Program Notes

Mass in B Minor

It is quite remarkable that the most popular and revered of all of Bach’s great choral materpieces was probably written with the expectation that it would never be performed. For although this great Mass in B Minor is performed today all over the world, it was almost certainly never performed as a whole in Bach’s lifetime. The reasons are simple enough to understand: with the two-hour length and extravagant choral and instrumental forces required it most certainly would not have been used in a church service, and public performances of concert masses were unknown to the citizens of Leipzig, Germany in Bach’s time. Furthermore, no evidence of any commission has ever been found for this work.

        So why did Bach compose such a work if he never expected it to be performed? There can be no answer but that, late in his life, he felt the need to produce a summation of his entire life’s work as a composer of church music. The same explanation can be given for other summations of this craft: The Art of the Fugue, and the Musical Offering, two other works written without any apparent thought of future performances.

        In the case of the Mass it would actually be more accurate to say that Bach composed and compiled the work late in his life, since many of the movements came from earlier compositions. The Sanctus was first performed in 1724 and the Kyrie and Gloria in 1733. In addition, Crucifixus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem were all re-workings of earlier pieces. It seems that, in trying to put together a summation of his works as a church composer, Bach chose some of the best movements he had written before, adapted others, sometimes with minor alterations, sometimes with major changes, and filled in the rest with newly composed material. With such a construction technique we might expect a patch-work composition; but, of course, Bach, at the height of his mature genius, combined it all into a gloriously unified whole. A brief look at some architectural features and details may help the listener better appreciate this towering work.

     The opening Kyrie section is in the traditional three parts, each one a separate movement. The first movement begins with four massive introductory measures which serve two functions. At the beginning of the first “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy) movement they appear as an intense, collective plea for mercy from all humankind. As an introduction to the entire Mass they represent a universal acknowledgement that God has dominion over all. These measures are followed by an extraordinary choral fugue, long and formal in its construction, expres-sive, intense and spiritually elevated in its emotion. The middle movement of the Kyrie section, “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy), is scored for soprano and alto soloists and strings, with all the violins in unison. The glowing confidence of this movement provides a wonderful contrast to the more serious outer Kyrie movements. Here Bach has no doubt that his Savior will give mercy. The third and final Kyrie movement is again for chorus and orchestra, but this time written in the antique musical style of Renaissance Netherlands composers. The voices, doubled by instruments, weave in and out expressively and with a flowing style similar to Palestrina or Lassus. This whole first section of the Mass, in three movements, lasting some twenty minutes, is a musical setting of only six words, three of which are repeated. And yet, so powerful is the momentum of the unfolding themes and so skillful the interplay of the vocal and instrumental parts that not one bar of the music is redundant.

        The second large section of the Mass is the Gloria which consists of nine movements. The inner movements are framed by two gigantic outer movements for full orchestra and five-part chorus. The first movement is a jubilant dance of praise, displaying for the first time the full orchestral and choral forces. It is followed, without stop, by the second movement (“Et in terra pax”). This special piece begins more gently, like a pastorale, and continues with a choral fugue which builds, little by little, to a magnificent conclusion. The light and joyful “Laudamus te” is next. This contrasting movement features violin and soprano solos, accompanied by strings. The light and airy roulades of the two soloists suggest praise by the angels. A simple and profound chorus follows (“Gratias agimus tibi”). Bach’s composition here is extraordinary. The musical construction seems so simple, so pure; and yet the elevated, universal effect of the music is quite overwhelming. Bach then chooses a chamber music style for the next movement (“Domine Deus”), an absolutely charming and radiant duet for soprano and tenor soloists with flute solo. This leads directly into an expressive Venetian-style chorus (“Qui tollis”), where Bach superimposes above the sustained choral lines the beautiful embroideries of two flutes. The following aria (“Qui sedes”) features contralto and oboe d’amore soloists. The oboe d’amore is a lower-pitched, sweet, rounder-toned relative of the modern orchestral oboe. Its beautiful sonority, and that of the alto, are a perfect combination for this slow dance movement. The final two movements are done without break. The “Quoniam” aria is totally unique in all musical literature in that it is scored for bass vocal soloist, horn soloist, two bassoons, and all other bass instruments (in our case, cello, bass and organ). As the bass sings “for Thou art alone Holy” the music sounds positively regal. This movement never really ends but suddenly explodes into the most virtuosic movement of the whole Mass, the exciting “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” a true choral tour de force.

        The gigantic Symbolum Nicenum (Credo) sec-tion is a stunning example of Bach’s use of symmetrical construction. It consists of nine movements, eight of which are placed mirror-like on either side of the central movement, the “Crucifixus”. Thus the symmetry focuses on the central message of the Mass, that of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice: He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried.

 On the outer edges of this symmetrical Credo are pairs of choruses, the first in each case being in an antique chant-like style, the second, in each case, being a full-scale orchestral-choral concertato movement. Moving closer to the center we have a pair of solo movements, the “Et in unum Dominum”, a duet for soprano and alto, and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”, a solo for bass. The central core is a three-movement unit of extraordinary choruses. The “Et incarnatus est” depicts, through descending vocal lines, the Son of God coming down to the earth in the humble form of a human child. The central “Crucifixus” is perhaps the most wonderful example in all of music of the use of an ostinato bass (a bass-line melody repeated over and over). This movement originally appeared as the opening chorus in Bach’s earlier cantata, Weinen, Klagen. Bach altered the original ending to depict Christ’s descent into the grave by the low register of the voices and at the same time, by a modulation to G Major, to suggest the hope of the resurrection, which bursts forth in the next chorus like a dance of joy. This transition between the end of the “Crucifixus” and the opening of the “Et Resurrexit” is one of the most remarkable single moments in all of music.

        The Sanctus is without question the finest Sanctus ever composed. This is quite a bold statement; but justified in that no other composer ever expressed the utterly cosmic sense of praise that this piece expresses. It is as if all the angels in all the the universes in all times were all shouting back and forth “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts.”

        An exultant Osanna follows, this virtuoso movement scored for double chorus and orchestra. Bach then gives us the smallest scaled movement in the Mass, the Benedictus, for tenor and flute solo. In its simplicity, this aria creates a truly poignant moment of quiet. The Osanna is then repeated. It is followed by one of the most expressive arias in all of Bach’s work, the alto solo Agnus Dei. Slow and deeply felt, the alto asks the Lamb of God for mercy. Bach sets the text in such a way that we almost don’t notice the words, but respond instead to the almost moaning vocalism of the singer. In keeping with the mood of the piece, the melody of the violins lies in the very lowest register of the instrument.

Dennis Keene