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Bach B Minor Mass


HARRY BICKET conductor
MEG BRAGLE mezzo-soprano
DANIEL TAYLOR countertenor
MATTHEW BROOK bass-baritone
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair


Mass in B Minor, BWV 232



Agnus Dei




Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Completed in 1748, with individual parts composed and performed earlier. The complete B Minor Mass was first heard in Leipzig, Germany, in 1859.

When Bach assembled his B Minor Mass near the end of his life, he used some movements he had composed years earlier, adopted other movements from various cantatas, and wrote some new material. Although we do not know this devout Lutheran’s immediate reason for putting together a huge Mass that (outwardly at least) conforms to the Roman Catholic liturgy, we can assume part of his motivation was to construct a work that summarized, epitomized and idealized a lifetime of sacred composition. In this sense the Mass is comparable to The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering, both late collections of works that are his crowning achievements in, respectively, fugue and other contrapuntal forms.

Actually, the B Minor Mass is not usable in the Catholic liturgy. Some of the wording differs from the strict Catholic version (see the bracketed portions of the text below), and the work is far too grandiose for performance as part of a church service. Furthermore, Bach did not observe the traditional grouping of the text into five sections—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Rather, he split up each of these parts into several movements, so that there are actually 25 separate parts. Nor is the Mass suitable for performance in the Lutheran church, because singing the entire ordinary of the mass did not fit into the format of a Protestant service, much of which was not in Latin but in German. Bach was not thinking of an actual performance at all: the Mass was probably conceived as an abstract composition not tied to any occasion, a universal statement of faith that transcends any particular orthodoxy. Furthermore, since the work was put together from several different earlier works, it is less a unified conception than an all-embracing hymn of belief, referring to both early and recent sacred music and to both sacred and secular styles.

Thus some parts of the Mass hark back to the era before the split in Christianity, while others refer to the modern period, in which Lutheran and Catholic beliefs were divergent. Archaic Gregorian chants appear, for example, in the Credo, Patrem, Confiteor and Sanctus. The Credo uses one of the old church modes (the Mixolydian). Also, the five- and six-part choruses in several movements recall earlier choral practices. On the other hand, movements such as the Laudamus te, Qui sedes, Quoniam, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are similar to coloratura arias from contemporary Italian operas, as are the duets in the Christe, Domine Deus, and Et in unum Dominum. In addition, the Mass is full of superb examples of Bach’s own contrapuntal art—fugues with all manner of learned devices and a full-blown passacaglia.

Nearly one-third of the Mass is reworked from cantatas. With incredible skill, Bach adapted this older music to new texts, often adding contrapuntal lines, extending passages and otherwise furthering the music. Thus the Et expecto is taken from Cantata 120, the Crucifixus is basd on a passacaglia from Cantata 12, the Gratias and Dona nobis pacem are taken from Cantata 29, the Qui tollis is from Cantata 46, the Patrem omnipotentum is from Cantata 171, the Osanna is based on Cantata 215, the introduction to the first Kyrie is taken from Cantata 198, the Benedictus is taken from an earlier aria that has not survived in its original form, the Agnus Dei is from Cantata 11, and the final Dona nobis pacem uses the same music as the Gratias.

The Sanctus, the oldest portion of the B Minor Mass originally composed as a mass movement, was written for Christmas day in 1724. The Credo may have originated in 1732 for a mass celebrating the rededication of the newly rebuilt church school. The first Kyrie was composed in 1733 in commemoration of the deceased Elector of Saxony. The Gloria was written at the same time in honor of the new elector’s accession to the throne. Since no polyphonic music was allowed to be performed during the mourning period after the Elector’s death, Bach had plenty of time to work on these two movements. Thus he created some extraordinarily powerful, beautiful and complex music for the solemn occasion of the new Elector’s visit to Leipzig to accept the town’s declaration of allegiance. Bach subsequently sent the music to his Royal Majesty, in the hopes of obtaining a position at his court.

Since Bach brought together these diverse movements into a single mass only two years before his death, it is unlikely that it was ever performed during his lifetime. It, like many of his important works, remained unknown for generations. Bach was remembered after his death mainly as an organist. Interest in his music was reborn in the 19th century. The romantic age’s concern with its roots led Germans to rediscover the music of Bach; simultaneously, a new appreciation of history in England led to a Bach revival there as well. Carl Friedrich Zelter rehearsed the B Minor Mass in Berlin in 1811, but he felt it impractical to perform this monumental work. The Kyrie and Gloria were performed in Vienna in 1816; the Et incarnatus est was heard in Berlin in 1827; the Credo was performed in Frankfurt in 1828. Truncated versions of the whole Mass were given in Berlin in 1835 and in Birmingham in 1837. Although several of Bach’s works first appeared in print in the decades after 1800, the Mass remained unpublished until 1845, nearly a century after the work had been composed. The first complete performance took place in Leipzig in 1859. All of these early performances involved various new instrumentations that made the work sound as if it had been orchestrated by Beethoven.

KEYNOTE. Kyrie I. Like a huge cry for mercy, the chorus and orchestra start together, without the typical instrumental introduction. After this dramatic opening the music develops into a fugue. Since the text is a supplication to the Father, the mood is spiritual, but with an increasing sense of urgency.

Christe. As the text now refers to Jesus, the second member of the Holy Trinity, the music becomes more personal and intimate. Bach uses a duet to symbolize he duality of Christ the Son and God the Father, a device he also uses in the Et in unum Dominum. Notice the way the vocal duet includes writing in parallel intervals and strict imitation, both indicating the unity of Father and Son.

Kyrie II. Bach uses stile antico, the archaic style of 16th-century church music, to make the mood simpler and more objective than in the first Kyrie. The style of Palestrina is invoked by the absence of large skips in the vocal lines and the use of the instruments to reinforce the voice parts rather than to provide independent contrapuntal lines. Bach does not simply adopt the old style without modifications, however; the fugue subject clearly has his own stamp. The pattern of its first three notes would never have occurred in the music of Palestrina.

Gloria. The reserved expression of the second Kyrie gives way to an extroverted style, complete with trumpets, drums and instrumental virtuosity. In place of the Kyrie’s fugues, the baroque concerto form is invoked, although there eventually is a fugue in this movement.

Laudamus te. The virtuosity continues, as this delicate movement suggests a double concerto, with violin and mezzo-soprano as soloists.

Gratias. As in the second Kyrie, the orchestra doubles the chorus in a stile antico fugue. At the climactic words magnam gloriam (“great glory” of God), Bach adds three trumpets with music independent of that of the chorus. The effect is indeed glorious.

Domine Deus. In order to represent the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son, Bach sets the first two parts of the text simultaneously as a duet for soprano and tenor. The two voices join together where the text sings of the “Lamb of God, Son of the Father.”

Qui tollis. A restrained mood is established by omitting the first and using only the second sopranos for this four-part chorus and also by the scoring, which includes two flutes along with the strings.

Qui sedes. The restrained mood continues, as this gentle aria for mezzo-soprano is accompanied by the soft tones of the oboe d’amore and mezzo-soprano, which sometimes alternate and sometimes cooperate, symbolizing the interrelationship of the Father and the Son, who “sits at the right hand of the Father.”

Quoniam. This intense piece is scored by low sounds—bass voice, horn, two bassoons and continuo—despite the text saying “You alone are the high above all.” The opening two measures in the horn are the same whether played backward or forward—a symbol, according to musicologist Helmuth Rilling, of the risen Christ.

Cum Sancto Spiritu. This brilliant movement concludes the Gloria section of the Mass. This, like the first piece in the Gloria, is virtuosic, with rapid motion in the fugue’s countersubject, intricate counterpoint, and considerable demands on the chorus.

Credo. The five-part chorus is accompanied by two independent violin lines (plus the ubiquitous continuo), so that we have a seven-voice contrapuntal texture. The style is again reminiscent of 16th-century practices. The theme, taken from a Gregorian chant, is introduced in each of the seven voices, in this order: tenors, basses, altos, first sopranos, second sopranos, first violins, second violins. The use of stile antico precludes a subjective statement of belief.

Patrem omnipotentum. The text of the Patrem belongs to the same sentence as that of the preceding movement. Bach set the text as two movements because he wanted to use two different styles, textures and instrumentations. Yet he wanted to emphasize the unity of the textual idea. Thus he derived the bass scales in the Patrem from those in the Credo. The two movements also share motivic and tonal relations.

Et in unum Dominum. As in the Christe, the duet signifies the second person of the Holy Trinity. As a symbol of the unity of Father and Son, despite their separate identities, Bach has the first and second violins play the same figure at the beginning, but a beat apart and with different articulation—staccato vs. legato. The staccato version, doubled by two oboes d’amore, is stronger, comes first, and hence represents the Father; the gentler legato version symbolizes the Son, who proceeds from the Father.

Et incarnatus est. There are several symbols of the cross in this movement. The pervasive violin motive actually looks, on the page, like a cross. The fugue subject involves several sharped notes: sharps look like crosses, and the German words for “sharp” and “cross” are identical. As the text sings of the Holy Ghost, the mood is spiritual.

Crucifixus. This movement is a passacaglia: the four-measure continuo motive is played again and again throughout the piece. This figure is the “lament bass,” a common baroque motive. Bach activates it with repeated notes, to create a throbbing effect. By using a passacaglia in the center of the Credo movements, Bach seems to be saying that the article of faith is too important to be said once, but must be stated again and again. In this case, the passacaglia theme is heard 13 times—the unlucky number, symbolizing the tragedy of the crucifixion.

Et resurrexit. This virtuosic, concerto-like movement uses the entire orchestra to depict the jubilation of the resurrection. The joy of resurrection is emphasized by the contrast between the ending of the Crucifixus—low, slow, soft—and the opening of the Et resurrexit—high, soft, loud. The increasing importance of trumpets, the regal instruments, toward the end of the movement symbolizes that Christ has joined God the King.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum. When the text speaks of the unity of the catholic and apostolic church, the peaceful duet of two oboes d’amore signifies, according to musicologist Karl Geiringer, the “harmony and understanding between Catholics and Protestants.”

Confiteor. Like the Credo, this movement is in stile antico and uses a Gregorian theme. The final joyous allegro is the Et expecto.

According to Rilling, “The constant alternation of the fanfare-like figuration in the orchestra with the timpani entrances can be seen as symbolic of the last trumpet and the quaking of the earth on the day of resurrection.” The climbing nature of the fugue theme shows Christ’s rise into heaven.

Sanctus. The six-voice chorus in the Sanctus symbolizes the six wings of the Seraphim, as described by the prophet Isaiah in a biblical passage that contains the Sanctus text. There is also a preponderance of six-measure phrases, including the fugue subject.

Osanna I. In order to match the magnificence of the Sanctus, Bach divides the chorus into eight parts.

Benedictus. Contrasting with the dense texture of the Osanna is the tranquil, chamber-like Benedictus, scored for tenor, solo violin or flute (Bach did not specify which), and continuo instruments.

Osanna II. This movement is a literal repeat of the first Osanna.

Agnus Dei. There are motivic connections between this movement and the first Kyrie. There is considerable dialogue beteen the mezzo-soprano and the violins. The music is meditative and tranquil, but with an undercurrent of intensity provided by some beautiful chromaticism. Notice in particular the poignancy created by the wide leaps in the violins at the end.

Dona nobis pacem. The music to the Dona is identical to that of the Gratias. This correspondence indicates that, as Bach asks God for peace (text of the Dona), he is already thanking Him for it (music of the Gratias). According to Geiringer, “In this way the composer concluded his [Catholic] Mass with the expression of gratitude traditional in the Lutheran service.”
—Jonathan D. Kramer

Translation available in the Program