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8.557448-49 - BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (Muller-Bruhl)
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor

Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of a family that had for generations been occupied in music. His sons were to continue the tradition, providing the foundation of a new style of music that prevailed in the later part of the eighteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach himself represented the end of an age, the culmination of the Baroque in a magnificent synthesis of Italian melodic invention, French rhythmic dance forms and German contrapuntal mastery.

Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach was educated in music largely by his eldest brother, after the early death of his parents. At the age of eighteen he embarked on his career as a musician, serving first as a court musician at Weimar, before appointment as organist at Arnstadt. Four years later he moved to Mühlhausen as organist and the following year became organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. Securing his release with difficulty, in 1717 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and remained at Cöthen until 1723, when he moved to Leipzig as Cantor at the School of St Thomas, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches. Bach was to remain in Leipzig until his death in 1750.

As a craftsman obliged to fulfil the terms of his employment, Bach provided music suited to his various appointments. It was natural that his earlier work as an organist and something of an expert on the construction of organs, should result in music for that instrument. At Cöthen, where the Pietist leanings of the court made church music unnecessary, he provided a quantity of instrumental music for the court orchestra and its players. In Leipzig he began by composing series of cantatas for the church year, later turning his attention to instrumental music for the Collegium Musicum of the University, and to the collection and ordering of his own compositions.

The Latin Mass had continued in use in the larger Lutheran churches of Germany, at least where Pietist changes had not taken root. By the time of Bach it was principally the Kyrie and Gloria that were retained. Nevertheless it has been suggested that the four shorter Latin Mass settings, BWV 233-236, were written probably in the later 1730s in Leipzig either for the Catholic court of Dresden or for a possible Bohemian patron, Count Sporck. The Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor were written in 1733, making some use of earlier material, and dedicated to the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, when Bach visited Dresden, presenting at the same time a petition for a court title that might serve to protect him in Leipzig from some of the insults that he claimed he suffered in differences with the civic authorities. His request was not granted until 1736, after the death of a lesser patron, Duke Christian of Weissenfels, whom Bach had served as Kapellmeister von Haus aus, as he had from 1723 Prince Leopold. It is possible that the Kyrie and Gloria were performed in Dresden at the Sophienkirche, where Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s eldest son, had been appointed organist in 1733, or perhaps in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche to celebrate the accession of the new monarch. The remaining movements of the B minor Mass, the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, make considerable use of earlier works and were added to the original score of the Mass in the last years of the composer’s life, between 1747 and 1749.

The Mass opens with a monumental polyphonic setting of the Kyrie eleison, scored for two flutes, two oboes d’amore, bassoon, strings, continuo and five-part choir. The Christe eleison is a largely homophonic duet for two sopranos, with accompanying violins and basso continuo, and provides a serene relaxation of tension in key and mood. The second Kyrie is in four-part fugal style, the subject announced by the basses, followed by tenors, altos and sopranos in order, the voices doubled by instruments.

The atmosphere of mourning suggested in the Kyrie is dispelled by the celebratory Gloria in D major, with an instrumental ensemble that now includes three trumpets and timpani and five-part choir, its source possibly a lost concerto. This leads to an appropriately gentle setting of Et in terra pax, initially without trumpets or timpani. Laudamus te is set for solo soprano and solo violin, with strings and continuo, the violin weaving an elaborate obbligato. Gratias agimus tibi is taken from an earlier work, the Cantata BWV 29, Wir danken dir, Gott, an obviously suitable choice, the words now translated back into Latin. The cantata was composed for the inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council on 27th August 1731. This section of the Gloria, using the whole instrumental ensemble, is again a four-part fugal movement, the voices entering in ascending order. Solo flute and strings, with continuo, are used for the soprano and tenor duet Domine Deus. This moves without a pause into Qui tollis peccata mundi, a setting for five voices, flutes, strings and the ever-present continuo, taken from Cantata BWV 46 of 1723, Schauet doch und sehet (Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow). Qui sedes ad dextram Patris is an alto aria, with oboe d’amore obbligato, followed by the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus, with corno da caccia, two bassoons and continuo. Clarino trumpets return in all their brilliance for the final Cum Sancto Spiritu, with all the instrumental and choral resources in joyful praise.

The Credo, the Symbolum Nicenum or Nicene Creed, symmetrically designed, opens with a massive fugal Credo, based on the traditional Gregorian chant, set in seven parts, with five voices and two violins over a constantly stepping bass part. Other instruments are added for the succeeding and largely homophonic Patrem omnipotentem, adapted from Cantata BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, written in 1729. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum is a duet for soprano and alto, with the two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo while Et incarnatus est is accompanied by violins and continuo, as the voices enter in descending imitation, the violins embellishing the descending figure with appoggiature. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis calls for two flutes in addition to strings and continuo, with a poignant use of four-part chorus. The movement is in the form of a passacaglia, over a repeated chromatically descending bass figure, derived from a chorus from the Cantata BWV 171, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen of 1714. The jubilation of the resurrection is painted with the addition of trumpets and timpani to the full orchestra and five-part chorus for the words Et resurrexit tertia die, based, it is thought, on a lost concerto. The Creed continues with a bass aria, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, accompanied by two oboes d’amore and continuo, in a compound 6/8 metre. The five-part chorus returns in fugal form for Confiteor unum baptisma, with a steadily moving instrumental bassline. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum is derived from Cantata BWV 120, where the text declares Jauchzet ihr erfreuten Stimmen, a work originally written in 1728-9 for the inauguration of the Town Council.

The Sanctus, first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day 1724, uses a six-part choir, with divided sopranos and altos, in addition to an instrumental ensemble of three trumpets and timpani, three oboes, strings and continuo. It opens with a monumental Adagio, swinging in a triplet rhythm and moving forward to a livelier fugato at the words Pleni sunt coeli. The Osanna calls for a double chorus and is derived from Cantata BWV 215, Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, a work written for the first anniversary of the election of Friedrich August II as August III, King of Poland, in 1734, an apt choice of music originally in praise of a secular monarch for praise of the King of Heaven, involving a full instrumental ensemble in which flutes are now included. The Benedictus opens as a tenor aria, with flute obbligato, its ritornello passages in a contrasted triple rhythm. The Osanna is then repeated.

The Agnus Dei is based on Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben, from Cantata BWV 11, the Ascension Oratorio, written for Ascension Day 1735. It is in the form of an alto aria with violins and basso continuo and is followed by a Dona nobis pacem for four-part choir and full instrumental forces, using again the music of Gratias agimus, from the Gloria, a conclusion that some have found unsatisfactory, although the words on both occasions seem equally appropriate. This, one of the greatest of choral works, ends with both thanks to God and a prayer for peace.

Keith Anderson


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