Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?

Bach B MinorThe last concert of the HCS concert season 2015 / 2016 will take place on Saturday 25 June 2016. My choir Highgate Choral Society will perform one of the great choral masterworks by Johann Sebastian Bach, his Mass in B Minor. The concert will start at 7 pm and  the venue is again All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

1. It is certainly surprising to read about a “Great Catholic Mass” by a composer like Johann Sebastian Bach who so much embodies Lutheran church music. However, when JS Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach put together a list of all works of JS Bach for publication in 1790 he referred to the work we now know as Mass in B Minor as “Große Katholische Messe” (Great Catholic Mass).

Bach’s Mass in B Minor raises a number of questions: Is it a Lutheran mass or a Catholic mass? Why did Bach compose it at all? Is it really one work or is it rather a compilation of several works which were not necessarily meant to be performed together?

The answers to a lot of these questions are uncertain, but I want to shed some light on thoughts and ideas about possible answers.

2. The Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is a setting of the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). It consists of 18 choruses and 9 arias (solo or duets). Bach sets the text for five soloists, chorus and orchestra. In our performance the soprano 2 in the duet Christe eleison will be sung by the countertenor soloist and the solo aria Laudamus te for soprano 2 will be sung by the soprano soloist. The performance of the piece lasts nearly 2 hours.

The material for the Mass in B Minor spans almost the whole of Johann Sebastian Bach’s professional career. The earliest musical material was composed in 1714 (originally for the cantata BWV 12 which Bach used for the Crucifixus). The latest part was composed in 1749. It was an afterthought to insert for Et incarnatus est a separate section and it is probably one of the last substantial pieces Bach composed before his death.

Unusually for a Latin mass, the Mass in B Minor is divided into four parts: (1) Missa (consisting of Kyrie and Gloria), (2) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), (3) Sanctus and (4) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis.

This division tells us something about the composition history, but also about a potential use of parts of the mass for a Lutheran service.

3. What is the history of the Mass in B Minor? The central year for the Mass in B Minor is 1733. Bach had been kantor in Leipzig for ten years, but there were problems and discussions about his role and responsibilities and Bach thought about a new job. Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland had died in February 1733. His son Frederick Augustus II became the new Elector of Saxony. Frederick Augustus I had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1697 to be eligible as King of Poland. The Catholic Court in Dresden was one of the most prestigious in Europe and Bach hoped for the post of court composer in the new court of Frederick Augustus II. He composed the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) in the months after the death of Frederick Augustus I when public mourning was ordered and no music was allowed to be performed. Once finished he presented it to the new elector. The style and scale of the Missa fitted a typical mass at the court in Dresden. At the same time the Missa with Kyrie and Gloria in Latin could also be used for a Lutheran service. Luther did not ban Latin altogether, he wanted to provide alternatives in the vernacular and the Kyrie and Gloria were still sung in Latin in services on high feast days. Bach was not promoted immediately, but he received at least the title as “court composer” three years later in 1736.

Bach used some parts of the Missa music for the cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 which was put together at short notice to celebrate the Peace of Dresden at the end of the Silesian War for a special service on Christmas Day 1745. It is likely that also the Sanctus which Bach had written for Christmas Day 1724 was performed at this occasion and some assume that this performance inspired Bach to complete the setting of the Latin Ordinary.

There are a number of uncertainties:

It is not entirely clear when the Credo was composed. Some scholars think it was in the early 1740s, others hold the opinion that the Credo and the fourth part of the mass were written in the period from August 1748 until September 1749 at the very end of Bach’s life.

There are also different theories why Bach decided to complete the setting of the full mass. Some speculate about a further commission (e.g. for the court in Dresden), but others think that he just wanted to set the whole mass as an abstract cycle similar to the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering or other works of the last years. The Mass in B Minor would then be a kind of musical testament and culmination of his choral writing.

There are finally some speculations whether a (private) performance or at least a read-through of the full Mass in B Minor during Bach’s life time had taken place, because his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Magnificat contains allusions to parts of the Mass (including parts of the Credo). However many people think that JS Bach never heard a performance of the full work.

More than a hundred years after Bach’s death would pass before the Mass in B Minor would finally be performed in its entirety. Even if the piece was not known to the public, the world of music was certainly aware of Bach’s extraordinary achievement. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach inherited the manuscript of the full mass and performed the Credo (Symbolum Nicenum) at a charity concert in Hamburg in 1786. Haydn had acquired a score in old age and Beethoven tried – unsuccessfully – to get one. Felix Mendelssohn had a score and considered performing the full mass for the inauguration of a Bach monument in Leipzig in 1843. This did not happen, because of the lack of a reliable edition, and it took more than ten further years until a complete performance took place. The Riedel-Verein performed the complete work in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1859 (in German).

4. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a so-called “parody mess”. This means that Bach uses for many movements existing material, in particular from several cantatas which were written for special occasions or specific Sundays. He writes the movements in different styles. Some are written in stilo antico, a style that refers back to the Renaissance and Palestrina’s time. Other choral movements are influenced by a modern concerto grosso style, very often with independent solo instruments.

a) Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)

The Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy.

Bach follows the traditional structure, but does not simply repeat the first Kyrie after the Christe eleison. He writes a very distinct different setting of the same text. The first Kyrie eleison is for chorus (5 parts, with divided soprano), Christe eleison is for two solo voices and the second Kyrie eleison is again for full chorus (4 parts). The whole section lasts approximately 20 minutes.

The beginning of Bach’s Kyrie is based on Luther’s own formulation of the Kyrie call in his Deutsche Messe (1526). The music for the two Kyrie movements is original material which was written by Bach specifically for this setting. There might be a model for the Christe eleison, but the origin is unknown. After a first section in which the whole chorus sings Kyrie eleison, a fugue follows which builds up starting with the tenors. Then a second fugue follows which starts with the basses. This movement is written in concerto style. Christe eleison is an intimate duet with two soprano soloists (in our performance a soprano and a countertenor soloist) accompanied by violins and continuo. It can be seen as a more human side of the appeal for mercy. The second Kyrie is written in an older style (stilo antico). The instruments play no independent part, but basically double the voices of the chorus.

The Gloria is divided into nine movements (Gloria, Et in terra pax, Laudamus te, Gratias agimus tibi, Domine Deus, Qui tollis, Qui sedes, Quoniam to solus sanctus and Cum sancto spirito). The Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God.

Gloria and Et in terra pax are both for chorus (5 parts with divided soprano). Other chorus movements are Gratia agimus (four part choir), Qui tollis (four part choir) and the final movement Cum sancto spirito which is again for 5 parts (divided sopranos). Bach uses for the arias all soloists. Dominus Deus is a duet for soprano and tenor, Laudamus te is for soprano solo, Qui sedes for alto solo and Quoniam for bass solo. The whole Gloria section lasts more than 30 minutes.

The Gloria starts with trumpets. It is a joyful and exuberant movement which is inspired by instrumental concertos. Et in terra pax is an original movement which is elegantly linked with the previous section. Each of the solo arias is accompanied by a different solo instrument. In the Laudamus te, the soprano is accompanied by strings and paired with a solo violin. In the Dominus Deus the duet for tenor and soprano becomes a trio by adding a solo flute. The alto solo is paired with an oboe d’amore for Qui sedes and the bass is accompanied in the Quoniam movement by two bassoons and a corno di caccia (hunting horn).

In the choral sections Bach uses again the new concerto style and the stilo antico. An example for the stilo antico is the fourth movement Gratia agimus. It is a four part fugue in which the voices are first doubled by the instruments until two trumpets enter with independent lines over the top of the vocal structure. The theme is based on Bach’s sacred cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29, which Bach composed for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig in 1731. This choice is particularly interesting, because Gratia agimus and the text of the cantata have the same meaning (to give thanks to God).

Also the following two movements of the Gloria are based on existing cantatas. Dominus Deus is based on a part of the secular cantata BWV 193a Ihr Häuser des Himmels, ihr scheinenden Lichter (Ye houses of heaven, ye radiant lights) and Qui tollis peccata mundi for chorus is based on the sacred cantata BWV 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (Behold and see, if there be any sorrow) which was first performed in 1723. Bach made considerable changes to adapt this music of lament to depict the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Two flutes duet in this movement over the falling lines of the choral parts. The whole section closes with another glorious movement for chorus Cum sancto sprito which includes a fugue and finishes with the full orchestra including trumpets and timpani.

b) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)

Also the Credo is divided into nine movements (Credo, Patrem omnipotentem, Et in unum Dominum, Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, Et resurrexit, Et in spiritum sanctum, Confiteor and Ex expecto). The Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. Also this part lasts more than 30 minutes.

The chorus dominates this section of the mass. Seven of the nine movements are for chorus, only the Et in unum Dominum is a duet between solo soprano and solo alto and Et in spiritum sanctum is for solo bass. The section mixes again settings in old style (stilo antiquo) (Credo, Et incarnatus est, Cruxificus and Conifteor) and modern concerto style (Patrem omnipotentem and Et resurrexit). In the first movement (Credo) and the penultimate movement (Confiteor) Bach uses the traditional plain chant as a kind of cantus firmus.

The second movement Patrem omipotentem is again for chorus (four parts) and it is based on material from the church cantata BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm (God, as Your name is, so is also Your praise) which was written for New Year’s Day and probably first performed in 1729. A curious fact is that Bach wrote at the end of this movement the number 84 as number of bars in the movement. It seems that the number of bars was important for Bach. 84 is 14 times 6 which is in itself interesting, because 14 is the number symbolism for BACH (B+A+C+H -> 2+1+3+8) and 6 stands for the six days of the creation. The phrase “patrem omnipotentem” is repeated 84 times in this movement. If one wants to go down this route, one can find more symbolism in the Credo section. The number symbolism for Credo is 43 and the word “Credo” is repeated 43 times in the first movement. In addition one can note that the first two movements together have 129 bars (3 times 43). Also the third and fourth movement have together 129 bars as does the last movement Et expecto. Three times 43, interpreted as three times Credo (“I believe”), could be seen as an expression of the belief in the Trinity, the belief in one God in three Divine Persons (Father, Son, Holy Ghost).

Even if one does not follow this symbolism of the numbers, one has to notice a great symmetry in this section. This particularly applies after Bach had decided to include Et incarnatus est as a separate movement. The movements are now symmetrical with Crucifixus as axis and centre point. In the heart of the Credo are movements 4, 5 and 6 and therefore the three important statements of Christian faith (Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ). The music for the Crucifixus is based on the oldest music identified in the piece. It derives its motives from the first chorus of the cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) which was written for the third Sunday after Easter and first performed in 1714. This also means that the oldest musical material stands next to the newest musical material in the Et incarnatus est. The beginning of the next movement Et resurrexit (“And he is risen”) could not be more different. It is an outburst of joy after the somber Cruxificus movement. The chorus (five parts, divided soprano) starts immediately without any introduction. Also the material for the final movement in this section Et expecto comes from one of Bach’s cantatas BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) which was first performed in 1742 at a church service for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig.

c) Sanctus

The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels.

Bach composed initially only the Sanctus itself in 1724. It was performed on Christmas Day in Leipzig. The Sanctus (without Osanna and Benedictus) is another part of the mass which was sung in a Lutheran service in Latin on high feast days. The Sanctus is for chorus (in six parts with divided sopranos and divided altos). It makes extensive use of triplets and pairs usually three voices together. The Pleni sunt coeli is an elaborate fugue which is written in triple time. These references to the number three can again be seen as symbol of the Trinity. The Sanctus is comparatively short and lasts about 5 minutes.

d) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis Pacem

These last movements of the mass were added at its final compilation and the whole section lasts roughly 20 minutes.

The Osanna expands the voices even more and is scored for double choir (in eight parts). It is repeated after the Benedictus which is set for tenor solo. It is interesting that Bach did not specify a solo instrument for the Benedictus movement. Usually a flute or violin is given the solo part and also in our concert this part will be played by a solo flute.

The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem). Bach decides to set only the last part Dona nobis pacem separately.

The first movement, the Agnus Dei, is an aria for alto solo accompanied by a solo violin. The Dona nobis pacem at the end of the work is again for chorus (four parts). Bach uses his setting of the Gratia agimus from the Gloria with the new words Dona nobis pacem. This repetition of the music of this earlier movement has two effects. From a structural perspective it is an element of unity of the whole mass. In substance it links the plea for peace closely with the giving of thanks to God.

5. When the Hans Georg Nägli, the first publisher of the work, wrote his advertisement, he called Bach’s Mass in B Minor the “Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People”. I want to leave it to the audience to decide whether they share Nägli’s assessment. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is certainly a remarkable choral piece which transcends time and place and may have a different meaning for every performer and every member of audience. I started my post with the question whether it is a Catholic mass or a Lutheran mass. I want to end with a quote by Albert Schweizer which seems to answer this question perfectly. He emphasises the duality of the work as

“…one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator”.


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