Mass in B Minor: Program Notes

“The greatest musical artwork of all times and all people.”


So wrote Swiss publisher Hans Georg Nägeli in 1818, who bought the original manuscript from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s heirs and wished to publish it. Unfortunately for him it took 27 years to complete and an additional 41 years later for it to receive its first performance.

The genesis of the B Minor Mass begins with the composition of the Kyrie and Gloria, written in 1733 as part of a petition to the newly installed Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II. Bach was seeking a title of “Your Highness’s Court Capella” -- one of the most revered musical ensembles in all of Europe. (Bach did indeed eventually receive the title of Hofcompositeur but not until 1736, a full three years later and only after a 2nd petition and assistance from Count Hermann von Keyserlingk.) Bach was seeking a title from the court because he was deeply frustrated with the authorities in Leipzig and he wished to gain leverage over them during a protracted dispute between factions on the town council. One faction wished to have something more like a town kapellmeister -- which is how Bach viewed himself -- and the other wished for a more traditional, school teacher type. The latter group actually tried to have Bach removed but did not prevail.

By writing a so-called missa brevis, Bach composed a work that would have general appeal to the Catholic Elector but also could work just as well in a Lutheran context, especially in the Lutheran churches of Dresden and Leipzig. (Though the Elector was Catholic, his father having converted to gain the crown of Poland, the Saxon citizenry remained Lutheran.) In Leipzig, a conservative Lutheran bastion, the church authorities held onto Luther’s exhortation to not abandon the Latin mass. During Bach’s tenure as Kantor, Renaissance motets of Palestrina and others were regularly performed for the Hauptgottesdienst and concerted settings of the Latin Mass and the Magnificat were performed for feast days. Additionally, it seems that both out of gratitude and obligation to provide the Dresden Court with music “for the church as well as the orchestra” Bach composed four mass settings, called by the Neue Bach-Ausgabe the “Lutheran Masses,” in 1738. Ever the pragmatist, as pointed to earlier, these missa consist only of the Kyrie and Gloria and would be suitable for performance in Leipzig.

Before we dive straight into the Credo let’s examine briefly the technique of parody. Parody is the process wherein a composer refashions older works to a new text and/or purpose, a common practice in the Baroque era. At first blush it may seem merely a shortcut. This was, of course, sometimes the case. But combined with Verbesserung -- the German idea of improvement -- parody becomes an end in and of itself. Some of Bach’s parody works are so extensively recast that it might have been easier to just compose afresh. Parody was a practice greatly admired at the time as part of a composer’s musical art. “For the aging Bach, parody became a central part of the creative process, enabling him to be increasingly self-critical. The supreme refinement of the B Minor Mass is due in large part to the parody process.”

Though the genesis of the Mass in B Minor begins with the Kyrie and Gloria of 1733, the oldest music of the Mass, found in the Credo, is the “Crucifixus,” taken from the chorus of the 1714 Weimar cantata, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” (which, incidentally, will be performed on March 16th by the Trebles of St. Luke’s, members of Bella Voce, and the Bella Voce Sinfonia.) The “Patrem omnipotentem” section is parodied from the cantata, “Gott, wie dein Name,” BWV 171. The amorous duet, “Et in unum Dominum” is parodied from a duet Bach originally considered for the secular cantata, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen,” BWV 213.

Space will not permit an in-depth discussion of the entire Credo but I do want to point out two remarkable things. The opening is just one example of what Bach has achieved stylistically with the Mass. George Stauffer points out:

The seven upper parts--the five voices of the chorus and violins 1 and 2--represent a Renaissance a cappella motet. The allabreve meter, the abundance of white notes, the chant-like melodic lines, the mixolydian harmony (signified by a key signature one sharp “short”), the dense web of vocal counterpoint, and the absence of affective figures point to the classic church style of Palestrina. The motet is supported, however, by a quasi-ostinato, walking-bass continuo line that is purely Baroque. The continuo provides a tonal framework, yet at the same time preserves the modal character of the upper material by avoiding clear cadences. By joining motet and ostinato, Bach merged the vocal tradition of the sixteenth century with the instrumental tradition of the eighteenth.

The second thing is that this is not the only place Bach works this kind of comprehensive, systematic synthesis of styles. The entire Mass shows Bach mastering sixteenth century counterpoint all the way up to, as with the “Et resurrexit,” the latest in galant style. Bach is clearly making a statement for posterity.

The Sanctus, which comes next, was an independent movement written in 1724 for Christmas Day very early in Bach’s tenure as Kantor of St. Thomas’s. The Sanctus appears largely unchanged in the Mass in B Minor. But this presented a particular problem for Bach: it is composed for 6 voices as opposed to 5, which is the prevailing texture of the mass. Bach decided to include this independent Sanctus without alteration because he knew he was nearing the end of his productive life. Blindness was setting in and his handwriting was becoming increasingly wobbly. It’s probable that Bach chose the expedient route of including it as is rather than re-working it for 5 voices.

The intimate, pleading aria for the Agnus Dei has an interesting history in that it is a parody of a parody. The model is the aria “Ach bleibe doch” from his Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11, which itself was taken from an earlier, lost cantata Auf! süss entzückende Gewalt of 1725. Or it may also be that Bach returned to the original aria as the one from BWV 11 is more ornate. So in fact they may be “sister parodies” as Stauffer describes them. Moving on from the aria, Bach follows a well-established tradition of setting the “dona nobis pacem” as an independent chorus. And, in a further nod to tradition and established practice in Dresden, he “recapitulates the music of the “‘Gratias agimus tibi.’” This borrowing therefore constitutes a kind of intra-parody and serves to help bind together the Mass’s architecture.

So we can see from this extensive use of parody and Verbesserung that, during the last decade of his life, Bach turned his focus from composing music for church services and the Collegium Musicum (the university student group that he directed beginning in 1729) toward more personal projects such as the publication of selected keyboard works, the study of Latin church music, the sorting of earlier compositions, and the compilation of encyclopedic compendia. He traveled more frequently to Berlin and Dresden, even when duty or family called back home. “During the very last years of his life, Bach appears as an almost Beethoven-like figure, working independently on projects destined--it would seem--only for himself or posterity. The most ambitious of these projects was the B Minor Mass.”

Could the Mass have been performed in Bach’s lifetime? It’s quite possible that Bach traveled to Dresden sometime in the summer of 1733 with his manuscript in hand but no set of parts, implying that he was not expecting a performance to take place. But parts do exist and they were written on manuscript paper that was produced in Dresden. They are mostly in Bach’s hand -- which was not his practice in Leipzig -- and carry markings that imply a rush job. If a performance took place then, there are two possible venues. The first is the Hofkirche, the court chapel. Bach was friendly with nearly all of the musical luminaries at court: Jan Dismas Zelenka, Silvius Weiss, Johann Georg Pisendel, and Johann Adolf Hasse. And of course it was this illustrious ensemble Bach had in mind when composing the work. But there is a second possibility. Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was just awarded the post of organist at the Sophienkirche (the Lutheran Church in Dresden) -- something for which Bach himself vigorously pursued for his son, inserting himself into the process in several different ways. It’s conceivable that the Kyrie and Gloria were performed at the Sophienkirche with at least some of the members of the Capella taking part. What’s more it seems that Wilhelm Friedemann may have directed from the keyboard as the part contains vocal cues his father would not have needed. Both performance circumstances are possible but there is not sufficient evidence to prove either. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that a performance did take place otherwise Bach would not have worked so feverishly to produce a set of parts with performance instructions.

Bach clearly had a systematic mind. When first arriving in Leipzig he labored industriously to produce a 5-year cycle of cantatas for his own use there. These years can be separated into groups, such as one devoted exclusively to chorale cantatas. In 1722, right before coming to Leipzig, he composed his first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. He then wrote another book 20 years later. He assimilated the national styles of the Italians, French, and English, most notably perhaps in his transcriptions of Vivaldi concerti. Regarding another late-life work, Christoph Wolff writes of The Art of Fugue as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject. The carefully constructed subject would generate many movements, each demonstrating one or more contrapuntal principles and each, therefore, resulting in a self-contained fugal form.” Other examples abound of Bach’s scientific mind, his desire to save for posterity what he must have increasingly understood as his legacy, but none quite achieve the majesty and personal, artistic summation as the Mass in B Minor.


Andrew Lewis