Program Notes

February 24th, 2017
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor
Cary Hall, Lexington; David Hoose, conductor

J.S. Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Notes by David Hoose

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the music that would become his Mass in B minor between 1724, when he wrote the Sanctus, and 1747 or 1748, when he finally copied out the entire score in beautiful calligraphy. The origins of some of the music date from before 1724, since Bach created many of the movements of this grand composition—his only setting of the Latin Ordinary—by reworking music from cantatas and other works that could serve his musical, dramatic, and theological intentions. The completed Mass in B minor, therefore, stands not just as Bach’s Opus ultimum, but as a synopsis of his entire musical life as a church musician.

Although Bach did hear the Kyrie and Gloria in 1733, there was never a performance of the entire work during his lifetime. Consequently, there has been debate about whether he conceived it as a single work. But the care with which he completed the presentation copy of the complete music toward the end of his life, and the detail and brilliance with which the entire span is structured make an indisputable case for its being a unified whole.

The first performance of the entire work was not until 1859, more than 100 years after Bach’s death; the first performance in America was nearly a half century later. During the years since its first complete performance the Mass in B minor has become a universally beloved work, and to many it signifies the highest in artistic-religious thinking. Certainly, this marriage of a lifetime’s religious devotion and musical sophistication inspires our image of Bach as the greatest musical preacher the Western world has known.

The twenty-six movements of the Mass in B minor are for a wide variety of vocal and instrumental ensembles. There are arias and duets for soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, and bass (although it is the rare bass/baritone who can successfully sing both the Quoniam and the Et in Spiritum), and much of the Mass is for five-voiced, SSATB chorus. The Sanctus expands to six voices (SSAATB) and the Osanna opens up even further to two antiphonal SATB choruses. The entire orchestra is one of Bach’s largest and most colorful, comprising two flutes, three oboes (two of whom also play oboe d’amore), two bassoons, one horn, three trumpets, timpani, strings, and a continuo group of unspecified dimensions, but likely consisting variously of cello, bass, bassoon, and a keyboard instrument, such as organ.

History is rich with music that, upon first hearing, seems utterly impenetrable. If our response is not to dismiss it, but to return another day out of curiosity and patience, we may be rewarded, and we may even begin to puzzle over why we were so unaware of the music’s wonders the first time we heard it. History is also replete with music that, perhaps very eager to please, makes a starry first impression. To that we may also return, though perhaps with diminishing rewards. Eventually, we may tire of that music’s predictability and may begin to wonder why we were so attracted the first time.

Were there only these extremes — the obviously obscure and the merely obvious — we might not worry so about the role of classical music in our culture. A few people would crave a tough challenge for the sake of a tough challenge, and others would yearn for a balm to temporarily insulate them from the realities of life. The two groups would go their ways, blissfully unaware of each other.

But there is also a magnificent and large body of music that fills the enormous distance between these two extremes, music that grabs us the first time we hear it and then reveals more and more with each encounter. It is this music that bridges the extremes of the tough and the facile, and that actually allows many of us to be both engaged by the impenetrability of Milton Babbitt and enchanted by the sensuality of Ottorino Respighi. Like the most facile music, this large body of music in the middle invites us in, sparking our imagination, metabolism, and emotion. And like the most gnarly music, it hits us with the unexpected, rewarding the mind and heart with a deeper journey each time we return. Despite the music’s surface appeal, it reveals itself slowly over time through our concentration, openness, and patience — qualities increasingly in short supply. It is the future of this broad center of the musical spectrum that should concern us.

Even among these many compositions that stretch between the transparent and the opaque lie numbers of unusual works that, paradoxically, fully embrace both extremes. They come to us with great appeal, and they reward our continued interest with their subtleties, complexities, and depths.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Schubert’s Die Winterreise, Stravinky’s Le sacre du printemps, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro — might these be among those extraordinary creations with which we immediately connect and whose depths ultimately prove immeasurable? Whether these are the most apt examples, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor must stand near the pinnacle of such an unusual family. The first time we hear it, the Mass overwhelms us with its openness. Its heart lies exposed, neither impenetrable nor baffling. Then, when we return to it, tomorrow or next year, it never fails to overwhelm us with its unfathomable depth. Increasingly, it is our own hearts that are laid open by this music. This is music that changes lives, that provokes passion.

That the Mass in B minor leads such an unusual group could be surprising. Unlike the Beethoven Ninth, which carries a “we are one” belief, the Mass in B minor is a bold testament of a particular theology, an enormous prayer conceived to speak to a specific audience. Even within Christian doctrine, however, its power is unexpected, because this Catholic Mass was created by a Lutheran. So, one might expect that the doors to this work would be closed to those unresponsive to Lutheranism, Catholicism, or any at least some strain of Christianity. But the power of the B minor Mass has proven to reach far beyond the specific religious tenets from which it arose. Of all of Bach’s religious works, the B minor Mass creates the most generous room for anyone, religious or not. Though driven by a specific theology, the Mass offers its heart of love, suffering and redemption to all — without preaching, without judgment, and without demanding adherence to a particular set of beliefs. It is catholic.

The absence of a narrative, such as propels the Saint Matthew and Saint John passions, may contribute to the appeal of the B minor Mass. The lack of narrative may also prompt us to focus on the music’s exquisite and fascinating architecture. But there also are aspects even of the work’s design that could make this work an unexpected leader for this unique group of compositions. Mozart composed his four-act Figaro in a fury of inspiration, perhaps in fewer than ten weeks. Stravinsky invented the materials for his Sacre, tooling them and the whole ballet as if creating the finest, most delicate mechanism. And Beethoven pounded at the material for his Choral Symphony as a sculptor would, until its powerful form began to emerge. But the creation of the B minor Mass fits none of these models. Bach did not so much compose the Mass as assemble it, often reworking movements from cantatas and other music from throughout his compositional life that could serve the needs of the Mass. Only one movement, the Confiteor, shows indisputable evidence of having been composed specifically for this enormous compendium of his life’s work. It is amazing that such a piecemeal method, one quite the opposite of composing in a single thrust of inspiration, could produce a work of such extraordinary unity.

We can see (though seldom feel) an academic quality to the music, as if the composer were demonstrating his consummate abilities in the widest range of styles. That he was displaying his skills we are certain, at least as concerns the Kyrie and Gloria, for Bach presented these portions to Friederich August II, the new Elector of Saxony, in 1733, in an attempt to elevate his position as the Leipzig Thomasschule Kantor. (Never in the history of employment has there likely been a more dramatic case of overqualification.) But the intellectual rigor even of the fugues and complex choruses never impedes their emotional force. After all, the most rigorous works of Bach, including not only the Mass but also Clavier-Übung III and The Art of Fugue, have emotional strength rarely surpassed by other composers’ more overtly expressive music.

In borrowing from and reworking his own music, Bach consistently sharpened the dramatic impulse and musical purpose of the extant material. One such “parody” movement, the Crucifixus, may serve as an example. He crafted this movement, the spiritual heart of the Symbolum Nicenum from a chorus from thirty years earlier, the first section of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 12, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.” This was music that embodied all the characteristics required for this moment of greatest darkness and suffering, and its text, “Weeping, wailing, worry, fearing, anguish and need are the Christian’s bread-of-tears that carry the marks of Jesus,” is a spectral memory of the newer version.

His lowering the tonality of the Crucifixus by a minor second was necessary to keep the movement tied to its tonal surroundings. But changing the key from F minor to E minor also changed a flat key, which in Bach’s music associates with human sorrow, to a key of one sharp, which associates with the Cross (the German word Kreuz meaning both “cross” and “sharp”—#, for clear visual reasons) carries its own dramatic-theological implication. To the original, plain orchestration, Bach added two otherworldly and lowly flutes that pulsate in slow alternation with the upper strings. The four voice parts, in weeping gestures, enter first in descending, sinking order—soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and then in a shape that vividly describes the extremities of the cross—tenor, soprano, bass, alto:

Bach takes advantage of the cantata’s original lines that painfully creep over the unvarying instrumental bass line, but he also alters some details so that they now describe cross shapes; at one point, with the change of just one pitch, Bach bends the soprano line into an explicit cruciform.

Bach: Cantata BWV 12 (Soprano)
Bach: Crucifixus (soprano)

Both the chorus from Cantata 12 and the Crucifixus rest upon a ground bass—an unvarying, repeating bass line pattern—that descends chromatically and restarts every four measures. The cantata bass line moves in broad half notes, but the Crucifixus line pulsates more intensely, like a slow heartbeat. In the Mass, this inexorable ground bass implies the Crucifixion’s centrality to Christianity, and the voices, trying to tear themselves from the inescapable, wail and twist on their own tortured path.

Bach: Cantata BWV 12 (ground bass)
Bach: Crucifixus (ground bass)

There are thirteen iterations of this four-measure unit, a number likely referring to the twelve Disciples and Jesus. With the pattern’s last return, the flutes, violins and violas fall silent, the voices hover tenuously above the bass line, and the music sinks into the grave. In these last four measures, the bass line loses its rigid shape, thus violating the musical expectation that a ground bass never change, and the inevitable gives way to the unprecedented.

Throughout his composition of the Mass, Bach gave enormous attention not only to the expressive and dramatic power of the individual movements’ details, but also to the strength and vitality of the largest design. In assembling the entire Credo for his final version, he reshaped its internal structure by removing the text Et incarnatus est from an earlier version of the aria/duet Et in unum Deum, by re-composing this duet now without those words, and by composing a new, separate movement for chorus that includes the removed text. His purpose was clear. By reshaping this way, he created a symmetrical design at the center of which lies the Crucifixus.

From its details to its largest conception, Bach’s magisterial musical-religious creation never fails to sweep us up in its vividness: the painful intensity of the first Kyrie, both stern and impassioned...the gracefully imploring Christe that dances on lithe feet…the contorted second Kyrie that gradually unknots into spun silk...the breathtaking transformation of the Et in terra pax, its winged ecstasy lifting humility into triumphant song...the Domine Deus flute tripping along without burden, but then finding itself wandering forlornly through the Qui tollis...the intimate and self-effacing dance of the Qui sedes...and the regal bearing of the Quoniam that thrusts into the Cum Sancto Spiritu, whose delirious exultation leaps out of its own bounds.

Or a Credo that, for all its objectivity, cannot avoid a giddiness that exceeds propriety, and whose exuberance spills over into an uninhibitedly modern Patrem (with remnants of “Credo” remaining). Or the airborne Et in unum Dominum and, later, the Et in spiritum, in which the oboes d’amore endearingly wind around the baritone that reaches higher and higher...the layered, closely figured part-writing of the Confiteor, in which all the voice parts confidently vie for attention but, suddenly, in the face of the mystery of eternal life, cower in overwhelming doubt. And then—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye—the igniting glimpse of life beyond this world. In the Sanctus, the seraphim’s grand six wings hovering over all (the chorus now in six parts) and the choirs of angels and those on earth beginning to swing smilingly...all dancing their Osanna in refreshing simplicity, and the orchestra’s wordless, aristocratic dance proudly carrying the day...the aching and arching Benedictus whose flute roulades recall the angels’ blinding light that now burns with calm radiance. And, the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem that stand together at the close, the private becoming universal, anguish giving way to peace, doubt finally and forever releasing into hope.

It is the intersection of emotional nakedness and powerful musical imagination that draws us back again and again. With each hearing of the Mass in B minor, we uncover new layers in the large and the small, and we begin to sense how Bach’s profound reading of the words inspired and freed his already unmatched skill. But every new observation, thought, or feeling opens more questions; the more we hear and feel, the more we understand that there is more to hear and feel. The paradox is welcome.