By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
This evening's audience will no doubt be pleased to learn that in the words of the prominent British composer/author from Cambridge University, Dr. Percy Young: "No one can be said to be educated who has not experienced the B minor Mass:' (The Choral Tradition, 1981, 141) Another American musicologist, Homer Ulrich, in his Survey of Choral Music reflects universal opinion when he remarks that the B minor Mass is "one of the greatest treasures of western music:'
Were one confronted with that choice imposed on those participants in the BBC's radio show "Desert Island Discs" many a serious, or shall we say "educated” music lover would select Bach's B minor Mass as one of two or three recorded works with which to be marooned.
This masterly Cantata Mass's two-hour length affords us with 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 period of 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 B minor Mass, Bach's vast knowledge of the choral tradition stemming from the Catholic and Protestant liturgies from the Renaissance to his day finds summation. Indeed it would appear that the B minor Mass as we possess it today was elaborated about 1748 without any specific commission or occasion in mind, an exceedingly unusual procedure for Bach who in the artistic traditions 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 highblown 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 B minor Mass are parodies – reworkings of other movements from his various cantatas – need not in the least detract from our appreciation of them. Bach made frequent use of this compositional procedure almost inevitably transforming the original work into a more transcendent musical conception.
One must further observe that the name B minor Mass is not Bach's appellation. Nor did he divide it into the six movements normally associated with the Common of the Catholic Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Rather he described the work simply as comprised of four general movements: Missa, Symbolum Nicenum, Sanctus, and together Ossana, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem. This division affords us further insights into the background and character of their composition and the influences exercised on him by Lutheran liturgical tradition.
In Bach's day texts of the Sunday 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 or Missa brevis. In addition to the Missa of the B minor Mass Bach produced four other Missa Brevis while in 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 incorporated then in Bach's fourth division hardly ever appeared in Lutheran liturgy. Hence they were among those movements Bach composed between 1748 and 1749.
The oldest part of the B minor Mass was its Lutheran Sanctus, first sung in Leipzig on Christmas Day, 1724. That was also the year he wrote the St. John Passion. However, the Cantata movement parodied in the Crucifixus of the Credo reaches back to his Weimar days in 1714.
On February 1, 1733 Bach's sovereign King Friedrich 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 was to secure through this gift to the new Elector Friedrich Augustus II a title in the Saxon Court Chapel. This title would give him needed leverage in his constant struggle with the Leipzig town council to secure his Cantorial rights. The accompanying letter to the Elector makes this purpose crystal clear. Bach, however, did not receive his title 'Composer to the Court Chapel' until 1736. Whether the Missa was subsequently performed in Dresden's Sophienkirche is uncertain.
When exactly and for what occasion the Symbolum Nicenum (Credo) was composed during the 1740's is unknown. It may even have been written out only in 1748. This Credo together with the Missa is commonly 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 and the recitative and in their formal autonomy:' (Christoph Wolff, New Grove Dictionary, 1810) Georg Von Dadelsen states categorically that the Credo is considered as the unsurpassable evidence of Bach's mastery of form in the symmetry and balance of its parts.
The segments of Bach's fourth grouping from the Osanna on were composed lastly apparently with the specific purpose of completing the Mass as he envisaged it.
Although known as the "B minor Mass" 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 eight parts in the double-chaired Sanctus. The orchestra comprised 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 completely performed. It was published for the first time only in 1845. Friedrich Blume in his scholarly book Protestant Church Music sums up neatly the general views and evaluation of Bach's masterly work. "Later generations can be grateful that the aging Bach felt the need to round out his Iifework with a complete Mass ... Romanticism took this 'greatest work of art of all times and nations' (H.G. Naegeli, 1818) as an all-embracing proclamation of the humanitarian spirit. The testimonial can well stand today ... Whereas musical settings of the Passion had tended in Bach's time either to stagnate in an adherence to tradition or to lose contact with the church in the pursuit of newer methods, Latin church music was free to follow modern trends and to keep up with the general developments of style. Obviously, such music could not exhibit a specifically Protestant character, and this is true of Bach's Mass in B minor. It is one of the most impressive testimonies in history for the supra-confessional, totally European spirit that envelopes music at the end of the Baroque period. For this reason, since its revival in the 19th century, it has justifiably maintained its reputation as one of the greatest works of art "of all times and nations”