The Ultimate Musical Experience: Â Bach’s Magisterial, Monumental Mass in B Minor
By Victoria Looseleaf
“The immortal god of harmony” is how Beethoven referred to Johann Sebastian Bach in 1801. Indeed, were Bach alive today, his popularity would, no doubt, rival that of Tiger Woods, Bono and the Pope, his art an ongoing miracle, the marketing machine in über-high gear: there, in Times Square and 20 stories high, that famous wiggy silhouette dances joyously with an iPod; he’s also both blogger and YouTube star; and, like the great tunesmiths Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell, he, too, would ink deals with Starbucks.
After all, Bach, the original sonic blingmeister, was a stalwart habitué of Leipzig cafés. Fueled by countless cups of java, Bach, born in Eisenstadt in 1685, was a workaholic who, ever anxious and self-motivated, was not only an organist, choir master, music teacher, court musician and boys’ school instructor, but, in addition to fathering 20 children, managed to compose an astounding number of masterpieces that continue to rule the musical firmament more than 250 years after his death in 1750.
None, perhaps, rules more than his Mass in B Minor. It was this magnificent two-hour work (heard tonight for the first time in Walt Disney Concert Hall), that prompted American composer Michael Torke to proclaim, “Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?” And though the opus, which was not intended for any special occasion, may be of the church -- it is, to be sure, a setting of the Lutheran mass text -- it nevertheless stands apart from any specific denomination or house of worship. Different from Bach’s other liturgical music in that it transcended the theology of Christianity, the Mass, which the composer never heard performed in its entirety during his lifetime, can be thought of as a summing up of the Latin contrapuntal tradition, just as the Art of the Fugue had served that purpose for the fugal style. In the process, a work of unmitigated spirituality has bloomed for the ages. When the stellar German director Achim Freyer mounted a production of the Mass in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for Los Angeles Opera in 2002, he hailed it as “an anatomy of the nature of mankind,” adding, “It’s about a desperate attempt to overcome the solitude of mankind and the solitude of the individual human being.”
Which is precisely what Bach’s music does. That said, in 1733, Bach had already been in Leipzig for a decade, during which time he had composed five complete cycles of church cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, and numerous instrumental works and orchestral pieces. But being prolific didn’t mean big profits; during his years in Leipzig (27 in total), the composer often felt underappreciated, even arguing with his employers over fees, a notion that led Bach to contemplate founding a brewery (what better way to come down from caffeine than drinking beer?). But that, happily, was not to be: three years before becoming court composer to Augustus and still fiercely hewing to his work ethic, Bach began writing a “Missa” for the new Catholic elector of Saxony recently installed in Dresden. Consisting of settings of the “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” they would comprise the first part of the Mass in B Minor. In fact, the four parts of the work going by that name were composed separately over more than 20 years, the second being the “Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)”, the third a single movement, the “Sanctus,” and the fourth entitled “Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem.” But the point at which Bach decided to expand the “Missa” into a full-blown setting is not known, with the title a 19th century invention, as Bach never gave it a single, collective designation. By 1748, after much adapting and refining earlier work to meet a sacred purpose that would also be regarded as a testament to his musical dexterity, the piece most likely assumed its final form. And though various sections of the Mass were performed over the next 60 years, it was not until 1859, more than a century after Bach’s death, that the entire work was performed at a single setting. The magnificence begins immediately, with a potent adagio five-part setting of the words “Kyrie eleison” succeeded by a fugally complex section of architectural opulence. Bach also employs pairs of notes in both a minor key, suggesting a wistful sadness, and in a major one, with requisite lightness. The “Christe eleison,” a tender duet for sopranos, features an amiable ritornello for strings, while the second “Kyrie” features a powerful chromatic fugal subject. Opening in D major, the “Gloria” is a jubilant outpouring that reflects a pair of dance styles, the Gigue and Passepied, with compound triple times and dotted rhythms. Moving fluidly into the “Laudamus te,” a gorgeous soprano solo is balanced by an equally moving violin obligato. Then, with the “Gratias” comes a fairly straight rendering of the opening chorus of Cantata No. 29 (1731), the words set with assured nobility, which is an intriguing prelude to the “Domine Deus,” where tenor and soprano sing over flute and muted strings. In the “Qui tollis,” another revision can be heard from the opening chorus of Cantata No. 46 (1723), “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow,” while the alto solo in “Qui sedes” is a unison with the oboe d’amore. The dark-toned “Quoniam,” resonates with a horn obligato and bassoon filigrees, making for an impressive bass solo accompaniment, while the “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” displays a spry choral fugue, marking the end of Bach’s original “Missa” with a thrusting jubilation. Like the “Missa,” the “Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)” displays its own cohesive structure and is another fine example of Bach’s concern with symmetry, the “Crucifixus” being the central story and the five-part choral texture of the “Et incarnatus” modeled on his Magnificat in D. An adoring God’s descent from heaven is heard in gently falling triads, while the “Crucifixus” conveys the inexpressible, the heart heavy as it bears witness to a life sacrificed. With the lively contrast of the “Et resurrexit,” the triple meters teem with ecstatic vocals, while the bass aria, “Et in Spiritum,” like the first movement of the “Credo,” recalls plainsong in emphasizing the resolve of belief as it links to the final uplifting, yet haunting, “Et expecto.” The splendid “Sanctus,” which was written originally for Christmas Day, 1724, bursts with exultant fugues, as the choir, divided into six parts, becomes a double chorus delivering the sprightly “Osanna” (based on the secular Cantata No. 215 (1734)). The “Benedictus,” ostensibly the remains of a lost tenor aria, features elongated vocal and instrumental lines that evoke love and longing, followed by the “Agnus Dei,” a straight “Osanna” reprise scored for alto solo. The Latin words, “Dona nobis pacem,” set to a rising tide of chorus and orchestra, bring back the “Gratias” and a profoundly triumphant close. Simultaneously linking the concepts of peace, praise and gratitude to God, palpable feelings of benevolence gush forth, as the Mass in B Minor radiates spirituality and the notion of unfettered hope. Remarkable in all regards, this towering work anoints its listeners with ineffable grace and should be required listening for no less than all of humanity.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinión and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season as Program Annotator of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.