Listening Log- [Pt. V- Proj.2]- Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor. BWV 232

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor. BWV 232

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232

When deciding which of Johann Sebastian Bach’s () works to take a closer look at I was faced with such a huge catalogue of important works, all of which would take a life time to study properly, that I was frozen in indecision for quite some time. Aside from attending several concerts and listening to his fugal writing in the well-tempered clavier and to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations I finally settled on the Mass in B minor, BWV 232. My rationale for this choice was manifold but the main reason was that it encompasses so many of the vocal writing styles of the Baroque era.

Mass in B minor was composed over a number of years and finally completed in Leipzig in 1749. It was Bach’s only complete Mass Ordinary (one of the Latin masses). The purpose of Bach’s setting the music to this Catholic mass is unclear, some speculating it was intended for the Dresden court. Bach was the official court composer to the catholic Augustus III and undoubtedly did have an occasion in mind, but he never got to see it performed while he was alive since it wasn’t premiered until 1859 after his death.

The work is a numbered Mass and starts off in B minor like the name suggests, but not all the movements or sections are in B minor. There are several in D Major (the relative key) and some in F # minor, A Major, A Mixolydian, E minor and G Major. The mass is divided into the usual sections of the Latin Ordinary;

I. Kyrie and Gloria (the Lutheran Missa)

II. Credo (Symbolum Nicenum)

III. Sanctus (for 6 voices SSAATB)

IV. Osanna (scored for two SATB Choirs), Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem (after which Bach signed his S.D.G, Soli Deo Gloria)

These sections are then subdivided into smaller sections all totalling 27 distinct parts. The Mass is scored for two SATB Choirs and two solos (2 sopranos), three trumpets, corno da caccia, two transverse flutes, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, bassoons, two violins, viola, timpani and continuo.

In an attempt to illustrate a symbolic heavenly symmetry Bach placed the ‘Credo’ section in the middle of the Mass and the ‘Cruxifixus’ at the centre of it, mimicking a ‘divine’ architectural church design. The opening of the ‘Credo’ and two of its subsections ‘Confiteor’ and ‘Et incarnates est’ were the only newly written parts. The rest of the material was parodied from his own earlier work, for example his Christmas ‘Sanctus’ movement of 1724 and Lutheran ‘Missa’ of 1733 and of other popular music of the time. It is also interesting that it is in the Credo and Confiteor that Bach uses the Renaissance ‘stile antico’. There is extensive counterpoint and polyphony in ‘Confiteor’ and a Gregorian chant is used as a cantus firmus. Gregorian chant is also used as a theme in the fugal ‘Credo’. The choice of the older style at the centre of the Mass must surely be deliberate and symbolic?

However, the majority of the movements are in the ‘Stile moderno’ consisting of concertante with arias, recits, ritornellos, galant styles, Lombard rhythms, dances, word painting, double choruses, 6-part choruses, covering the widest range imaginable of Baroque vocal writing forms.

I particularly enjoy the opening Kyrie I which starts with a homophonic vocal part, developing into a fugal (strings and winds) section which is then joined by fugal vocal writing in five parts entering in the order of T, A, S1, S2, B. The theme ‘Praise and petition to God’ consists of a repeated note motif and a rising ‘sighing’ motif and rises in sequence 3 times before ending on a big leap of a 7th. The second fugal section follows the same structure but starts from a lower range in the bass and rises slowly from there. The main theme is repeated 19 times interspersed by 8 instrumental episodes. I definitively sense the strong element of ‘praising’ and when the vocal parts reach the higher register, they absolutely soar.

Another movement that makes a lasting emotional impression on me is ‘Et in terra pax’. It is in D Major and in common time. It is also one of the sections which starts homophonic-ally and then develops fugally. The theme rises in stepwise motion and the subject/countersubject follow each other closely, in an ‘echo like’ fashion. Towards the end of the section the vocals, violins and violas are joined by trumpets lifting the atmosphere to one of elation.

From the ‘Credo’ part of the Mass I am particularly taken by the mysterious ‘Et Incarnatus Est’ (And was incarnate) and the central piece of the Mass, the ‘Crucifixus’. ‘Et Incarnatus Est’ is supposedly one of Bach’s last compositions and depicts the elevation of the virgin Mary utilising upward triads in the voices, whilst the humiliation of God (leading towards crucifixion) is illustrated by descending violin figures. The descent leads into ‘Crucifixus’ which is in E minor and 3/2. Crucifixus carries on the slow, hushed and mournful downward semitone step motion in the vocals.  Accompanied by violins, 2 violas, bassoon and Continuio. The melodic theme, which occurs on top of a ground bass repeated 13 times, is characterised by chromaticism and dissonance all lending this section a deep sense of pain and suffering. Eventually the vocal parts reach their lowest range of the Crucifixus and then ends at a very soft dynamic.

Mass in B minor is a monumental work in both its scope and historic significance. It is an anthology of so many Baroque vocal styles and could easily serve as a text book example or teaching manual for composing in these styles. It is utterly beautiful, hugely varied and immensely important.