We can do it! Reverse the trend – find solutions – people have before.

            We sit down and listen to the sweet solos. By the time re reach the “Qui Tollis” we have lost momentum and probably convince no one. But at the end of the first half we wake up with “Cum Sancto Spiritu”.

            This is the very merriest Holy Ghost, who comes on a trapeze to fetch us every one to swing out over the sea, cheered on by trumpets. This is the piece the conductor told us to train for. “What was it called? – all that running on Saturday?” “Comrades’ Marathon!” we shouted. “Well then now you must train for it – you must be all comrades and train for this number. It needs high energy.”

            It is interval. I sit quietly in the dressing-room with my eyes shut. I hardly know how I will survive the second half.

            We file in again. We sing the “Credo”. We reach “Et incarnatus est’. All the air between heaven and earth has stopped moving. This is the softest part of the whole work. “Et homo factus est.” And was made man. And was crucified, dead and buried.

            And on the third day rose again: “re!sur!rex!it!” Accent every syllable. Shout with the trumpets! Rise again, and again and again, and every time any choir has sung it and kept this work alive.

            Bach said music should be “the reflection and foretaste of heavenly harmony”. The comrades want heaven on earth.

            We reach the end. “Dona nobis pacem.” Give us peace. The sound echoes for a second and the air vibrates on every ear-drum. Even the least present member of the audience hears this last note.

            And the applause starts and roars and carries on and on – as if we have saved South Africa by our singing.

 

I wait in the foyer for my husband. The people stream out all round me but I am too tired to take any notice of them. My husband arrives. We walk to the car.

            “Well?” I ask.

            “The acoustics were terrible,” he says. “The choir didn’t come through at all.”

            I feel stunned. I wonder what it was all about.

            At home I lie on my bed in my white blouse and long black skirt, as stiff and still as a corpse in a mortuary. After about half an hour I get up, have a bath, make some Milo and go to bed. I read a few paragraphs of my book on England in the seventeenth century, then fall asleep.

 







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