04 – Gloria (Five-part Choir)
05 – Et in Terra Pax (Five-part Choir)
06 – Laudamus Te (Soprano I)
07 – Gratias Agimus Tibi (Four-part Choir)
08 – Domine Deus (Soprano I and Tenor)
09 – Qui Tollis (Five-part Choir)
10 – Qui Sedes (Alto)
11 – Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus (Bass)
12 – Cum Sancto Spiritu (Five-part Choir)
13 – Credo in Unum Deum (Five-part Choir)
14 – Patrem Omnipotentem (Four-part Choir)
15 – Et in Unum Dominum (Soprano II and Alto)
16 – Et Incarnatus Est (Five-part Choir)
17 – Crucifixus (Four-part Choir)
18 – Et Resurrexit (Five-part Choir)
19 – Et in Spiritum Sanctum (Bass)
20 – Confiteor Unum Baptisma (Five-part Choir)
21 – Et Expecto (Five-part Choir)
Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem
Bach’s Mass in B Minor was proclaimed “the greatest musical artwork of all times and all people” by Hans George Nageli when he published the first edition of the work in 1818. These words were high praise indeed for a work never performed in the composer’s lifetime, nearly forgotten for decades, and not even published until seventy years after its completion. Yet, almost two centuries of performance and scholarship have proven Nageli correct: the Mass in B Minor remains the single finest setting of the Latin ordinary ever composed and perhaps the finest choral work ever conceived.
Another long-lost document provides further insight into Bach’s masterpiece: his personal copy of the Calov Bible, listed as part of his estate at his death but lost thereafter until it was discovered in 1934 at the Reichel family farm in Frankenmuth, Michigan. A careful study of Bach’s marginal notations in the three-volume Bible by Exultate’s conductor, Thomas Rossin, left no doubt that Bach held a deep, personal Christian faith. This knowledge leads inevitably to a new understanding and interpretation of Bach’s sacred music as his expression of that faith.
The Mass in B Minor and the Calov Bible share a place of prominence in Bach’s life. The Bible volumes are dated 1733, the same year Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass for the Dresden Court. The marginal notes found in his Bible give evidence that Bach searched the scriptures for guidance on handling his difficulties with his employers at Leipzig. His conclusion that he must obey the authority placed over him by God ultimately led him to quit composing sacred music for weekly services, concentrating instead on perfecting various musical genres in extended works such as The Art of the Fugue and the Clavier Ÿbung.
This recording is the culmination of a unique concert series combining performances of the Mass in B Minor along with displays of the Calov Bible. Audiences and musicians alike enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing Bach’s greatest masterpiece after seeing his signatures and marginal notations in ancient volumes he once held in his own hands. The musical interpretations in this performance spring directly from a theological understanding of Bach’s expression of his faith through his art. The result exemplifies Robert Shaw’s description of the Mass in B Minor as “Bach’s testament to, and of, one great universal faith.”
Origins of the Mass in B Minor
Bach composed the Mass in B Minor most probably between August 1747 and October 1749, but the music represents the finest compositions from throughout his career. Using the Baroque technique known as parody, Bach adapted movements from his sacred and secular cantatas into movements of the mass. At least half of the 27 movements are known to be parodies, with some scholars suggesting that all but two derive from previous works. A devoted collector and conserver of his own family’s musical works, Bach knew very well how quickly even the best compositions became lost and discarded in favor of newer styles. The Mass in B Minor gave Bach a means of preserving his finest compositions in a form he knew would endure as long as Christianity itself: the ordinary of the Latin mass.
Bach raised parody to a new art form in the process, revising and refining his original compositions into entirely new creations perfectly suited to their texts. Indeed, Bach commonly began these adaptations with the notation J. J. (Jesu Juva), “Jesus Help Me,” just as he did with newly composed works. After a lifetime of composing in haste to meet the weekly demands of the liturgical year he finally had the luxury of time to polish and perfect his music. Consequently, the manuscript of the mass contains far more articulations and tempo markings than the cantata manuscripts from which they sprang.
Bach turned to his Missa of 1733, a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria composed for the Dresden Court, to form the basis of his only complete mass setting. For the Credo he composed an extended setting of the Symbolum Nicenum, comparable in size and complexity to the Missa. For the Sanctus he selected a setting composed for Christmas Day in 1724, adding it to the mass with only minor alterations. Lastly, he composed the Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei as a block of movements similar in size and structure to the previous three sections. Bach placed each of these four sections into separate folders with their own title pages, each enclosing a score and full set of parts. Although the original manuscript of the Dresden Missa and several copies of the Mass created in the decades after Bach’s death add to our understanding of the work, these four folders constitute what we know today as the Mass in B Minor.
Scholars still debate Bach’s motivation for composing the Mass in B Minor. The length of the mass setting made it ill-suited for any worship service of that era, lending credence to the theory that Bach conceived the work in the abstract as a perfect example of its form. Yet, Bach wrote out vocal and instrumental parts for each movement of the mass, a pointless task unless the music was meant to be performed. The division of the score into four separate folders suggests that Bach considered each section as a separate work to be performed independently. Yet, the placement of the Crucifixus exactly between the musically identical Gratias agimus tibi and Dona nobis pacem indicate that Bach conceived of the mass as a unified whole. Ultimately we must agree with the opinion held by Bach’s own family in naming the four folders together as Die grosse catholische Messe, (the Great Catholic Mass).
A brief theological synopsis of the Mass in B Minor
Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass in 1733 for the Dresden Court in hopes of being awarded a court-title. The musicians at Dresden were the finest in all of Germany, a welcome contrast to the inadequate forces at Bach’s disposal in Leipzig. A frequent visitor to Dresden, Bach knew these musicians personally and composed virtuosic instrumental and vocal parts suited to their abilities. Bach was also well acquainted with the sacred music of composers such as Palestrina, Lotti, Vivaldi and Zalenka, commonly performed at the Catholic court, and he employed many of their standard conventions when composing the Missa.
At the opening of the Kyrie, Bach enhances the Dresden tradition of an introductory orchestral adagio by adding the choir from the very first note in an immediate, urgent plea for mercy. Following the Baroque convention equating the soprano voice with the Christian soul, Bach writes a capella ascending passages on the word eleison for both first and second soprano, literally the soul’s plea for mercy rising above the other voices. This adagio sets the stage for a solemn fugue with an extended sighing motive on the word eleison, as each voice part joins in the liturgical prayer.
The ensuing Christe Eleison, written for two sopranos in the form of an operatic love duet, creates a welcome contrast to the gravity of the Kyrie. The soprano voices, again denoting the soul, find the longed-for mercy in the person of Christ. Bach uses the form of the love duet to portray the scriptural image of Christ as the Bridegroom of the church. For the final Kyrie, Bach turns to the stile antico with a choral fugue in the style of Palestrina. Here he makes the plea for mercy personal, creating a fugue theme with exactly fourteen notes, B+A+C+H (2+1+3+8).
The Gloria begins with an evocation of the Christmas story from Luke as full choir and orchestra erupt in the glorious proclamation of the angels at Bethlehem. The Et in terra pax takes the form of a pastorale, portraying the shepherds who received the angelic message. The Christmas imagery is so strong that Bach later parodied these movements as Cantata 191, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, for performance on Christmas Day in 1745. The Laudamus te follows as a brilliant coloratura aria for soprano with violin obbligato, another example of the soul breaking forth in praise of the Redeemer. Bach returns to the stile antico for the Gratias agimus tibi, a melody Christoph Wolff suggests Bach took from the traditional chant Deo dicamus gratias, “Let us give thanks to God,” sung at the end of Sunday worship in Leipzig. This connection becomes all the more appropriate when Bach reuses the same music for the Dona nobis pacem, the final movement of the mass sung over an hour later.
In the Domine Deus, Bach returns to the form of the operatic duet, this time using soprano and tenor voices to portray the unity of the Father and the Son. The two voices sing different texts about the Father and Son simultaneously, with the text about the Father always preceding the text about the Son. When the text progresses to Agnus Dei, the imitative entrances end and the voices join together in praise of the Lamb of God. The choir then enters in the pivotal B minor chorus Qui tollis peccata mundi, followed by the alto aria Qui sedes, both returning to the penitential mood of the B minor Kyrie. With the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus, Bach returns to D major for the remainder of the Gloria. Here, the horn, an instrument associated with royalty, plays at the top of its range to portray Christ as the “most high.” The choir bursts in with a dazzling fugue on Cum Sancto Spiritu to end the Missa.
When composing the Symbolum Nicenum, Bach interpreted the text using Luther’s Small Catechism as his guide, dividing the creed into Luther’s three articles “Of Creation,” “Of Redemption” and “Of Sanctification.” This use of the Catechism is made evident by Bach’s designation “Duo Voces Articuli 2”, or “The two vocal parts of Article 2”, in the title of the Et in unum Dominum duet. Dividing the Symbolum in this fashion, each of the three musical “articles” ends with a brilliant D major chorus for the full ensemble.
Again, paying homage to the history of the faith, Bach begins and ends the Symbolum with Renaissance fugues incorporating the Gregorian chants Credo in unum Deum and Confiteor unum baptisma. He pairs each of these choruses with the concertato choral fugues, Patrem Omnipotentem and Et Expecto. The solo movements, Et in unum Dominum and Et in Spiritum, frame the central three choruses depicting the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Scholars believe the Et Incarnatus to be Bach’s final choral composition, added to the score to create the symmetrical structure ultimately placing the Crucifixus at the very center of the Creed. The Crucifixus, in contrast, is the earliest music in the mass, taken from the opening chorus of Cantata 12 which Bach composed in 1714. Yet, these two movements flow inevitably from one to the next, joined by a similar pulsing bass line and instrumental obbligato. In the Et Incarnatus, the combined violin and viola obbligato represents the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary at the moment of the incarnation. In the Crucifixus, the bass line represents the heartbeat of Christ being extinguished as the Savior is lowered into the grave. Again, Bach makes the crucifixion personal by having exactly 14 entrances of the word crucifixus (B+A+C+H). This central movement so profoundly affects the listener that it inspired the immediate admiration of other composers. Robert Schumann wrote of the Crucifixus, “It is a piece to be compared only with other works by Bach. Before it all masters of other ages must bow in reverence.”
The Et Resurrexit erupts joyfully, with no introduction – a musical depiction of the stone being rolled away from the tomb. For the first time in the Symbolum, Bach uses the full instrumental ensemble at once, emphasizing the glory of the resurrection and ascension. The bass voice, representing the “Vox Christi” or, voice of Christ, proclaims the eschatological message that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Recurring triplet figures and a choir of three trumpets turn the jubilant chorus into a hymn of praise to the Triune God. The following bass aria, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, praises the third person of the Trinity more specifically in a gentle pastorale, reflecting Luther’s portrayal in the Small Catechism of the Holy Spirit as a shepherd who guides believers into the fold of faith.
Bach’s theological understanding is nowhere more profoundly expressed than in the twenty-four measures described by Bach scholar George Stauffer as the “Et Expecto bridge.” In this bridge between the Confiteor and Et Expecto, Bach depicts in music the scriptural teaching from Romans that believers must first be crucified with Christ through baptism so that they may be raised with Him. At the close of the final chant statement of belief in baptism for the remission of sins, the bass line returns to the pulsing pattern of the Crucifixus and the tempo shifts abruptly to the adagio of that movement. As the harmonies shift in uncertainty, the soprano voice, once again denoting the soul, cries out an unaccompanied utterance of et expecto as a plea for redemption. In those measures the soprano note makes an enharmonic change from C-natural to B-sharp, a transformation showing the soul’s redemption in “the twinkling of an eye,” leading inevitably to the D major Et Expecto in which the promised redemption is realized at last in heaven.
Bach’s Sanctus of 1724 was originally scored for an angelic chorus of three soprano parts above the ATB choir, a six-part chorus to represent the six-winged seraphim of the scriptural account in Isaiah. Bach changed the voice parts to use two soprano and two alto lines, making it more consistent with the SSATB scoring of the rest of the mass. Much like one of Bach’s organ prelude and fugues, the grand Sanctus moves immediately into an equally grand fugue on the text, pleni sunt coeli et terra, combining the six voice parts in every possible configuration to illustrate how heaven and earth combine in praising God.
Liturgical convention in Leipzig dictated that the Sanctus should end without adding a concerted setting of the Osanna and Benedictus as prescribed by the Latin rite. Instead, these movements were performed with minimal instrumentation during communion. Bach chose to compose the Osanna for double choir, but he set the Benedictus for solo tenor with the smallest orchestration of any movement in the mass. Rather than depicting the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with waving palms and shouts of hosanna, Bach uses the Benedictus to depict the coming of Christ into the worship service through the consecration of the host. The effect is beautifully introspective and reverent, accompanied by a meditative flute obbligato. A similarly introspective alto aria on the Agnus Dei text leads into the Dona Nobis Pacem, showing Bach’s understanding that this final statement of the mass is less a prayer for peace than a hymn of praise for the peace already granted through Christ’s death and resurrection.
The stiff and stilted handwriting of these final movements show the decline in Bach’s eyesight, a disability ultimately robbing him of his ability to compose. Otherwise in good health and convinced of his need to continue his work, Bach underwent surgery to correct his blindness. The procedure went poorly, resulting in a rapid decline in the composer’s health and his death on July 28, 1750. The autograph score of the Mass in B Minor passed to his son, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, and remained a hidden treasure. It took more than a century to reveal the genius of the work. Those of us privileged to hear and perform the Mass in B Minor today must surely agree with Schumann that, “Before it all masters of other ages must bow in reverence.”
Program Notes – Yvonne Grover