Bach B Minor Mass

December 9, 2000, 08:00 PM
Jeffrey Kahane, Conductor
Alex Theatre
Mass in B minor, BMV 232 Johann Sebastian Bach
Janice Chandler , Soprano
Susan Platts , Mezzo Soprano
Alan Bennett , Tenor
Leslie Inman Sobol , Mezzo Soprano
Jaco Venter , Baritone

BACH Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 bassoons, horn, 3 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, organ, strings, solo soprano, solo alto, solo tenor, solo bass and chorus.
Johann Sebastian Bach
For all its force and majesty, Bach's mighty B-minor Mass has a curious, piecemeal history. Its composition spans two decades, and much of its music is borrowed from Bach's earlier works, mainly cantatas. Even today, many questions about this masterwork remain unanswered.
In 1733, after ten years as music director of the school and church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Bach felt that the level of both his prestige and income were less than satisfactory. Hoping to secure the title of Court Composer with the new Elector of Saxony at the court in Dresden, he wrote a short Lutheran Mass, consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria. He sent the two movements to Frederick Augustus III, along with his request for the honorary ride. Since the new Elector, who also reigned as King of Poland, was up to his ears in pressing political problems, Bach had to wait until 1736 for his title. Never forging a closer connection with the Dresden court, Bach remained in Leipzig until his last days.
It was in the final years of his life that Bach felt compelled, for some personal reason, to expand his Missa Brevis of 1733. Perhaps the intensely religious man desired to offer his own contribution to that auspicious line of liturgical works by such luminaries as Dufay, Josquin and Palestrina. Bach's mind was now far removed from the workaday cantatas for weekly church services, and from technical keyboard pieces for students and family. This was the period of The Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue- instrumental works which represent the summation and pinnacle of three centuries of contrapuntal art. With a universal, ageless text, the magnificent B-minor Mass represents the summation of his sacred vocal music - a stunning expression of faith and praise from Bach the Christian, Bach the musician.
To the short Mass, Bach added a Credo under the Lutheran ride, Symbolum Nicenum. He thoroughly reworked a Sanctus, originally composed for a Christmas service in 1724. Although Lutheran liturgy omits the Osanna and Benedictus, Bach inserted these movements before the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem to complete the work we know today as the B-minor Mass. Along with other works from his final years, the Mass exemplifies Bach's own statement that the aim of music "should be none else bur the glory of God and the recreation of the mind."
The B-minor Mass demonstrates Bach's fascination with earlier musical styles and his genius for blending the most diverse elements into a balanced, cohesive whole. The wealth of musical techniques used in the work is staggering - the polyphony of the late-Netherlands Renaissance style in the second Kyrie; the use of cantus firmus from medieval and Renaissance rimes in the opening and closing segments of the Credo; the Venetian double-choir style in the Osanna - all symbolizing the continuity of Christian tradition. In addition, his consummate command of fugal technique sparks the score.
A powerful five-bar adagio for chorus and orchestra opens the Kyrie. To launch the noble largo of the movement proper, the instruments introduce a five-part fugue, eventually taken up by the singers. Following an orchestral interlude, the choral fugue returns, building from basses to sopranos. All ends majestically on a major chord, in the tradition of Renaissance and Baroque music in the minor mode.
The haunting Christe eleison becomes the private domain of two female soloists and a pair of violins, accompanied by continuo instruments. Initiated by a twisting chromatically ringed motif, a choral fugue on Kyrie eleison rounds off the first major segment. Near the end, an intense stretto of highly compressed vocal entries climaxes as sopranos touch a high A.
To listeners in the Baroque era, the sound of trumpets symbolized power and glory. The luminous sound of three high trumpets adds a new brilliance to the score as the Gloria commences. Wide leaps and a brisk tempo lend vigor to the proceedings. Voices enter in rapid succession, creating luxurious counterpoint. The words et in terra pax (and peace on earth) signal an abrupt change of mood and pace. The replacement of trumpets by flutes and oboes imparts a hushed aura. Optimism and momentum are restored with the return of the trumpets, assuring a triumphant close.
Soprano and solo violin exchange praises of God in the more easygoing Laudamus te, which follows. Throughout the Mass, the chamber music quality of arias and duets form oases of relaxation, which offer a perfect foil to the sumptuous sound of surrounding choruses. In Baroque style, vocal lines intertwine with solo instruments to sustain a single mood in each aria.
The ensuing chorus features the interplay of two themes - one for gratias agimus tibi, (We give Thee thanks) the other for propter magnam gloriam tuam (for Thy great glory). Soprano, tenor and solo flute then engage in a lightly accompanied aria graced with floating vocal lines. An intensification of mood at the end dissolves into the eloquent alto phrase which launches the deeply emotional chorus, Qui tollis peccata mundi (who takes away the sins of the world).
Two arias follow. A lyrical melody by oboe d'amore introduces the first, its words of entreaty (miserere- have mercy) abetted by dusky mezzo-soprano solo, plaintive oboe and minor mode. Then, a dark, virile aria of unusual color and texture features solo bass and horn, shaded by bassoons. With trumpets blazing, a dazzling choral Cum sancto spiritu winds up the Gloria, with its fugato interlude for chorus and continuo.
Though Bach laid out the entire Mass and each of its parts in careful symmetry, the Credo represents the height of his masterful architecture. Its nine sections begin and end with paired choruses, the fitst and last based on Gregorian chants. Led off by the tenors, the fitst movement features sustained violin lines floating above a constantly changing web of vocal motion. Then, trumpets and timpani bolster the energetic, extroverted Patrem omnipotentem, all concerned contributing to a fortissimo final cadence.
In the elegantly crafted Et in unum Dominum, two soloists in canon (soprano and mezzo-soprano), joined by two oboes d'amore, symbolize the mystical duality of God the Father and God the Son.
At the heart of the Credo, three choruses reveal the story of Christ in a most affecting way. A rhythmic pattern played by unison violins permeates every bar of the Incarnatus. Simple descending vocal lines reflect a transformation from divine to human. Bach reworked and refined a choral passacaglia from a 1714 cantata written in Weimar, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Wailing, Anguish, Dread), BWV 12, to create the quiet chorus, private grief, and expressive chromatic bass line of the profound central Crucifixus. The subtle modulation to a major key at the end suggests the hope of resurrection. Indeed, the ensuing choral fugue, Et resurrexit, is arguably the most amazing explosion of boundless joy - after hushed, reverential sorrow- in all music, sweeping the listener into the sheer joy of its exultation.
Two oboes d'amore lead off Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum, a lengthy bass aria in lilting 6/8 time. Its challenging vocal line spans nearly two octaves: from low F-sharp to E above middle C.
The first of the Credo's two concluding choral segments, Confiteor; is built on a five-part canon. In the face of death, the serene essay suddenly takes on a darker, slower aspect at the words et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (and expect the resurrection of the dead). On the same words, without pause, a joyful vivace for full orchestra and chorus affirms belief in life everlasting.
With florid six- and eight-part polychoral writing, the Sanctus and Osanna underscore the intensity and jubilation of previous movements. Impelled by gentle triplets, the antiphonal Sanctus echoes the title word throughout the chorus. A tempo change to a lighter 3/8 occurs at the words pleni sunt coeli. The next section features contrapuntal versus homophonic renderings of the tide word, Osanna. The Benedictus unfolds as a tranquil tenor aria- a private devotion framed by public celebration- as a repeat of the Osanna ensues. A brilliant orchestral postlude rounds off the sequence.
Considered one of Bach's most beautiful arias, the alto (sung by mezzo-soprano) solo, Agnus Dei, is based on an aria from Cantata No. II, Lobet Gott in Seinen Reichen. Its artful final descent allows the last section to rise dramatically from the depths. For his finale, Bach fashions the Dona nobis pacem from the Gloria's Gratias agimus, itself based on a chorus from the cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29. Fervor gradually builds, sparked by the first trumpet's entry. In the final moments, all three trumpets float above the chorus, as Bach's glorious paean to faith and art comes to rest on its final cadence.

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