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Back to CalendarWashington Bach Consort
Friday, September 23, 2005 at 8:00 PM
Music Center at Strathmore


History of the Mass in B Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach became Kantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1723, when he was thirty-eight years old. During his first five or six years in that post he wrote almost half of his surviving compositions, primarily vocal music for the church. It was a Leipzig tradition for the choir to sing an elaborate setting of the Latin Sanctus text on certain holy days. For Christmas 1724 Bach wrote a setting of this text for six-part choir: three soprano parts, alto, tenor and bass. The unsuspecting congregation that Christmas day heard the first performance of a portion of what would eventually become the Mass in B Minor.

Nine years later the next portion of the Mass was composed. On February 1, 1733, Friedrich August I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, died. During the mourning period, Bach composed a Missa in Latin that, according to Lutheran practice, set the text of only the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass. In July of that year, when his son Wilhelm Friedemann assumed his new responsibilities as organist of the Sophienkirche in Dresden, Bach presented this composition to the new Elector of Saxony as part of his petition for an appointment at the Elector’s Court in Dresden. Although there is no record of a performance of the Missa, scholars now believe that it was performed on Sunday, July 26, 1733, for a number of reasons. First, presentation copies of music rarely included performing parts, yet Bach and members of his immediate family prepared separate instrumental and choral parts. Second, the organ part thus prepared was notated a whole tone higher than chorton, the standard pitch used to accompany choral music; because the organ in the Sophienkirche was tuned a whole tone lower than chorton, this notation would make the organ part sound in chorton. Third, the title page was inscribed, not by Bach, but by a copyist with strong ties to Jan Dismas Zelenka, the acting head of the Dresden court capelle; this suggests that the court itself supported the performance, and that members of the capelle participated in it. Finally, the dedication was signed on Monday, July 27, and its ambiguous language can be understood as meaning that a performance had already occurred.

Near the end of his life, Bach embarked on a process of compiling works that synthesize and distill his approach to different forms of composition. For the organ, he collected and revised a number of large choral preludes in a form that has come to be known as “The Eighteen,” and he published Clavierübung III. He wrote the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel Hoch,” the Musical Offering, and the Art of the Fugue, works that not only illustrate the various rules and types of counterpoint but surpass all other composers’ labors in this field. And, working almost exclusively with previously composed materials, he refined and transformed those originals into the great Mass in B Minor, the culmination of his life’s work in sacred music. Based on an analysis of the handwriting in the score, scholars now believe that this was Bach’s last major musical undertaking, dating from 1748 and 1749.

In bringing together this masterpiece, Bach assembled four separately bound manuscript folios: the Missa of 1733, containing the Kyrie and Gloria; the Symbolum Nicenum (the Nicene Creed); the Sanctus of 1724, with the third soprano part rewritten for first alto; and the Osanna/Benedictus/Agnus Dei/Dona nobis pacem to complete the setting of the Latin mass text.

Compositional Techniques and Musical Characteristics

The most common compositional technique found in the Mass in B Minor is known as “parody.” Although this term now has negative connotations, it did not in the baroque era, when composers not only reused their own works, they unblushingly recycled the compositions of others. This technique consisted of taking existing music and revising it—sometimes so extensively that the revisions constitute a virtual recomposition—for a new text. Although Bach modified secular works for sacred texts, there is absolutely no evidence that he ever reworked a sacred composition for a secular text. Thus, Bach may have viewed parody as a means to “sanctify” secular compositions, or, more pragmatically, as a way to preserve music that had been written for a specific secular occasion by transforming it into sacred music. In some cases, we know the movements that either served as models for, or shared a common source with, portions of the Mass in B Minor; in other cases internal evidence suggests that the movement was adapted from a lost original.

The Missa written for Dresden in 1733 contains a number of features that were popular in that city: using two soprano parts in the chorus, moving from a minor key to its relative major (B minor for the Kyrie to D major for the Gloria), setting the Christe eleison as a duet, avoiding da capo arias, writing reverse dotted rhythms in the flute part of the Domine Deus, and using a horn solo in the Quoniam. The Kyrie begins with a threefold choral plea in which the first soprano part is remarkably similar to the chant melody that Martin Luther had proposed for the Kyrie of his Deutsche Messe. After this brief yet profoundly majestic introduction comes an orchestral statement of the thematic material of the movement, which later returns in modified form to provide structural pillars for a five-part choral fugue. The Christe eleison that follows is a duet for soprano soloists. Although the surrounding choral movements are solemn, Bach uses the more intimate and modern gallant style of writing when referring to Jesus Christ. In fact, throughout the Mass the music that refers to the Savior tends to be more personal and expressive than music addressed to the other persons of the Trinity. The closing Kyrie eleison fugue is for four-part chorus and is in strict counterpoint of the sort that would be recognizable by such Renaissance composers as Josquin. Bach thus commits himself to creating a unified work from movements that exhibit great stylistic variety.

The Gloria in excelsis Deo continues to exhibit this variety. In addition to variety of style, the Gloria contains solos for each of the five vocal parts and obbligati for instruments from each section of the orchestra. The joyful opening of the Gloria may have been adapted from an instrumental concerto, to which Bach added blazing trumpets and five-part chorus. (While this may seem an odd compositional approach, Bach used the same technique for the first movement of Cantata 110, in which he added choral parts to the first movement of the Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major.) Bach then set the text of the Et in terra pax as a joyful choral dance. The Laudamus te features bravura solos for the second soprano and violin, such as were in great demand in Dresden. This is followed by the chorus Gratias agimus tibi adapted by Bach from Cantata 29; the German text of the cantata is virtually identical in meaning to the Latin text set here. The Domine Deus is a duet for soprano and tenor that contains a divergence from the traditional Latin text, with the addition of the word “altissime” after “Jesu Christe,” reflecting then-current Lutheran liturgical practice. This movement features a solo part for transverse flute, an instrument on which the new Elector, the dedicatee of the Missa, excelled. For the Qui tollis peccata mundi, Bach adapted a portion of the opening movement of Cantata 46, the words for which were “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” The focus on the sacrifice of Christ implicit in the original text is here made explicit, demonstrating that when Bach parodied an existing composition, he chose the model for the similarity in affekt to that of the new text. This choral movement is followed by the alto solo Qui sedes ad dextram patris, in which the dance-like setting of the opening words about Christ sitting at God’s right hand gives way to a prayer for mercy; a double-reed instrument, Bach’s beloved oboe d’amore, plays the obbligato line. This aria is followed by another aria, the only time this occurs in the Mass. The Quoniam tu solus sanctus is an extraordinary solo for bass, horn, and two bassoons, in which Bach paradoxically sets the text about Christ the “most high” for the lowest instruments and voice. The Cum sancto spiritu that follows appears to be adapted from a lost original for four-part chorus, which is here shorn of its instrumental introduction, a practice Bach used elsewhere in the Mass to provide greater continuity. He ingeniously added the second soprano part, modifying the other vocal parts to integrate it more fully. The trumpets that were prominent in the opening movement of this section return to bring the Gloria to a triumphant conclusion.

The Symbolum Nicenum, as Bach titled his setting of the text of the Nicene Creed, is constructed as a large, symmetrical arch. It contains nine movements; the number nine represents perfection because it is the mathematical product that results from multiplying three (the number of the Trinity) by itself. It begins and ends with paired choral movements. Each of these pairs opens with a movement in strict counterpoint that has as a cantus firmus the plainchant associated with the text; the second movement of each pair has a more richly developed accompaniment and freer compositional techniques. The linking of these styles binds ancient to modern, stressing the eternal nature of the Christian faith. After the first pair and before the second are found movements for soloists, the texts of which refer to persons of the Trinity. At the center of the Creed are three choral movements with texts addressing the core tenets of the faith. Bach, musical theologian that he was, understood the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith, and so makes the Crucifixus the central movement of the Creed, just as it is in the Roman Catholic mass. In addition to the architectural symmetry of the Symbolum Nicenum, Bach’s interest in expressing mysteries through numerology finds its greatest expression here. Besides the number three, other important numbers were five (representing the wounds of Christ) and seven (representing completion), references to which can be found in several movements.

The opening Credo was written specifically for inclusion in the Mass. The plainchant intonation associated with this text is the musical theme of the movement, scored for five-part chorus and two independent violin parts, yielding seven-part counterpoint. Bach uses the German version of the plainsong, in which the fourth and fifth notes of the Latin chant are reversed. It is followed by a second Credo/Patrem omnipotentem, an earlier model of which can be found in the opening chorus of Cantata 171. The duet, Et in unum Dominum, for soprano and alto, appears to have been adapted from an existing duet, but its suitability for this text is astonishing. The canonic writing expresses the unity and diversity of the first two persons of the Trinity by beginning with a canon at the unison and then shifting to a canon at the fourth. Originally this duet included the text of the Et incarnatus est, but Bach revised the end of it to set the stage for the three choral movements that form the very heart of the mass and the essence of Christian theology—the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

The Et incarnatus est is found on separate paper inserted into the manuscript; based on the neat handwriting and copious performance markings, scholars believe that it was new music written for the Mass, making it one of Bach’s last compositions. Written in the same progressive style as the Qui tollis, this is the shortest chorus in the Mass. The sighing five-note violin motif and the descending chromatic figures may represent Christ’s descent and his humble assumption of human form, and the movement breathes with the mystery of the Incarnation. The violin note string figure is repeated 35 (5 x 7) times in the course of this movement, which is 49 (7 x 7) measures long. The profoundly moving movement that follows, the Crucifixus, was parodied from a cantata written in 1714, and is thus the earliest traceable work included in the Mass. Bach’s revision of this early work demonstrates his genius not only in reworking but transforming an existing composition. The chorus is built above a bass line that descends by five half-steps and which is repeated thirteen times; each choral voice enters singing a five-note motif on the word “crucifixus.” It is interesting to note that in the original movement on which the Crucifixus is patterned, the ostinato bass repeats only twelve times. The thirteenth repetition of the bass, now abandoned by the upper instrumental voices and with the chorus singing piano, undergirds a musical depiction of the lowering of Christ’s body into the tomb, set to a series of “flattened” modulations from E minor to G major, bringing the music and the subject to a peaceful repose. Even though the oldest and newest music in the Mass are placed beside each other, Bach binds them together by constructing them of repeated phrases and a throbbing continuo part. The Crucifixus is followed without interruption by the Et resurrexit, the difference in mood being underlined by the dramatic shift of the chorus and full orchestra from the low registers at the end of the Crucifixus to high, bright registers. A dance is invoked in the rhythms that speak of the joy of the resurrection. After this ecstatic outburst comes the Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum, in which Bach sets a difficult, theologically dense text for bass solo accompanied by oboes d’amore.

The Creed closes with a second pair of choruses. The Confiteor was clearly composed into the manuscript and quotes the plainsong melody associated with the text. It is a densely worked contrapuntal masterpiece, in which the plainsong appears as a canon between the basses and altos, then in the tenor part in longer note values. It begins with a musical depiction of confident faith, then emphasizes the mystery of the remission of sins by bold enharmonic shifts in the closing section, Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Bach sets the text about the expectation of the resurrection twice: the first is yearning, emphasizing the “expecting” aspect of the text, while the second is triumphant, emphasizing the realization of what is expected. The second setting is a parody of a lost composition that was also a model for a movement in Cantata 120. While Bach retained the fundamental structure of the original, he removed elements that were inconsistent with the new ideas he incorporated into the movement.

The origin of the Sanctus as a chorus intended for liturgical use in the Lutheran service is betrayed by the change in the traditional Latin text from “heaven and earth are full of thy glory” to “heaven and earth are full of his glory.” Other than the adaptation of the original soprano III line to alto I, making the music conform more closely to the two-soprano format that pervades the work, the music remained essentially unaltered. Inspired by the magnificent Venetian polychoral works of the seventeenth century, the Sanctus is laid out in distinct instrumental choirs of three each of woodwinds, strings, and brass. The chorus is also split between the three upper voices (soprano I & II, alto I) and three lower voices (alto II, tenor, bass). With the threefold cry of “holy” and the triplet rhythms, Bach musically stresses the triune nature of God. Conceived as a grand prelude and fugue, the Sanctus exudes the praise of the heavenly hosts with its brilliant orchestral timbres and sets a festive tone for the second section, a brilliant fugue on the text Pleni sunt coeli et terra.

The last folio of the autograph, which completes the Latin text, begins with the Osanna. It is also in the Venetian polychoral style, the only other movement in the Mass written in this manner. The surviving model for this movement is found in Cantata 215, where it begins with an instrumental ritornello, here deleted to provide continuity with the Sanctus. It is followed by the Benedictus, an aria for tenor solo accompanied by an obbligato instrument that Bach failed to designate in the score. Although one edition opts for the violin, most consider the range and style of the writing to be more suited to the transverse flute. After a repeat of the Osanna comes the intensely beautiful setting of the Agnus Dei, the only movement written in a flat key. Scholars believe that this movement shares a common source with the alto aria in Cantata 11 that employs a different vocal line with a similar accompaniment. However, in adapting the lost original, Bach added substantial new material, including the striking entrance of the soloist in unison with the violins. To provide a unifying close to the Mass, Bach repeated the music of the central chorus of the Gloria for the Dona nobis pacem. Because the message of the earlier movement (Gratias agimus tibi) is one of thanksgiving, this music gives new meaning to the text of the concluding movement, changing it from a prayer for peace into a song of gratitude for the serene joy the believer is assured of obtaining through the redeeming work of Christ.

Bach’s Purpose in Creating the Mass

Although we may never know why Bach compiled this great work in the final years of his life, it is clear that the Mass was not composed with performance in mind. The Mass in B Minor dwarfs earlier mass settings in its length and complexity. Even the Missa of 1733 was too lengthy for use in the Lutheran liturgy, as other Lutheran “short masses” were used. (Scholars believe that its Dresden performance was in the context of a Sunday afternoon musical concert.) Because it could never have been used in the context of liturgy, the Mass in B Minor is the first non-liturgical mass setting in music history.

At the close of his life, Bach was directing his compositional energies toward the creation of works that suited a theoretical—rather than practical—purpose and the Mass must be viewed in this light. Bach’s vision manages to combine a wide variety of compositional styles into an artistic whole. Could Bach, that most Lutheran of musicians, have been trying to express an overarching vision of the ultimate unity of the Christian faith, despite its liturgical divisions, by setting a traditional Catholic text (with certain Lutheran modifications) to music that included ancient chants? He had already created the consummate synthesis of the Italian, French, and German musical styles, so it could well be that he meant to create a musical expression of the universality of the Christian faith.

And what of the way in which so much of this work was assembled from already extant compositions? To the twentieth-century mind, it is almost incomprehensible that Bach’s greatest choral work, and a work considered by some to be the zenith of Western music, could have been created in such a seemingly haphazard manner. However, Bach’s process of revision, adaptation, alteration, and compilation of his earlier works demonstrates his creative genius in action. In many instances, it is difficult to imagine music any more appropriate to the text than that revisited by Bach in the Mass. He has transformed a rich assortment of music originally written for very specific occasions into a universal and timeless realm, a musical “last will and testament” for posterity.

The Mass teaches, moves, delights, inspires, edifies, and, by speaking to our hearts, places before us theological truths in a manner more real than can be apprehended by intellect alone. The richness of this work can never be fully comprehended or exhausted, just as the mysteries of faith are incapable of full comprehension. Perhaps, ultimately, the tr

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