Bach Mass In B Minor Analysis Essay

1. Program notes on the B Minor Mass by Douglas Bush

In 1817 the Swiss critic Hans-Georg Naegeli praised BachÍs Mass in B Minor as "the greatest work of music in all ages and of all people." Though some may wish to qualify NaegeliÍs statement, the Mass is one of the greatest monuments in western art music. This notwithstanding, there are some intriguing considerations when viewing the Mass from a historical perspective.

In contrast to its present fame, the work was largely unknown well into the nineteenth century. Its delayed reception by later generations was perhaps the result of the general unavailability of a score (Beethoven tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to obtain a copy of the Mass). The first published edition appeared in 1845, with a second and improved edition appearing in 1856 as the sixth volume in the newly-formed Bach GesellschaftÍs publication of BachÍs complete works.

Although most Mass settings stem from the Roman Catholic tradition, the Mass in B Minor originated within the Lutheran liturgy. While Luther had sought to reform points of doctrine, he did not oppose the liturgy of the Roman Church. His Formula missae of 1523 retained the five musical portions of the Latin Mass Ordinary Ü that is, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (with Osanna and Benedictus), and Agnus Dei. In his Deutsche Messe of 1527 Luther provided an alternative German vernacular mass, but he seems to have considered the Latin Mass a higher form of worship.

The immense dimensions of the B Minor Mass render it virtually unusable within the liturgical rites of either the Roman or Protestant churches. Even in BachÍs day, when the main church services lasted approximately three hours, there would have been insufficient time to perform a work of this scope (the sermon alone usually lasted more than an hour). Bach worked on the Mass over a period of more than fifteen years (1733-1749), collecting, revising, and composing new music that would provide a "summa" of artistic achievement in his sacred vocal music, one that would unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician. The resulting work represents an anthology of BachÍs finest vocal music and at once displays all the variety and beauty of his instrumental writing. Part III of the Clavier-Uebung, published in 1739 and containing a collection of organ works of the highest quality, was dedicated to "the spiritual delectation of the lovers and, especially, the connoisseurs of this kind of work." This seems to have been BachÍs purpose in the Mass in B Minor as well.

With mounting perplexity pertaining to his position as the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Bach wrote a letter (dated 27 July 1733) to the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, stating: "In deepest Devotion I present to your Royal Highness this trifling product of that science which I have attained in Musique..." Seeking to secure the patronage of the Elector, the "trifling product" proffered was a beautifully prepared presentation score for a Missa, comprising the Kyrie and Gloria sections of what is now known as the Mass in B Minor. This pair of movements joined four other such settings, in the keys of A, G, G Minor, and F. In Lutheran worship the Kyrie-Gloria Mass was the preferred norm.

It appears that towards the end of the 1740s Bach became interested in completing a "Missa tota", setting the complete text of the Mass Ordinary. BachÍs large-scale plan for a complete Mass setting can already be seen in the structure of the Kyrie-Gloria Mass of 1733. This is evident not only in the five-part choral writing or in the large orchestral forces, but especially in the expansive and varied structure of the individual movements. The three sections of the Kyrie typify the variety characterizing the entire Mass. The initial "Kyrie eleison" seems to bear a similarity to the opening of the St. John Passion, perhaps representing the imploring multitudes of humanity in an urgent plea for mercy. The opening massive chords are followed by an expansive fugue with an obligato orchestral part. The "Christe eleison" employs the modern operatic duet style. The duet may also refer to Christ as the second member of the Trinity and to the duality of his divine and human natures. The final "Kyrie eleison" tends towards the older style of vocal polyphony, therefore dispensing with independent orchestral accompaniment. Not only are these three movements greatly differentiated in style and compositional technique, they also establish the sequence of the keys of B minor, D major and F-sharp minor, thus unfolding the broad harmonic frame of the whole.

The Gloria continues the stylistic diversity of the Kyrie, and in addition to four large choral movements ("Gloria in excelsis Deo"/"Et in terra pax"; "Gratias agimus tibi"; "Qui tollis peccata mundi"; "Cum Sancto Spiritu") contains four equally large solo or duet movements accompanied by obligato instruments (violin, flute, oboe, and horn) and orchestra. Thus the Kyrie-Gloria Mass of 1733 is musically complete in itself, all five voices having a solo and each different group in the orchestra having an obligato part.

The "Symbolum Nicenum" or Credo, added to the score in the years 1748-49, consists of nine movements. Originally there had been only eight movements, the "Et in unum Dominum" movement also contained the words "Et incarnatus est." But after the completion of the "Symbolum Nicenum," possibly even after the completion of the entire score, Bach wrote a separate movement for this latter segment of the text, likely making this the last vocal composition he ever wrote. The nine movement structure of this section is architecturally symmetrical: at the beginning and end a pair of choral movements form a frame ("Credo in unum Deum," having a liturgical chant melody or cantus firmus, and "Patrem omnipotentem"; these two opening choruses correspond to "Confiteor unum baptisma," lso having a cantus firmus, and "Et expecto" at the conclusion of the "Symbolum"). Two solo movements stand next to these outer framing sections, while three choral movements stand in the center, underlining the Christological nucleus of the Credo ("Et incarnatus est" [And was incarnate]; "Crucifixus" [And he was crucified]; "Et resurrexit tertia die" [And rose again on the third day]).

Bach seemed to have a particular interest in numerology, a system of occultism (hidden or concealed meaning) built around numbers. Each letter of the word "Credo" was assigned a number according to its respective position in the alphabet Ü hence C=3, R=17, E=5, D=4, and O=14, the total sum of the numbers equaling 43 (i and j having the same number since they were interchangeable in eighteenth-century German). Interestingly, there are 43 entries of the plainsong melody. Further, there are 45 measures in the first Credo section, and 84 measures in the "Patrem omnipotentem" totaling 129 measures, or 3 times 43, thus giving a threefold repetition of the Credo number. This reflects the textual meaning of "Credo in unum Deum" (I believe in one God), so that the reference is to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Bach scribbled the number 84 in the autograph score, 84 being the sum of 7 times 12 (the holy number of the church multiplied by the number of the apostles), obviously concerned with the number of measures in the second Credo.

The Sanctus and the following pieces also belong to the 1748-49 completion of the Mass, but nearly all have earlier origins. The Sanctus had been written for Christmas in 1724, in an easily alterable version for three sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass. The "Osanna" is the only double choir movement in the Mass, and it is a remodeling of the opening chorus from the secular cantata No. 215. The Benedictus is perhaps a reworking of a lost piece. The Agnus Dei also began as a parody of an older movement from the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11), but in addition to radical alterations of the original material, it contains extensive newly composed sections. The concluding "Dona nobis pacem" repeats the music of the "Gratias agimus tibi" section, thus emphasizing the composerÍs conception of this section being an expression of gratitude.

As Bach grew older, the Mass in B Minor must have seemed to him to be a bequest to his successors and to the future. His primary interests now lay in the pursuit of "musical art and science," and the fulfillment of the scholar-composerÍs obligation to formulate a summary of his work. The Mass encapsulates as does no other composition BachÍs choral artistry Ü it is the "summa" of all his sacred music. It offers a compositional spectrum whose breadth and depth reveal both academic and spiritual penetration. A complex system of thought at many levels went into the creating of this great Mass. It seems to exemplify in every detail BachÍs statement that "the final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the human spirit."


In reflecting on the state of research on Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-Minor Mass in 1985, the tercentenary year of Bach’s birth, Hans-Joachim Schulze dubbed the work the “perpetual touchstone for Bach research” (in Bach, Handel, Scarlatti: Tercentenary Essays, ed. Peter Williams [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985], 311–20). That Schulze’s characterization of the B-Minor Mass is no less true now than it was in 1985 is demonstrated by an impressive new collection of essays published as Exploring Bach’s B-Minor Mass and edited by Yo Tomita, Robin A. Leaver, and Jan Smaczny. The fourteen essays, by Bach scholars across Europe and the United States, engage the B-Minor Mass from the perspectives of historical and cultural contexts, analysis, source study, and reception, providing new insights into one of the best-known and best-loved of Bach’s works.

As explained in the preface, the volume grew out of the symposium “Understanding Bach’s B-minor Mass” held at Queens University Belfast in November 2007. The essays in Exploring Bach’s B-Minor Mass were selected from those presented at the symposium and were revised for publication in 2013. The essays engage past research on the B-Minor Mass while contributing significantly to the body of scholarship on the work. In addition, the volume is carefully edited both for content and readability, and is a valuable contribution for scholars and also for performers or audience members looking for insights into the Mass.

Any volume that engages with Bach’s B-Minor Mass must do so within the vast body of research on the work. In addition to a wealth of articles and essays, recent monographs dedicated to the B-Minor Mass include John Butt, Bach: Mass in B Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); George B. Stauffer, Bach, The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); and Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: Messe in h-Moll (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2009). Exploring Bach’s B-Minor Mass not only engages such scholarship throughout its chapters, but also particularly frames our understanding of the Mass within its history of performance, scholarship, and reception in its two opening essays. Christoph Wolff’s “Past, present and future perspectives on Bach’s B-minor Mass” (chapter 1) provides a lucid and accessible introduction to the Mass, its history, and the research questions surrounding it, while Robin A. Leaver’s “Bach’s Mass: ‘Catholic’ or ‘Lutheran’?” (chapter 2) provides an excellent introduction to the Mass from the perspective of historical theology.

Chapters 3 and 4 likewise complement each other, providing readers with a context for understanding Bach’s 1733 Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria of what would become the B-Minor Mass) within the wider framework of Mass settings in eighteenth-century Germany and particularly at the Dresden court. Janice B. Stockigt’s “Bach’s Missa BWV 232I in the context of Catholic Mass settings in Dresden, 1729–1733” (chapter 3) focuses on musical style, framing Bach’s compositional choices in relation to other Missa settings extant at the Dresden court. Szymon Paczkowski’s “The role and significance of the polonaise in the ‘Quoniam’ of the B-minor Mass” (chapter 4) complements Stockigt’s essay well by [End Page 173] exploring the cultural, political, and musical context for the Missa in Dresden. In fact, the chapter’s title is misleading and does not do it justice, for while Paczkowski does address the polonaise in the “Quoniam,” his goals for the chapter are much broader. As he states in his introduction, “this essay intends to show that the politics and culture of eighteenth-century Dresden provide a useful context for opening up to fresh enquiry some of Bach’s creative intentions in the B-minor Mass” (p. 54), and Paczkowski achieves this goal admirably. Within this broader context, Paczkowski elucidates Bach’s use of the polonaise...


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