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J.S. Bach - Mass in B Minor


Last Performed by BCCS on March 22, 2015

The masterpiece that waited over a century to be performed

The work that became known to the world in the mid-19th century as the great B Minor Mass is one of the most remarkable creations of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The complete mass was never performed as a whole in Bach's lifetime - in the context of Bach's predominantly Lutheran musical world, he would have had no reason to expect to hear such a setting of the complete Catholic mass in Latin, one far too long for any practical use even in the liturgy of the Roman church.

Through the efforts of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the work became of special interest to connoisseurs after his death, primarily from occasional performances of portions of the Mass, particularly its dramatic Symbolum Nicenum (Credo). We know that Haydn owned a complete copy of the score, but that Beethoven tried in vain to obtain a copy on more than one occasion, having only the famous repeating ground bass of the "Crucifixus" movement to go on. The world would have to wait until 1834 for a published vocal score of the complete Mass, 1845 for a published full score, and 1859 (over a century after the composer's death) for a complete performance as Bach had conceived it, albeit one in German translation, in Leipzig.

As it became known to a broader public, the Mass appealed to the vivid imagination of the time as a grand work of a tortured romantic genius, willing his true art into existence in the face of a Philistine world consumed with the mundane and trivial. But George Stauffer, in his excellent recently published guide-book to the Mass, suggests a somewhat more nuanced picture of what might have been Bach's motivation. He cites a local Kantor of the time, Caspar Ruetz, who writes after realizing that half of a large stack of church music had been used for stove kindling "Who will give anything for it other than someone who needs scrap paper, since nothing is more useless than old music." Stauffer goes on:

Surely Bach was aware that vast quantities of music suffered this fate, especially vocal works with circumscribed utility. One can imagine him sitting in his study in the late 1740s, sullenly scrutinizing the 350 or so German-texted vocal pieces he had labored so diligently to produce and realizing that the entire lot might be consigned to flames or the scrap paper pile after his death.[1]

This is only speculation of course, but Stauffer goes on to suggest that Bach may have chosen the Latin texts of the mass ordinary because of their timeless context as the basis for many of the greatest works in Western music going back even before the Renaissance masters such as Palestrina, from whom Bach drew inspiration. As we will see when we look at the music itself, there is good reason to suspect that Bach wanted the Mass to be a summation of a long and fruitful musical life that would still be around long after most of his other music had been forgotten.

The music of the Mass

The Mass in B Minor can be understood from a variety of perspectives. A listener can be immediately effected by the robust rhythmic energy or plangent lyricism of its surface, or moved by the realization of layer upon layer of formal structure and religious symbolism lying deep underneath that surface.

Perhaps two characteristics best describe the work as a whole:

  1. the varied movements of the Mass represent a full range of the historical musical styles known to Bach, from the Renaissance motet to the galant style of the younger generation of composers in Bach’s time; many of the movements represent revisions of his own earlier works, going back as far as 1714, perhaps with the idea of bringing his "best" work together in one opus;
  2. it is evident that Bach went to great effort to unify all these disparate movements into one grand, fully-integrated design.

Before briefly summarizing the major sections of the Mass, it is worth noting that while the work was later given the title Messe in h-moll ("Mass in B-minor"), no doubt because of its powerful B-minor opening Kyrie (Bach's manuscript has no overall title), it could more accurately be called "Mass in D Major" for the predominant key of the work as a whole. D Major was a key of joy, triumph, and celebration, as well as the key of the trumpets Bach uses so generously in this work - this is a work not primarily oriented toward sorrow and resignation, but toward profound exuberance and hope.

 

KYRIE

The mass begins with a grand rhetorical opening statement followed by an extended fugue with a primary subject in Bach's own distinctive style - complex, angular, and highly expressive.

The Christe eleison that follows is a cheerful duet in the then-modern galant style, perhaps representing the joy represented in the risen Christ.

The second Kyrie completes the opening frame with the first of several fugues in the stile antico ("old style") of Renaissance music - long, smoothly shaped vocal lines without ornament, though still written with Bach's pungent sense of harmonic language that well beyond that of Palestrina.

 

GLORIA

It is in the two largest sections, the Gloria and Credo where Bach’s sense of grand, arching design is most readily apparent.

The Gloria begins and ends with two movements (#1 Gloria and #9 Cum Sancto Spiritu) in Bach's most brilliant concerto style, where the full orchestra, with trumpets blazing, comes to the fore.

Both of these movements in turn are connected with movements in the galant style. The Gloria leads directly into #2 Et in terra pax with its melodies built on graceful pairs of notes (typical of the "modern" style) suggesting the comforts of peace on earth, following by a buoyant fugue. The Cum Sancto Spiritu is led into without pause by the bass aria #8 Quoniam tu solus sanctus with its remarkable combination of a regal solo horn accompanied by a pair of sprightly bassoons.

Just inside of these framing pairs of movements are two arias with solo instrumental accompaniments, #3 Laudamus te for soprano and violin following the Et in terra pax, and #7 Qui sedes ad dextram Patris preceding the Quoniam aria. Their form and extroverted style, though in very contrasting moods, may reflect the operatic style of the lavish Dresden court for which Bach originally wrote the Kyrie and Gloria sections.

Nearing the top of the pyramid are two choral movements, #4 Gratias agimus tibi, a stately fugue in the stile antico, and #6 Qui tollis peccata mundi, a plangent lament employing the steady pulse of the baroque style "ground bass" in a style directly related to the Crucifixus movement in the Credo section.

At the center of this symmetrical nine-movement structure is another transparent, joyful galant-style duet, #5 Domine Deus, just as was found at the center of the shorter Kyrie section the Gloria is paired with. Some observers hear religious symbolism in Bach's choice of the "lowly, humble" key of G major as emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, and the interchange of voices in what seems like an operatic love duet to represent the unity of Father and Son.

 

CREDO (Symbolum Nicenum)

The Credo is built with a 9-movement chiastic form quite parallel to the Gloria. At its heart are the three middle movements (#4 Et incarnatus est, #5 Crucifixus, and #6 Et resurrexit) which dramatically depict the three central events in the life of Christ: his birth, death, and resurrection.

The tender #4 Et incarnatus est is one of the only movements without an apparent earlier model, and probably the last to be composed. The gentle descending triads of the voices and galant-style paired notes of the violins over the steady pulse of the ground bass suggest in an almost pictorial way the descent of the divine into human form.

The #5 Crucifixus is as similar in form to the Et incarnatus est as it is different in expression. This time the triple meter sarabande has an even more transparent texture, with a symbolic 13 repetitions of a four-bar ground bass (the passacaglia theme that Beethoven used to identify the work to publishers) beneath the pointed dissonances of the narrow half-step intervals used by the chorus to intone the first word of the text. And where Bach saved a special concluding phrase in the Et incarnatus est for the words et homo factus est ("and was made man"), a similar phrase, with an unexpected resolution to the "lowly" key of G major (used once before in the central movement of the Gloria), figuratively lays the body in the tomb.

What follows in the #6 Et resurrexit is one of the simplist, yet most spectacular dramatic transformations in all of the literature. The same virtuosic full orchestra heard at the beginning and end of the Gloria section is now heard at the center of the Credo. The almost giddy display of Bach's best concerto style is set in the meter of the Italian courante dance, with its alternating sense of two or three overlapping beats to the bar.

Framing the beginning and end of the Credo are again pairs of movements connected without pause. In this case we have two stile antico fugues (#1 Credo in unum Deo and #8 Confiteor) paired with two concerto style movements, #2 Patrem omnipotentem and #9 Et expecto).

In the opening Credo in unum Deo, Bach turns the words of intonation normally sung by the unaccompanied celebrant into a tour de force fugue combining elements of the Renaissance and Baroque: a seven-voice fugue (5 for voice plus 2 for the violins) on an ancient cantus firmus style melody over an athletic baroque ground bass.

The transition from the equally complex #8 Confiteor fugue to the brilliant closing #9 Et exspecto parallels the depiction in the Crucifixus/Et resurrexit movements of the transformation from death to life. This time, instead of simplicity, Bach allows the fugue to degenerate into a sharp descent into a quite murky harmonic world before again surprising us with the bright the light of D major and the glory of the full orchestra.

The "cushioning" between these magnificent choral movements consists again of a pair of solo movements, the playful duet #3 Et in unum Dominum (the third cheerful galant-style movement found in the three major sections of the mass), and the elegant evocation of the Holy Spirit in the bass aria with solo oboes, #7 Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum.

 

SANCTUS

Bach rounds out the overall shape of the mass with a magnificent Sanctus in the extravagant style of the early-baroque Venetian polychoral school of composition. He does so by simultaneously employing five three-voice choirs, each with their own distinctive musical material: trumpets, oboes, strings, and two alternating combinations of three vocal parts. This eloquently expansive Sanctus is concluded with a joyously dance-like Pleni sunt coeli fugue with the full orchestra.

 

OSANNA/Benedictus/Agnus Dei/Dona nobis pacem

Bach concludes his magnum opus in a way that reinforces the arch-like form of the overall work, with its culmination in the central events of Christ's death and resurrection. The complex double-choir Osanna continues the grand polychoral style of the Sanctus, this time with the brilliant, virtuosic music of the earlier concerto-style movements (such as the Et resurrexit and Cum Sancto Spiritu).

Bach then brings us gently down from this inspired display of early baroque extravagance with two of the most emotionally direct, simply scored solo arias in the Mass. The intimacy of the solo flute and high tenor in the Benedictus suggest a moment of personal reflection in the midst of a raucous and contentious world. Likewise, the Agnus Dei aria for alto and unison violins (the same orchestration as for the cheerful Christe duet at the beginning of the Mass) balances the anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God with a sober, personal expression of the incomplete realization of this vision in the present.

The Mass concludes by bringing back the grand fugue of thanksgiving, the Gratias agimus tibi of the Gloria for the final three words of the mass ordinary, Dona nobis pacem (give us peace). The union of gratitude with the hope for peace perhaps reflects the humble but confident faith of this craftsman composer in his God, and a blessing on those who one day might one day have the privilege of bringing this sacred masterpiece to life again.   - TL


[1] George B. Stauffer, Bach - The Mass in B Minor (The Great Catholic Mass), Schirmer Books (New York, 1997), p.261.

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