by Richard H. Trame, S.J., PH .D.
This evening's audience will no doubt be pleased to learn that in the words of the prominent British composer/author, Dr. Percy Young: "no one can be said to be educated who has not experienced the Mass in B Minor."
This masterly Cantata Mass's two hour length affords us a superb summary of Bach's sovereign art. It achieves its impact through the tremendous emotional spectrum he encompassed within its twenty-five segments. Moreover, its component movements, written as they were over a quarter of a century, provide us with an even more remarkable epitome of such a genius's whole mature compositional craftsmanship and enduring inspiration.
In the Mass in B Minor, Bach's vast knowledge of the European choral tradition stemming from the Catholic and Protestant liturgies of the Renaissance to his day finds summation. Indeed it would appear that the Mass in B Minor, as we possess it presently, was elaborated about 1748 without any specific commission or occasion in mind, an exceedingly unusual procedure for Bach who in the artistic tradition, he inherited, made his daily living by his craft.
Much speculation has germinated about the Mass's origins as a Catholic liturgical work, but it is evident that even in the high-blown liturgical pomp of Eighteenth Century Catholicism it was not conceived for that purpose. Rather, it appears most probable that old Bach, as his eyes dimmed and his sturdy hand wavered, decided to create the Mass much in the same frame of mind as he created his Art of the Fugue, a definitive summary of the essence of his choral art. The fact moreover, that a majority of the segments of the Mass in B Minor are parodies - reworkings of other movements from his various compositions - need not in the least distract us from our appreciation of them.
Bach described his Mass as comprised of four general movements: Missa (Kyrie and Gloria), Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), Sanctus, and together the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem . This division affords us further insights into the background and character of their composition and the influence exercised on him by Lutheran liturgical tradition.
In Bach's day texts of the Sunday sung liturgy alternated weekly between the use of German and Latin. The most generally used Latin texts would have been the Kyrie and Gloria, both together called the Missa brevis. In addition to the Missa (1733) of the Mass in B Minor, Bach composed four other Missa brevis, while at the Thomaskirche of Leipzig.
Lutherans called the Credo the Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed). The Sanctus was sung on occasion, but omitted the concluding "Hosanna in excelsis." The parts thus incorporated into Bach's fourth division hardly ever appeared in the Lutheran liturgy. Hence they were among those movements Bach composed between 1748 and 1749.
The oldest part of the Mass in B Minor was its Lutheran Sanctus, first sung in Leipzig on Christmas Day, 1724. That was also the year he first wrote the St. John Passion. Moreover, the cantata movement parodied in the famed "Crucifixus" of the Symbolum reaches back to his days at Weimar in 1714.
On February 1, 1733, Bach's sovereign King Frederich Augustus I, Elector of Saxony, died. During the mandatory six-month period of official mourning when musical liturgy in the Electorate's churches was minimal, Bach occupied himself in composing the Missa. His purpose here was to secure from the new Catholic Elector Frederick Augustus II the title "Composer to the Saxon Court Chapel," which was not granted until 1736. Whether this Missa was subsequently performed in Dresden's Sophienkirche is uncertain.
When exactly and for what occasion the Symbolum was composed during the 1740's is unknown. This Credo, together with the Missa proper can be regarded as representing "Bach's ideals of Latin polyphonic music in their stylistic many-sidedness, with deliberately archaic styles contrasted with modern ones in their abandonment of the da capo aria, (ariosos) and recitative and in their formal autonomy." (Christoph Wolff, NGD,I, 810). Moreover, the Symbolum is considered the unsurpassable evidence of Bach's mastery of form in the symmetry and balance of its parts.
The segments of the Mass’s fourth grouping from the Osanna on were composed lastly, apparently with the specific purpose of completing the Mass as Bach ultimately envisaged it.
Although known as the Mass in B Minor (not Bach's appellation), the composition's predominant key is E major, and in those movements involving brass is D. It is scored for five soloists and a mixed chorus ranging from four to the eight-part doubled-chaired Sanctus. The orchestra comprises two flutes, three oboes interchangeable with oboe d'amore, two bassoons, three trumpets requiring virtuoso clarino players, a hunting horn (corno da caccia), timpani, strings, and organ.
It is doubtful whether Bach ever heard the Mass in its finished form. It was only published for the first time in 1845.
Frederich Blume in his scholarly book Protestant Church Music sums up neatly the general views and evaluation of this masterly work. "Later generations can be grateful that the aging Bach felt the need to round out his life work with a complete Mass . . . an all-embracing proclamation of the humanitarian spirit. Obviously such music could not exhibit a specifically Protestant character ... (The Mass) is one of the most impressive testimonies in history for the supraconfessional, totally European spirit that envelopes music at the close of the Baroque period. For this reason, since its revival in the 19th century, the Mass in B Minor has justifiably maintained its reputation as one of the greatest works of art of all times and nations."