Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bach: Mass in B minor

This is not part of any series of posts--I just suddenly realised that while I have mentioned it from time to time and put up clips of parts of it, I have never devoted an entire post to one of the greatest pieces of music in history, the Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach.

This piece would have to be part of any list of the ten (or five, or two!) greatest pieces ever written, yet it is strangely anomalous. The composition formed no part of Bach's normal musical duties. It is a setting of the Catholic mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. These are the unvarying parts of the Eucharistic liturgy. The odd thing is that Bach was not Catholic, but a devout Lutheran and spent much of his life writing music for the Lutheran church. But this piece, finished at the end of his life, is a kind of apotheosis of the long tradition of the Catholic mass. Parts of the work come from previous religious music, but the completion of it, setting those parts of the Catholic liturgy that Lutherans did not use, was one of the last compositions of his life.

The work was not performed during his lifetime--in fact, the first documented complete performance was not until 1859, more than a hundred years later. For more historical details and for a discussion of the difficulties of determining Bach's original text (his son, C. P. E. Bach, who inherited the manuscript, made a number of changes and additions), read the Wikipedia article I linked above.

This is a very large piece of music, though considerably shorter than either of the extant passions that Bach composed. It is in twenty-seven movements (compare to the typical symphony in three to five movements) with a total duration of about two hours. The only symphonies that compare in sheer length are some by Bruckner and Mahler. Now the St. Matthew Passion is longer with 68 movements and a duration of about three hours. But bear in mind that most of those movements are recitative and therefore comparatively lightweight, musically. The Mass in B minor is nothing but choruses and arias. It begins with a ten or twelve minute fugue for chorus and orchestra on Kyrie eleison ("Lord have mercy", the only part of the mass in Greek, not Latin):

The next movement, Christe eleison, is a duet for two sopranos with obbligato violins:

And this first section ends with another Kyrie, a briefer four-part chorus:

One part of the mass, and to my mind the most sublime, is repeated. The "Gratias animus tibiachorus in the Gloria returns at the very end setting the "Dona nobis pacem":

Woody Allen once said that the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 was the proof of the existence of God. For me, this is even more so. If it is possible for mere music to transport you to heaven, then this is the piece.

Another remarkable setting is the Crucifixus, which is a four-part chorus in passacaglia form, which means that the bass line repeats. In fact, it appears exactly 13 times. You might interpret this as a symbolic reference to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus who was the 13th member at the Last Supper. Here is that bass line:

Click to enlarge

Some have speculated that there is a great deal more number symbolism in the mass, but we can simply listen to it as great, very great, music. Here is the complete Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:


Anonymous said...

The Mass in Bm is not great. It's insanely, outrageously, absurdly, ridiculously great!

About the Catholic angle, I recomment a good book by Pelikan (Bach among the theologians). Even though the setting of the Catholic Mass had pragmatic reasons for him (getting a Court appointment) it was not at all a form of sellout on his part as a devout Lutheran. Pelikan explains how Bach was very open-minded about theology (much more so than his bosses in Leipzig).

To think so many people growing up on a diet of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and going through their entire lives without ever being swept off their feet by the genius of this work is nothing less than a tragedy.

Bryan Townsend said...