Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor

Everything must be possible. — J. S. Bach(1)

Johnann Sebastian Bach, composer of Mass in B Minor

We might look at a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach and see unwavering determination, as though his life purpose were the essence of Baroque unity, order, and control, residing with unshakeable confidence beneath his broad brow. Indeed, during his 27-year tenure as kantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig (1723-1750), he wrote about 200 cantatas(2), which systematically explore a wide range of vocal-instrumental compositional possibilities. Bach formulated a goal to “impart to church music a new structure … a new regulation of religious life through music.”(3) At the same time, the widespread influence of Italian secular baroque music reached into his quiet, simple life, and his dissatisfaction with the lack of distinctive style in German music finally overshadowed his original goal. In 1733 he approached the Catholic court in Dresden, submitting the Kyrie and Gloria of what would become the Mass in B Minor, with his request for an appointment. He was 48 years old, experiencing what we might describe as a midlife crisis, and embarking on a life change that would fuel a creative surge of secular compositions.

Bach’s intent to restructure the music used in Lutheran services began to take form in 1705 and 1706. As a young man, he took a leave of absence from his Arnstadt post as organist to visit composers who were trying to create more unified music for Lutheran services. In the Baroque era, the supposed aim of any music was simply to entertain, and his choral compositions caused strong reprimands for basing the melody more deeply on the meaning of the text. Greatly influenced by the raging debate within Lutheranism between pietism and orthodoxy, Bach took pietism’s intimate spirituality to heart. He would not compromise his direction in music. He resigned from his Arnstadt post and shortly thereafter left a similar post in Mühlhausen, due to the vehement quarrels between pietism and orthodoxy there as well.

Bach moved to Weimar to take a post as court organist and chamber musician, where he was no less plagued with conflict over his sacred works. In the Weimar court, Prince Ernst August encouraged him to study Italian Baroque music. With a growing interest in secular music, Bach applied to Prince Leopold of Cöthen for a recently vacated kapellmeister position in his court and was promptly accepted. Cöthen’s cosmopolitanism inspired a new creative period in which Bach composed secular music bristling with vitality — keyboard suites, chamber and orchestral music, and the Brandenburg concerti. Unfortunately, as the prince became preoccupied with his new marriage, his interest in music waned. Not to be sidelined where music was concerned, Bach moved on.

Statute of Johann Sebastian Bach in Liepzig

Leipzig was a thriving center both of commerce, with its trade fairs that drew thousands, and of learning, with its renowned university. Bach’s duties as the new kantor included the two largest churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. Bach launched a bold program of replacing the traditional 16th century gospel motets with works offering “a richness of ideas, forms, and sonorities that went well beyond established conventions.”(4) His expert use of expressive techniques defied his Leipzig contract: “Church compositions must not be operatic in style, but rather must incite the listeners to devotion.”(5) By underpinning text with breathtakingly interpretive music, Bach greatly expanded the cantata genre. In the next few years, he surpassed even his cantata work with the sophisticated, masterful, and large-scale Passion According to St. Matthew (1727) and the splendid Magnificat (1735).

Bach: Fueled by Caffeine?

While coffee drinking was illegal in much of Germany, Leipzig boasted many coffee houses, which Bach frequented. He also owned several coffee-makers. Whether caffeine contributed to his energy level is speculation, but his ongoing exuberance was attuned to an expanding cultural universe. To his service as kantor he added the post of director of the Collegia Musica, and he engaged generations of Leipzig’s finest musicians in over 1,500 performances, each with an audience of at least 2,000. He also could be found at musical parties playing the viola in quartets or trios, extemporizing on other composers’ music. The town council did not appreciate Bach’s self-appointed role as the city’s director of music and tried throughout his years there to confine him to a more traditional kantor’s role. In a time when the chasm between secular and sacred music grew wider, he bridged both, wrestling with old and new forms in a way more typical of the Romantics.

In 1733 with the support of influential friends and officials in the Dresden court, Bach wrote to the court’s new elector, Frederich August II. “In deepest Devotion I present to your Royal Highness this small product of that science which I have attained in Musique, with the most humble request that you will deign to regard it not according to the imperfection of its Composition, but with a most gracious eye … and thus take me into your most mighty Protection.”(6) With this letter, penned in the language of the time to curry royalty’s favor, Bach submitted two parts for a large-scale Mass, choosing a type appropriate for Lutheran and Catholic services. The Kyrie and Gloria were performed in Dresden in July, 1733, from parts that Bach’s wife, Anna, and sons Friedmann and Carl had copied. They also participated in the performance itself. The court, although made up of both Catholics and Lutherans, was doubtless a somewhat questionable venue for music “that burst all liturgical bounds, Catholic or Protestant.”(7) Bach’s bid did not garner an immediate position.

Finally, on the death of Dresden’s hofkapellmeister a year and a half later, the prince granted the title to Bach. In Dresden’s art-drenched court, Bach’s horizons again expanded. There he heard the incomparable music of Italian operas, in which French dances were played between the acts. He came to know and be influenced by several French dancing masters and their works. He wrote music for royal family events, secular works for the upper class in surrounding estates, and virtuosic keyboard and orchestral music that easily held its own with that of his contemporaries Scarlatti and Handel.

Bach Mass in B Minor: His Final Great Acheivement

Bach spent the last years of his life in Leipzig, undertaking what he knew would be his final great achievement — the compilation of some of his finest vocal compositions into a completed Mass in B minor. Having also embarked on an extensive study of the stile antico (late Renaissance music), he included the second Kyrie and the newly composed Credo and Confiteor sections of the Symbolum Nicenum (Credo). The Sanctus dated from its first performance on Christmas Day, 1724, only a year after Bach’s arrival in Leipzig. The Gloria, first performed on Christmas Day, 1745, celebrated the peace agreement between Austria and Prussia. Between August, 1748 and October, 1749, Bach compiled and thoroughly rearranged the parts for the Symbolum Nicenum, including the Hosanna from a 1732 piece, the Agnus dei from a 1725 cantata, the Crucifixus based on a 1707 cantata’s descending figure, and the Et incarnatus est, the boldly glorious high point of the B minor Mass.

In the extended fugue of the first Kyrie, Bach uses pairs of notes again and again, either in a minor key to suggest sighing sadness or in a major key to express dance-like lightness. At the word eleison, the note pairs signify the difficulty of arising from spiritual sleep. Without delay, the orchestra leads the spirit upward, the sopranos catch hold of the updraft, and the other voice parts follow. The second Kyrie‘s fugal style weaves all voice parts beautifully around the text, portraying a community grounded in hope.

The influence of French dance now permeated the middle class and aristocracy alike, and the B minor Mass reflects several different musical dance forms. The Gloria opens in D major in a style based on two dances: the Gigue, with its compound triple time and dotted rhythm, and the Passepied, with its delicate quickness, offbeat accents, and spirited character. The Et in terra pax is in the style of Bach’s early cantatas, with each voice part singing a countersubject as another part enters. The major key portrays peace as something to dance about. The Laudamus te movement of the Gloria follows, with a joyful motive in the violin accompaniment to the soprano solo, an enticing preamble to the Domine Deus. The intermingled soprano and tenor solos highlight the unity of the Father and Son. To emphasize Jesus’s divinity, the Quoniam bass solo is accompanied by the royal sound of a horn, also heard where Jesus’s presence is implied in the second Kyrie and the Crucifixus.

The Symbolum Nicenum section of the Mass had its own title page and likely its own liturgical life, such as performance on Trinity Sunday. The Credo motet has an independent basso continuo, while the voicelike parts of the violins add dramatic effect. Its stile antico suits the timeless theme and is counterbalanced in the liturgical chant of the Confiteor text. The Patrem omnipotentem‘s ornamented basso continuo underlying the bass voices adds a distinctive mystical effect.

The chorus tells the central “story” of the Mass in three movements of the Credo. The five-part choral texture of the Et incarnatus is modeled on Bach’s Magnificat in D. A loving God’s descent from heaven to the young maiden Mary is expressed in gentle falling triads. The Crucifixus expresses the inexpressible, as the heart bears witness to a sacrificed life. Three descending whole tones and then a descending semitone portray Christ being lowered into the sepulcher. The choral sound is one of inescapable sadness, lingering like a vapor until lifted by the frolicking contrast of the Et resurrexit. Bach gave its triple-metered Courante dance style a more balanced and ordered sound than in its French precedents, still allowing the five-part chorus to burst with euphoria.

Flowingly Alive with Temporal and Timeless Joy

The Symbolum Nicenum draws to a close with the flowingly alive music around the word vivificantem (giver of life) in the Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum. The strict canon structure of the Confiteor firmly bridges temporal and timeless joy. The Et expecto concludes with the confident, lighthearted joyfulness of a Bourrée dance.

In the Sanctus, a six-part chorus sings with the irrepressible strains of the six-winged seraphic hosts, joined by trumpets and drums. The Osanna extends the spirited praise with the antiphonal sound of a double chorus and an ending ritornello that resembles Gigue dance music. Surprisingly, this section is based on secular music that Bach created for the king of Poland’s coronation — but then, kings were believed to be God’s appointees.

Instrumental obbligatos grace both the serenely beautiful tenor aria of the Benedictus with flute and the alto soloist’s reprisal of the Osanna in the Agnus Dei with violin. The ending prayer for peace, Dona nobis pacem, repeats the musical idea of the Gratias agimus tibi, an 18th-century technique called chiasmus, meaning symbolic of the cross, in that the same musical themes precede and follow the central drama expressed in the Crucifixus.

The Mass in B minor was not performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime. All the more amazing, then, is that overall the Mass is as “dramatic in its effect as it is monumental, contributing to the impression of a work which seems to contain twice the amount of music that its duration would normally allow.”(8) This culmination of the 15-year effort of a man with deep religious and aesthetic convictions also transcends any historical period or religious function with its masterful combination of intimacy and sublimity.

On July 28, 1750, less than a year after completing the Mass, Bach died in Leipzig, due to complications from treatment following eye surgery. The faculty and students from St. Thomas School accompanied his body in a humble oak casket to its burial in a site that would remain unmarked until the mid-19th century. The memory of his work lived on with musicians and students who had known him. Mozart found revelation in Bach’s work for his Requiem. But it was not until 1829 that Mendelssohn’s momentous performance of the St. Matthew Passion secured Bach’s place in history.(9) The Mass was published in 1845, nearly 100 years after Bach’s death. Complete performances followed rapidly in Europe. As Schumann noted, “We are never at an end with Bach, he seems to grow more profound the more often he is heard.”(10)

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Quoted in A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, editors Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., NY, 1945.
  2. This number varies from one historian to another. All agree he wrote several hundreds more than have survived.
  3. Bach: the Conflict between the Sacred and the Secular, Leo Schrade, Merlin Press, N.Y., reprint from Journal of the History of Ideas, April, 1946, College of the City of New York.
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.
  5. Bach and the High Baroque, Robert Greenberg, The Teaching Company, Virginia, 1998.
  6. From Bach’s letter to Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, on July, 1733, quoted in Bach: Mass in B Minor, John Butt, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  7. “The Kantor, the Kapellmeister and the Music Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor,” Christoph Wolff, liner notes, Archiv Produktion 1990 recording , John Elliot Gardiner, conductor.
  8. Ibid.
  9. On finding out that Bach’s grave was unmarked, Mendelssohn raised money for a stone by giving an organ concert.
  10. Quoted in Bach: Mass in B Minor, John Butt, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991

The San Francisco Choral Society performed the Mass in B Minor by J.S. Bach in 2002 and 2007. The Symbolum Nicenum (Credo) section of Mass was performed in 1998.

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