Mass in B Minor - J.S. Bach

Breitkopf & Hartel Edition, edited by J. Rifkin (2006)

Mass in B Minor - J.S. Bach

Undoubtedly, Bach's most spectacular choral work.

  • Dunedin Consort & Players
  • John Butt - Director
  • Susan Hamilton - soprano 1
  • Cecilia Osmond - soprano 2
  • Margot Oitzinger - alto
  • Thomas Hobbs - tenor
  • Matthew Brook - bass

Bach's Mass in B Minor is undoubtedly his most spectacular choral work. Its combination of sizzling choruses and solo numbers covering the gamut of late-Baroque vocal expression render it one of the most joyous musical experiences in the western tradition. Nevertheless, its identity is teased by countless contradictions: it appears to cover the entire Ordinary of the Catholic Liturgy, but in Bach's Lutheran environment the complete Latin text was seldom sung as a whole; it seems to have the characteristics of a unified work, yet its origins are perhaps the most diverse for any of Bach's large scale compositions; it was written in an age when composers generally prepared music for specific occasions, yet we have no firm evidence that the whole work was designed with a performance in mind. Somehow, a mystique grew around the Mass soon after Bach's death, and C.P.E. Bach performed the Credo section during the 1780s; but it was nearly a century before it was available in print. The first performances in the early decades of the nineteenth century were presented by institutions of which Bach could hardly have conceived - amateur choral societies with a vast number of performers. And, over the last century it has often been at the centre of major disputes in the field of Bach scholarship: the question of its original function, its chronology, the legitimacy of the various manuscripts and, of course, its performance practice.

Even the title ‘Mass in B Minor' was not applied until the nineteenth century. Bach's autograph contains four discrete sections: the Kyrie and Gloria are together entitled Missa, these movements being the regular part of the sung Lutheran mass of Bach's time; the second section is called Symbolum Nicenum - the Nicene Creed. Then follows the Sanctus - again an independent manuscript (a slightly modified version of a pre-existing setting); the fourth section contains the remaining texts of the Mass, ‘Benedictus' to ‘Dona nobis pacem'. The fact that Bach gave each of these sections separate folders and title pages suggests that if the work were ever performed it would most likely not have been in a single sitting. On the other hand, there are obvious musical coherences suggesting that, in some sense at least, Bach viewed the work as a musical whole. Perhaps he conceived it along the lines of keyboard collections such as the Well-Tempered Clavier, which do not necessarily have to be performed as a whole yet show an obvious overall plan (equally analogous is the Christmas Oratorio, sung on six separate occasions during the Christmas season).

The Sanctus was first performed as an independent work on Christmas Day 1724 and Bach completed the Missa (i.e. Kyrie and Gloria) in 1733, while he was seeking an honorary title from the Elector of Saxony in Dresden; this would have elevated his status back in Leipzig. He took the opportunity occasioned by his son Wilhelm Friedemann's appointment as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden to travel with several family members and present his petition to the Elector in person. He included a beautifully presented set of performing parts as an example of his music, namely the Missa. When measured against some of the music sung in the Catholic liturgy at the Dresden court, Bach's music is not immoderately proportioned; indeed there are several factors - virtuoso horn writing, florid vocal lines, musical similarities with some of the works sung in Dresden - to suggest that Bach tailored the work to the capabilities and demands of the Dresden musicians.

Bach reused some of the Gloria in Cantata 191, c.1745 - it may well have been this performance (possibly for the Peace of Dresden on Christmas Day), also including a repeat of the Sanctus, that gave Bach the idea of setting the remaining texts of the Latin Ordinary - The Creed, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The handwriting of the latter movements shows that the composer was severely hampered by physical problems during the last year or so of his life. We still know of no reason for Bach's final compilation; possibly he intended it - like the Missa - for the court at Dresden, since similar forces are required. Possibly there were events in Leipzig that demanded this sumptuous music (certainly Bach had performed Latin settings of the Creed during the 1740s); some have suggested that it was commissioned by a distant patron. Other reasons - such as Bach's desire to write a sort of personal memorial, demonstrating his lifelong achievement in modern and historical styles - we can only guess. Quite possibly there was a combination of motives, some practical, some speculative, that led Bach to complete this project.

But despite all these questions, and the warts and wrinkles in the surviving manuscripts, the Mass in B Minor has somehow transcended the murky conditions of its origins. Bach seems purposely to have compiled some of his choice choral pieces to fit into the larger context of the full Mass. Some might balk at the fact that so much of the piece was taken from earlier works: the ‘Gratias' from the lost model for a chorus also used in Cantata 29; the ‘Qui tollis' from Cantata 47; parts of the Creed from Cantatas 12, 120 and 170; the ‘Osanna' from Cantata 215 (a secular cantata), the ‘Agnus Dei' from the lost model for an aria that is also used in the Ascension Oratorio. The evidence of the autograph score suggests that many of the other movements are parodies too - although in these cases the originals are entirely lost. Indeed only certain sections (and only the ‘Confiteor' as a whole) show signs of fresh composition, and were probably the last things that Bach wrote. In his time there was no shame in reusing earlier music. It was the actual use that was important - whether the music was suitable for the new context, whether it was skillfully reworked. Indeed, perhaps part of the enduring quality of the Mass lies in the fact that so much of its music was essentially ‘composed twice'.

Bach achieved tremendous variety and, almost paradoxically, a sense of unity in the complete Mass - complementary qualities that became central to the aesthetic judgment of art over the coming century. The historical styles range from Renaissance-style textures (some with plainsong cantus firmus) to those current in the eighteenth century, such as the Italianate concerto style. But many idioms are unusual in traditional sacred genres, particularly those with dance-like allusions: e.g. ‘Qui sedes', a sort of Gigue; ‘Quoniam', a Polonaise; ‘Et resurrexit', a Réjouissance. Even the expressive ‘Crucifixus' alludes to the Passacaglia. It seems that Bach often sought to unite the sacred with the best that the secular world could offer - a sort of sublimation of religion within art that was soon to resonate with Romantic aesthetics.

Bach worked assiduously to integrate the existing music within the new setting, often lopping off sections (the music for the ‘Osanna' and ‘Et expecto' originally began with an instrumental ritornello) or adding new lines. He also often paired movements from disparate sources and adapted them to match each other in length - the ‘Quoniam' is carefully pruned of its final part (presumably a da capo in the original) so that its length works in direct proportion to the succeeding ‘Cum sancto spiritu'. Then there are musical coherences: the return of the music for the ‘Gratias' for the ‘Dona nobis'; the ‘Osanna', which contains motives relating it to the ‘Sanctus'; the ‘Agnus Dei', which recalls the opening ‘Kyrie' in affect and melodic gestures. None of these pairings would have been envisioned when the music concerned was first composed. There are also several symmetries in the key structure of the whole piece, which suggest that Bach sought a form of musical coherence working beyond the textual divisions.

All in all, then, it seems that Bach fortuitously anticipated the values of later ages - creating something of a symphonic sense of cohesion that was hardly required in his own time. We may sense that Bach was aiming to sum up everything that music could offer, of pushing the language he knew to its limits. The Mass - of all the music he left - survives as a dense but miraculously clear musical nexus, one which has shown surprising resilience in a variety of cultural and historical environments.

©John Butt, 2010


Mass in B Minor - J.S. Bach

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