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Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

75th Annual Los Angeles Bach Festival
Nov.2, 2008

Johann Sebastian Bach’s glorious Mass in B minor is an exceptional work in which the composer masterfully incorporates a wide variety of styles and techniques, in essence creating a musical survey that encompasses a diverse collection of aesthetics, as well as providing a comprehensive concluding chapter to his own life’s work.

The circumstances that surround the composition of the Mass in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) remain unclear, as we know of neither an occasion nor a commission. Additionally, there is no record of any performance of the complete work before 1750. Particularly known for not dating his manuscripts, the only solid information about the dating of Bach’s composition is that a Lutheran missa or “Short Mass” (a Kyrie and Gloria) was sent to the Duke of Saxony, Prince Friedrich August, in July of 1733 as a part of an application to the Court Kapelle (a title Bach did not receive). The Kyrie and Gloria from this short mass now form the first two sections of the Mass in B minor. Supporting evidence that the Credo and following material was composed and added after 1733 is found in the manuscript autograph, where the material from the Credo to the end is written on different paper from the first two sections and the handwriting is in a noticeably different style.

Bach’s understanding of the Roman Catholic Mass was based on years of studying and copying the Masses of others, as well as having composed four other “Short Masses” (BWV 233-236), all of which were composed in or after 1735. The study and composition of Catholic liturgical music had practical applications in terms of the demands of his position in Leipzig, as parts of the Latin Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus dei) were occasionally used in a polyphonic setting as a part of the Lutheran services. For example, the Kyrie was played on the first Sunday of Advent, the Gloria at Christmas, and the Sanctus on the highest holidays. In fact, it is known that the Gloria from the Mass in B minor was re-used by Bach in his Latin work for Christmas Day, Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 (c.1743-46).

Scored for five voice parts and orchestra, the Mass in B minor was clearly not intended for the Roman Catholic service as it is not only massive, but the text does not follow the exact wording of the Mass Ordinary (in particular the Domine Deus and Sanctus) or follow the customary grouping in five sections. Bach’s setting does not lend itself to inclusion in the Protestant liturgy either. The piece then appears not to have been intended to be functional, but rather was conceived as an abstract and perhaps personal composition. The result is a monumental work that represents the culmination of his contributions to the body of sacred music.

Overall musical characteristics of the work include highly contrasting compositional styles and techniques. His finished work is an impressive structure, consisting of a total of twenty-seven movements divided into four sections. The work is symmetrical marked by recurring appearance of D major choruses with trumpets and drums, and a strikingly original tenor aria, Quoniam, at the very center.

Written in three distinct movements, the opening Kyrie is fairly unusual in that although it sets only six words, it is quite long. In this section, the two outer choral movements surround a duet for paired treble voices. The choral Kyrie I, in B minor, is characterized by fugal writing and contains a significant amount of chromaticism. Bach’s complicated melodic structure is counterbalanced by the simplicity of the text: Kyrie eleison. Also elaborately contrapuntal, the second movement, the Christe eleison, follows in D major. Kyrie II is a return to the bold and dense polyphonic style of the first chorus.

In the Gloria, Bach continued to demonstrate stylistic variety and careful calculation. The eight movements of the Gloria include four large-scale choruses (all in D major) interspersed with four equally large-scale solo movements. Each of the solo movements was written for one concertist of the 5-voiced choir, paired with an obbligato part represented singly by each family of instruments in the orchestra (strings, flutes, reeds, brass). Each of the solo movements has a distinct style, ranging from the highly Italianate Laudamus te to the polonaise-like Quoniam, which, as the center of entire Mass is made quite memorable by the unexpected use of the cor da caccia.

The second section, the Symbolum Nicenum is comprised of seven movements with the Crucifixus in the center. Reflecting Bach’s comprehensive and sometimes retrospective intent, the choruses of the Symbolum Nicenum (Nos. 12, 13, 19, 20) each contain extensive reference to Medieval chant melodies, while other movements, including the duet Et in unum is particularly reflective of Italian operatic coloratura. The Symbolum Nicenum closes with a tutti chorus in D major.

Bright and strident, the single-movement choral fourth section, Sanctus, is again in D major. The theme in the prelude of this section is based on a triplet motif that is in stark contrast to the lilting triple meter dance-like feel of the fugal Pleni sunt coeli. The Sanctus and the five movements in the next section were probably completed in 1748-49, however they are all re-workings of previous compositions. The final movement, Dona nobis pacem, is a reprise of the seventh movement, Gratias agimus tibi, both in D major. This conclusion in D major indicates that perhaps the title that has become associated with the work is not justified, as there are more than twice as many movements in D major as in B minor.

In a single work, the Mass in B minor exemplifies the “hardworking, serious and profound music” described in Bach’s obituary. This piece is truly a compendium of a lifetime’s study and devotional passion for sacred music and it clearly reflects a culmination of a life of technical mastery, creative genius, and religious inspiration.

-Alicia M. Doyle, Ph.D.