Program Notes by Robert Stevenson
Mass in B minor
J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
In the autograph score (Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, Mus. Ms. autogr. Bach P 180), Bach divided this mightiest of his choral masterpieces into four parts headed: (1) Missa (consisting of the Kyrie, nos. 1-3, and Gloria, nos. 4- 11); (2) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo, nos. 12-19); (3) Sanctus (no. 20); Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem (nos. 21-24). Like some such vast architectural monument as St. Peter's, Rome, that took years to finish, so also the completed B minor Mass as we now know it represented several stages of composition.
The first stage consisted of the Kyrie and Gloria pair. On February 1, 1733, had died the ruler of Saxony, Augustus II. The Kyrie mourning his death and the Gloria celebrating the accession of Augustus III (1696-1763) were sung at Leipzig on April 21, 1733, on the day that the new sovereign came to town to receive the municipal oath of allegiance. Three months later Bach sent the vocal and orchestral parts of both the Kyrie and Gloria to Dresden with a dedication in which he asked that Augustus III make him an honorary member of his court chapel and take him under royal protection. The certificate dated at Dresden November 19, 1736, making him Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer came none too soon. By then he and the newly installed (1734) rector of the Thomas-Schule, Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781) were at loggersheads.
The seven sections of the B minor Mass comprising the Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed) are so symmetrically structured as to make an arch with the poignant Crucifixus in the center. The Sanctus, scored for a chorus of six voices (two sopranos, two altos, tenor, and bass), instead of the five heretofore prevailing (two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass), rises to unparalleled heights.
The music for the Osanna-which is the only movement in the Mass for double choir - was originally conceived for a German text Preise dein' Glucke (Praise thy good fortune). Sung to celebrate Augustus III’s birthday when he visited Leipzig in October 1734 and to congratulate him on the first anniversary of his election to the Polish throne, the German cantata cost the Leipzig Town Council a total of 299 thalers - of which sum Bach and his student musicians received 50, the rest paying principally for torches to illuminate the performance beginning at 9 in the evening.
Apart from the Osanna and all that follows to the end of the B minor Mass, numerous other sections in the Mass discover themselves as adaptations from Bach's earlier works. The music of the Gratias agimus (no. 6) - which is the same as that for the Dona nobis pacem (no. 24) - was first conceived as the opening chorus of his cantata Wir danken dir Gott sung at St. Thomas's Church to welcome the new Leipzig Town Council on August 27, 1731. The music for Qui tollis of the Mass (no. 8) comes from Cantata 46, where it originally was used to set the wailing text "Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (Lamentations 1.12). The Patrem omnipotentem movement (no. 13) takes its cue from the first chorus in Cantata 171, where it sets the text "According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth" (Psalm 48.10). The Crucifixus (no. 16) employs music earlier conceived for the first chorus of Cantata 12, the text of which (by Salomo Franck) speaks of "Sorrow, sighing, trouble, crying, Dread and
fear." In the original cantata the bass ostinato was repeated 12 times, in the Crucifixus the more "tragic" number, 13 times.
The second part (vivace ed allegro) of the Confiteor (no 19) takes its inspiration from the opening chorus of Cantata 120, Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, sung for the reception of a new Town Council in about 1730 ("Joyful shout in mighty chorus, Let the heavens with praises sing!"). The alto air comprising the Agnus Dei (no. 23) comes from the so-called Ascension Oratorio (Cantata 11) ("Ah, leave me not, my dearest treasure, O ne'er depart so soon from me!")
To summarize the situation so far as borrowings are concerned: Bach adapted about a third of the total number of bars in the Mass (638 out of 2300). But as always, he adapted with consummate artistry and care, translating every original concept into even higher and more sublime terms. The keys are frequently transposed (Qui tollis a minor third down, Agnus Dei a major second down), the outlines of the melodies are more sharply etched, and emotion is intensified by rescoring and other devices.
Paired transverse flutes, paired oboes (alternating with alto oboes), bassoons, three trumpets, French horn, kettledrums, strings and keyboard continuo comprise his instrumental forces. The great variety within the Mass text itself stimulated Bach to equal variety of musical treatment. Where Christ is the subject matter (numbers 2, 7, 14) he writes duets of ethereal beauty, accompanied by solo violin, muted strings and flute, or oboe d'amore and strings.
Whereas in the Passions, recitatives and chorales interrupt the pace, the Mass never tarries for such interruptions. The pathetic texts of Bach's Passions - dealing as they do with betrayal, conspiracy, and crucifixion - admit of no displays of learning, vocal fugues, passacaglias, or virtuosic arias. But the Mass gives Bach free wing. From the depths of the Crucifixus he ascends to the heights of joy in the resurrection outburst. As concert music, the Mass therefore compensates for the lack of dramatis personae (such as the apostles, priests, and crowds in the Passions) with what are perhaps more exciting musical happenings.
By the time Bach reaches the Agnus Dei he need not shriek as did Beethoven in his Agnus, nor need he conjure up battles in order more suitably to pray for peace in his Dona nobis pacem. Confident in the ultimate triumph of sanity and in the absolute efficacy of the Sacrifice on the Cross, he can approach the end of time with a confidence built on the Rock. The question has been asked: did Bach intend the B minor Mass as a Catholic or as a Protestant musical document? Even though the Kyrie and Gloria movements were never performed in Augustus III’s Roman Catholic chapel, he himself certainly dispatched the vocal and instrumental parts in 1733 hoping for such a court chapel performance. Two movements of the Symbolum Nicenum composed between September 1731 and 1733 incorporate Gregorian chants - nos. 17 and 19 (beginning at measure 73). Nonetheless, the texts in both Gloria (Domine Deus, no. 7) and Sanctus (Pieni sunt) depart slightly from Roman Catholic prescription ("Jesu Christe altissime" and "Pieni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus"). Perhaps Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) best understood his father's ultimate vision when he programmed the seven Symbolum Nicenum movements at Hamburg April1, 1786, in a benefit concert, not a church service.
During the nineteenth century the Symbolum Nicenum movements continued being sung in concerts –at Frankfurt am Main March 10, 1828, Berlin April 30, 1828, and London May 1, 1838. The first complete performance of the Mass awaited a concert given by the Berlin Singakademie February 20, 1834. Publication of the entire work in an authoritative edition awaited 1857 when the Bach Gesellschaft editor Julius Rietz at last gained access to Bach's autograph score withheld until then by the editor who in 1833 had published the Kyrie and Gloria movements.