A Monument for Head & Heart: Bach’s Mass in B Minor
The music gathered into that vast compilation known as the Mass in B minor spans more than three decades of J.S. Bach’s career. Bach himself never heard it from beginning to end, and the work remained unperformed in its entirety for over a century after Johann Sebastian prepared the final stage of his manuscript between August 1748 and October 1749. (The Sanctus is the only part of the work known for certain to have been performed during the composer’s lifetime.)
Not until almost the middle of the following century was a complete edition of the Mass published. Like many another work by Bach, it might have fallen into oblivion all too easily – an intolerable thought for anyone who has been moved by this monumental masterpiece. The turn-around in its fortunes – from obscurity to recognition that the Mass emblematizes Bach’s particular genius – was one of the dramatic results of the Bach revival that gathered steam in the nineteenth century.
In fact, the Mass in B minor also stands apart within the context of Bach’s modus operandi when writing sacred music, which normally was geared toward pragmatic liturgical use. Bach seems to have conceived the Mass as a grand, “abstract” compilation – as an artistic and spiritual testament – although he did subdivide the score in such a way that it could be performed either in whole or in part. Bach arranged the texts from the Ordinary of the Latin Mass into a vast structure comprising 27 individual movements. The unusual subdivisions in his surviving manuscript contain clues relating to the complicated genesis of the Mass in B minor.
Many details are still unexplained, but a basic chronology has emerged. Bach undertook a setting of the first two sections of the Ordinary (Kyrie and Gloria) in 1733, shortly after the accession of Frederick Augustus II as Elector of Saxony. Despite Luther’s stress on the language of the people to enhance communal worship, liturgical practice in Leipzig during Bach’s day allowed for full-scale musical settings of the Latin texts of parts of the Ordinary to be used on special feast days (i.e., the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus). Indeed, Bach had written a Sanctus in 1724 and went on to create four other so-called “Lutheran Masses” later in the 1730s.
In the case of the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733, Bach wanted to win the support of the new Elector, whose capital of Dresden had established itself as the advanced musical center of the German-speaking world. Frederick Augustus’s predecessor had converted to Catholicism to claim the Polish throne, and his long reign had thus reinstated a Catholic presence in this stronghold of the Reformation: Catholic and Lutheran musical traditions now coexisted in the Dresden Court.
Thus Bach’s musical offering, which would be appropriate for either religious context, was a smart diplomatic move, one which he hoped would give him extra leverage in dealing with his local enemies in Leipzig. He did eventually garner a new honorific title from Dresden as “composer to the royal court chapel,” but this had little practical effect on his situation. Bach remained at his Leipzig post for the rest of his life, though he continued to cultivate his contacts with the rich musical culture of Dresden, which was celebrated for its impressive collection of Catholic sacred music by such past masters as Palestrina.
Evidently Bach’s exposure to these older traditions triggered his interest in setting the remainder of the Latin Mass. Scholars now generally agree that Bach began assembling the score for the complete Mass in B minor in 1748. He incorporated the Kyrie and Gloria written fifteen years previously and now took on the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. In terms of the work’s emerging architecture, these parts would have to be proportionate to the ambitious scale established by those preceding movements. (The Kyrie and Gloria together last about an hour and account for a good half of the Mass’s entire length.)
According to this chronology, the Mass would have been Bach’s final large-scale project, completed in the fall of 1749. After this point, the composer’s advancing blindness made it impossible to continue work. The score’s handwriting bears moving physical witness to Bach’s deteriorating condition. In contrast to the fluid calligraphy of the manuscript of 1733 we find a painful, crabbed script, as seen on the final page of the “dona nobis pacem,” after which Bach inscribed the phrase “Fine: D.S.G.” (i.e., “Dei Soli Gloria”) or “The End: To God Alone [Belongs] the Glory.” The structure of the complete Mass allowed Bach to ponder the endurance of traditions of liturgical music that had survived through the centuries: this provided a foundation on which he could build a monument encompassing the full spectrum of his own genius.
Encyclopedic Scope, Not a Miscellany
One of the most startling facts about the Mass in B minor is that very little – if any – of the score assembled in 1748-49 consists of “new” music. Instead, Bach recycled material from earlier in his career. Musicologists use the somewhat confusing term “parody” to describe this process, in which preexisting music is retrofitted to new texts. Even the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733 are known to contain at least some parody elements. Some Bach specialists speculate that every movement in the B minor Mass originated from an earlier model in Bach’s catalogue, though many of these sources have been lost.
In his study of the work, George B. Stauffer explains that parody was valued as an aesthetic choice in the Baroque era; its architectural equivalent would be the tendency to build up and around a pre-existing structure or ruin. For Bach in particular, parody provided a method to refine and perfect earlier work. Rather than merely “recycle” an earlier piece, he subtly adjusted its music to the contour and meaning of the new Latin texts. Moreover, the Mass gave Bach a seemingly more permanent context in which to “store” a wide range of examples spanning his career. The earliest source goes back to one of his first cantatas, from his Weimar days, which was reconfigured for the Crucifixus. And Bach didn’t limit himself to sacred cantatas. He also appropriated secular vocal works and instrumental movements for the effort.
Yet Bach’s meticulous method of selection ensured that his B minor Mass encompassed not an arbitrary miscellany but stylistic range that was genuinely encyclopedic. His score extends across the range of international styles and genres of the high Baroque but also across time, from medieval chant to recent developments that would soon evolve into the Classical style. Bach’s mastery allows him to crystallize all of these cross-currents into a unified structure that embodies both his “musical science” and his most profound theological beliefs. At the same time, he weaves esoteric symbolism (see sidebar) together with such popular idioms as love duets and dances in an inextricable embrace, appealing to head and heart alike.
The great music scholar Wilfrid Mellers homes in on the deeper significance of Bach’s dramatic contrasts and references to day-to-day life in otherworldly contests. In Bach and the Dance of God – which contains some of the most richly insightful reflections ever made on the Mass in B minor – Mellers points to Bach’s “apprehension of mortality” in the Benedictus: “he has discovered what bliss and mercy mean, and makes from that knowledge a music purged…[T]he whole of the Benedictus’s purgatorical meditation is a ‘middle section’ to the worldly hubbub of the Osanna: a moment outside time that man may occasionally discover or rediscover.”
It’s hard not to resort to architectural metaphors in attempting to come to terms with the achievement of the Mass in B minor. Every parameter of the work – tonality, meter, scoring, stylistic character – is constructed with careful attention to symmetry and proportions within the larger whole. The B minor Mass has an immediate impact as awe-inspiring both in its immensity and in its intricacy of detail as a Gothic cathedral.
Rhetorical Range and Color
The introductory measures contain a threefold choral repetition of the basic plea for mercy that is concise yet overwhelming in its emotional weight. This, together with the harmonic richness of the five-part choral layout (as opposed to the more usual four parts), clues us in to the tremendous structure Bach is about to unfold. An elaborate instrumental introduction prefaces the widely fugal treatment of the first Kyrie. Its pathos contrasts strikingly with the charming duet for sopranos of the Christe eleison, where Bach unabashedly turns to the secular idiom of an amorous operatic duet. The lighter, freer, more “up-to-date” pre-Classical writing here is then followed by an imitation of the severely controlled fugue associated with Palestrina and the “antique style” in the second choral Kyrie eleison. Yet Bach integrates these stylistic contrasts into a coherent tonal plan: the key of each movement traces an ascending B minor triad (B minor—D major—F-sharp minor), which conveys a sense of forward progression that continues on with the Gloria.
Set primarily in D major, the Gloria resolves the darkness of the opening B minor (the “relative minor” of D). The title “B minor Mass” – not Bach’s own, but a later invention of nineteenth-century publishers – is something of a misnomer, since the true home key of the work as a whole is actually D major. These two keys represent the emotional poles anchoring the Mass, outlined by the Kyrie and Gloria, respectively: an attitude of supplication that emphasizes the suffering of our human condition versus one of joyful praise for divine perfection and order.
Bach subdivides the Gloria into nine movements, neatly balancing choral and solo elements and displaying the brilliant rhetorical range and color of the Leipzig cantatas. He interweaves movements for chorus (accompanied by the full orchestral ensemble) with ones that deftly spotlight each solo voice together with each obbligato instrument. The opening Gloria in excelsis, for example, alludes to the nativity scene and the festive atmosphere of Christmas music, reinforced by the sound of timpani and trumpets, while galant stylishness in the sprightly Laudamus te (a duet for mezzo soprano [in this performance] and solo violin) is juxtaposed with Renaissance dignity in the Gratias agimus tibi. The dark anxiety of B minor returns for the Qui tollis and Qui sedes (a chorus followed by aria). Following the “royal” imagery (see sidebar) of the Quoniam, Bach caps the Gloria with a lofty five-part chorus in three-quarter time in the concluding Cum Sancto Spiritu.
Symmetry and Drama
The perfect symmetry of the palindrome underlies the massive Credo’s architecture. Initially Bach worked with a plan of eight movements, but at some point he decided to set the Et incarnatus apart as a separate movement. The result was to give the Credo a powerful and symbolically meaningful symmetry centered around three choral movements that encapsulate the essentials of Christian theology (Et incarnatus, Crucifixus and Et resurrexit). In this plan, the Crucifixion lies literally at the center of the Credo. These movements are surrounded by two solos, while pairs of choruses frame the entire structure. The opening pair, moreover, mirrors the concluding one: In both Bach connects material derived from Gregorian chant (the Credo itself and the Confiteor) with exuberant choruses.
While earlier Bach had alternated “modern” music with movements in “antique style,” the opening Credo in unum Deum uses counterpoint to juxtapose ancient chant simultaneously with Baroque language (the “walking bass” figure). The descending passacaglia pattern of the Crucifixus is the epitome of the emotive power found in Baroque word painting and prepares for the exultant resolution of Et resurrexit. Here dogma becomes bracing musical drama.
The Sanctus comes from a stand-alone setting written for the Christmas service of 1724, when Bach experimented with his most extensive choral-instrumental layout to date by writing for a six-part chorus. The Osanna expands the chorus to eight parts, while both sections draw on familiar dance rhythms, transforming the joy of bodily motion into a symbol of spiritual ecstasy. In the Benedictus, the dark pathos of B minor returns one last time. (Set as a duet for tenor and obbligato instrument, performance practice in recent decades has opted for flute over violin even though Bach’s score doesn’t specify the instrument here.)
Separated by a reprise of the Osanna, the Agnus Dei mirrors the introspective humility of the Benedictus but also echoes the intimacy of the Christe eleison. Bach concludes with another cross-reference, setting the Dona nobis pacem to the same music as that of the Gratias agimus tibi of the Gloria. The result serves both as a unifying element and as an emblem of Bach’s (re)compositional art.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
Esoteric Meanings Encoded in the Mass in B minor
Several lifetimes could be (and have been) spent attempting to decrypt the complex layers of meaning and suggestion Bach threads throughout the score. These include fascinating examples of numerological imagery: the letters spelling out “Credo,” for instance, add up to 43 in the system Bach used, and the word is proclaimed by the chorus 43 times.
He also scores in a way that alludes to familiar sonic imagery: the festive atmosphere of Christmas music is evoked in the Gloria, for example, by the celebratory use of timpani and trumpets. The Quoniam features bass and obbligato horn, often used to represent royalty and thus a signifier of Jesus. The conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling suggests that the opening horn motif moreover symbolizes Jesus’ perfection because it outlines an octave (itself a symbol of perfection) and is shaped as a palindrome (two Ds an octave apart followed by C# and then the first two Ds in reverse), foreshadowing in microcosm the architectural design of the massive Credo movement.
The manuscript for the Mass in B minor (now preserved in the Berlin State Library) survives in a fragile state as an assembly of 188 pages, divided into four parts titled as follows: Missa (for the Kyrie and Gloria), Symbolum Nicenum (a more formal title for the Nicene Creed text, i.e., the Credo, which was sometimes applied to stand-alone musical settings of this part of the Ordinary), Sanctus, and Osanna/Benedictus/Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem.
These make up the complete Ordinary of the Catholic Mass traditionally divided into five parts in a musical setting. Bach’s unusual subdivisions, though, turned out to contain clues to the making of the Mass in B minor which have been painstakingly teased out by scholars.