Bach and the Mass in B Minor
On Christmas Day in 1745, the city of Leipzig celebrated the end of the second Silesian War with a special Service of Thanksgiving. The music, led by Johann Sebastian Bach, included both his Cantata 191 and his Sanctus originally composed for Christmas Day of 1724. Music scholars now believe that this service inspired Bach to compose his Mass in B Minor, arguably the greatest choral work ever written.
Johann Sabastian Bach had composed a Missa, a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass, in 1733 for Friedrich August II in hopes of being awarded a court-title. Although Bach eventually received the desired title in 1736, the Missa languished, unperformed, at the Dresden court. Never one to let a good composition go to waste, Bach reused large sections of the Missa in Cantata 191. The juxtaposition of the music of his Missa with his Sanctus might well have kindled in him the desire to compose a complete mass setting by adding a Credo, Osanna, and Agnus Dei. Whatever his motivation, we know that Bach completed the B Minor Mass not long before he died in 1750.
In the last years of his life, Bach seemed compelled to establish his musical legacy by composing extended works which perfected specific musical genres, such as The Art of the Fugue and The Musical Offering. His only complete setting of the Mass was similarly conceived as a perfect example of liturgical music rather than as a practical setting for service use. In its composition, Bach made extensive use of a Baroque practice known as parody, revising previous works rather than composing entirely new music. He did this not to save time, but to preserve the finest of his choral and orchestral works in one unified composition. As explained by Bach scholar John Butt, Bach's intent in compiling the B Minor Mass was nothing short of "the summation and perfection of his entire life's work."
The Credo demonstrates most clearly how well Bach succeeded in this monumental task. The Crucifixus, dating from 1714, stands at the center as the earliest composition in the entire mass. The Credo and Confiteor, newly composed in 1749, incorporate both Gregorian chant and the stile antico of the high Renaissance. The two solo movements, Et in unum Dominum and Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum, employ the most modern idioms of Bach's age. Yet, these disparate movements form such a perfectly balanced and spiritually satisfying arch that they seem to have sprung from Bach's mind in one dazzling stroke of genius.
The B Minor Mass was never performed during Bach's lifetime. In fact, thirty-six years passed after Bach's death before his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, conducted the first public performance of the Credo in 1786. Although other performances of excerpts of the mass followed, the complete work wasn't performed until 1859, over a century after the composer's death. Publication of the 1954 Neue Bach-Augsabe edition sparked a modern resurgence of research into the history and interpretation of Bach's final masterpiece. While scholars continue to debate what constitutes an "authentic" performance of the mass, few would disagree with Robert Shaw, who proclaimed the B Minor Mass Bach's "testament to, and of, one great universal faith."