Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor

Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor, completed in the last years of his life, exceeds in scope and surpasses in musical quality all that had been written until then in terms of sacred musical genres. This peerless masterpiece is also shrouded in mystery, as Bach-Archiv director Christoph Wolff remarked in relation to the work’s origin: “We know of no occasion for which Bach would have written the B-minor Mass, nor any patron who might have commissioned it, nor any performance of the complete work before 1750.”

“Thus,” Wolf concludes, “Bach’s last choral composition is in many respects the vocal counterpart to The Art of Fugue, the other side of the composer’s musical legacy. Like no other work of Bach’s, the B-minor Mass represents a summary of his writing for voice, not only in its variety of styles, but also in its high level of technical polish. The Mass offers a full panoply of the art of musical composition, with a breath and depth betraying not only theoretical perspicacity but also a comprehensive grasp of music history, particularly in its use of old and new styles. Just as theological doctrine survived over the centuries in the works of the Mass, so Bach’s mighty setting preserved the musical and artistic creed of its creator for posterity.”

It may strike one as incongruous that Bach, the most illustrious exponent of Lutheran church music, would choose the Catholic mass Ordinary as the text of his crowning, aggregate accomplishment in the domain of sacred vocal music. Apart from a five-year assignment as Kapellmeister for the Calvinist court at Köthen, most of Bach’s professional life was devoted to Lutheran church music, and most intensively from 1723 until his death in 1750, when he served as Cantor in Leipzig, an important university and publishing centre, the second city in importance in the Electorate of Saxony after Dresden, its capital. The first term of Bach’s tenure as Cantor of St. Thomas Church was to see to the weekly production of music in Leipzig’s two main churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicolas. According to Bach’s obituary, he was responsible for providing “five full annual cycles of church pieces, for all the Sundays and holidays […] five passions, of which one is for double chorus” and several other scores, among them four brevis or “Lutheran” masses in Latin, so-called because they are limited to a Kyrie and Gloria.

Contrary to a widespread belief that persists to this day, when introducing his Reform at the beginning of the 16th century, Luther did not entirely reject the Latin mass, nor did he turn away from its music by considering it to be mostly elitist and erudite counterpoint. It is true that, to make the word of God more accessible to the laity, he did replace Latin texts with texts in the German vernacular, and privileged chorales with simple harmonies that could be sung by all worshippers attending a service. In Bach’s time, however, sections of the traditional Latin mass were still being celebrated and set to music for specific occasions, such as major liturgical feasts. One example is the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B minor, which he originally wrote in 1724 for use within the reformed Christmas service.

Bach composed the imposing Kyrie and Gloria, later to become the first two sections of his Mass in B minor, in the spring of 1733. His goal was entirely different from one of musically purveying sacred teachings. Augustus II, “the Strong” who had simultaneously served as Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had recently died on the 1st of February. When he had acceded to the throne of Poland some 35 years earlier, Augustus had converted to Catholicism, which can be explained by the fact that both Catholic and Protestant rites were tolerated in the capital city of Dresden, his seat of power. Thus, unlike Leipzig where only Lutheran worship prevailed, both communities could coexist harmoniously in Dresden, supported by the Elector’s more open personal religious culture. The day after the death of the Prince-Elector, a six-month mourning period was decreed, prohibiting, among other things, any public music-making throughout the Electorate, and that included church music. Bach suddenly found himself absolved of his Sunday duties and, knowing that the Elector’s heir, Augustus III was a fervent music lover, undertook to compose a work that would showcase his art and perhaps improve his status and working conditions, which he found to be unsatisfactory in Leipzig. He chose to submit the dual tableau of the Kyrie and Gloria, appealing to both Catholics as Protestants in the capital.

In a letter addressed to the new Elector accompanying his work, Bach clarifies the motives behind his gesture: “In deepest Devotion I present to your Royal Highness this small product of that science which I have attained in Musique, […]. For some years and up to the present moment, I have held the Directorium of the Music in the two principal churches in Leipzig, but have innocently had to suffer one injury or another, and on occasion also a diminution of the fees accruing to me in this office; but these injuries would disappear altogether if Your Royal Highness would grant me the favour of conferring upon me a title of Your Highness’s Court Capella.”

This letter is dated July 27, 1733; in other words, it was written the week following the lifting of the sixth-month ban on music. At that time, however, Augustus III had far more pressing concerns: another contender to the throne had challenged him and an alignment of the various European states in two opposing sides culminated in September, in the War of Polish Succession. Only after defeating his opponents was Augustus III finally able, in 1736 to see to the day-to-day management of affairs. Bach finally was granted the honorary title he had hoped for, but it is unclear whether this contributed to improving his lot during his final years in Leipzig.

It was likely around 1745 that Bach decided to take this Kyrie and Gloria diptych and complete it by adding the Credo, Sanctus, Osanna, and Agnus Dei. As composers in his time often did, to complete his magnum opus he drew on several elements from what he considered to be his best work. For example, in the chorus following the opening Sinfonia of one of his early cantatas (BWV 12, which dates to 1714), Bach had masterfully illustrated, in arrestingly sombre and tragedy-filled chromatic counterpoint, various words describing the faithful Christian’s grief at the Passion of Christ: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, Angst und Not, sind der Christen Tränenbrot, die das Zeichen Jesu tragen (Weeping, lamentation, worry, despair, anguish, and trouble are the Christian’s bread of tears, that bear the marks of Jesus). For the Credo of his Mass in B minor, Bach took this captivating chorus, changing it to render only one, key word of the Christian faith, a word that evokes the ultimate cause of the faithful’s affliction as it was heard in the chorus of the cantata composed some 30 years earlier. This word is: Crucifixus.

Zurich publisher Hans Georg Nägeli acquired the manuscript of Bach’s Mass in B minor in 1806, but the complete edition was finally to be published only in 1845, while its first performance followed, in Germany, in 1859. In 1817, however, Nägeli announced a new forthcoming edition, affirming Bach’s Mass to be “the greatest musical artwork of all times and all peoples.” Even given the many symphonic and choral masterpieces that came after – Beethoven’s Ninth, Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” music lovers today widely continue to share Nägeli’s opinion.

© Guy Marchand