Bach Mass in B-minor
March 14 and March 21, 2015
Celebrating Musica Sacra's 55th Anniversary
Join Musica Sacra for a work widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements of classical music. This performance will feature soloists Teresa Wakim, Soprano; Douglas Dodson, Countertenor; Eric Christopher Perry, Tenor; and Bradford Gleim, Baritone.
“ The great choral movements [of Bach’s Mass in B minor] ... proved the focus and high purpose of Musica Sacra; its admirable handling of exotic harmony and tight-woven counterpoint would have had any choral conductor weeping in gratitude.” — Boston Globe
- First Church Congregational
- 11 Garden Street
- Cambridge, MA
- More details
For tickets to Musica Sacra's performance on March 21 in Gloucester, MA, please visit their website or call (978) 283-3410.
Concert Program Notes
Musica Sacra is thrilled to share with you the experience of Johann Sebastian Bach's glorious b minor Mass. In my experience there is no piece like it; Bach's masterful writing, much of it for chorus, presents over a span of one hour and fifty minutes a profound statement of one man's faith and a vision of humanity in all of its frailties and aspirations. Filled with beautiful melodies and virtuosic composition, it speaks to the heart while astounding the mind.
Bach composed the first half of the Mass, the Kyrie and Gloria, in 1733, for the Dresden court of the new Saxon Elector and King of Poland, in a successful attempt to be named as a member of the Dresden Court Cappelle. This part of the Mass, together with the Sanctus, comprised the Ordinary of the mass, or that part of the mass common to all holy days, as celebrated by the Lutheran Church. In the Catholic Church, the Credo, Osanna, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei constituted the rest of the Ordinary. Bach had composed his Sanctus in 1724 for Christmas; the remaining movements, with three exceptions, he borrowed and amended as needed from his own earlier works. In doing so, Bach created a representation of his finest compositions which, because of their Latin setting and conformation to the Catholic Ordinary, would have a universality not possible for his German cantatas. He was successful in this venture, for even though the Mass in B Minor was never performed in its entirety during Bach's lifetime, its reputation spread in the years following his death, partly due to the efforts of his son, C.P.E. Bach to disseminate copies of the manuscripts throughout Europe. The Mass came to the attention of Beethoven, who tried assiduously to get a copy of it. It was not until 1829 that the piece was performed in its entirety. This in itself was atypical; although today we are quite used to hearing compositions from the past, during this era the rule of performance could be summarized by the phrase "if it isn't new, it isn't played." From the time of that first performance to this day, Bach's Mass has remained in the forefront of the musical repertory, attesting to its paramount ability to communicate human emotions and spiritual meaning through music.
The Mass in B Minor exemplifies Bach's prodigious musical talent both as an artist and a craftsman and as a philosopher concerned with studying the human condition. As a musician, Bach loved to set himself challenges and meet them; each movement's sophisticated harmony and polyphony attest to that. Bach's astonishingly complex sense of form—within a movement, within a section, and within the work as a whole—reveals itself fully in this work.
The evolution of the Credo provides a case in point. Initially Bach set it in eight movements. In what may have been his last piece of choral writing, he composed the choral movement Et incarnatus est by excising that text from the previous duet sung by soprano and alto, thereby creating a nine-movement creed. Nine is significant spiritually: as 3 times 3 it makes a clear reference to the Holy Trinity. In this nine-movement Credo, the Crucifixus takes the central position, illustrating the centrality of Christ's crucifixion to the doctrine of the Christian faith. Musically, the addition of a ninth movement creates a palindromic form: four outer movements—choral and fugal—enclose movements for solo voices—one for soprano and alto duet and one for baritone—which in turn embrace the three inner choral movements. These three inner movements set the text at the core of Christian theology:
[Christ] was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
Finally, in the Mass as a totality, the Crucifixus is now equidistant from the two movements that are musically identical: Gratias agimus tibi and Dona nobis pacem.
Bach was fascinated by numerology, and many articles written about the Mass in B Minor address the significance of the number of measures of a particular movement, the number of entries in various fugues, and the number of repetitions of a basso ostinato. Not only did the creation of a distinct movement for the Et incarnatus est extend the Credo to 9 movements, it also extended the number of movements within the Mass to 27: which is 3 cubed. There are nine arias within the Mass, where 9 represents 3 x 3. Bach loved to embed his name musically (B-flat, A, C, B-natural, represented in German by the letter H) in fugue subjects, even though, or perhaps because, it created a maze of harmonic confusion, through which it would take a master to negotiate a way. Certainly Bach conveyed in musical terms the emotions inherent to the text; his writing is the apotheosis of this Baroque ideal. Most important, though, is the recognition that ultimately Bach was a man of great spirituality, who composed his music both to praise God and to reflect the despair and ecstasy inherent in the Christian faith and the human condition. Without sin and its agony, there can be no sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there can be no redemption. In this way Christians, Bach among them, understood the enormity of God's sacrifice of His only son.
It has been a great privilege for me to prepare and conduct the Mass in B Minor. My decision to pursue music as a career started with my love for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Our past three months have been a wonderful journey of discovery; tonight's performance draws on the knowledge we have accrued from our rehearsals and our research. My love for the music of Bach, however, draws upon the realization that the journey of discovery is never finished. Like the works in a great museum, the monument of this mass can never be fully assimilated. The participant visits often, takes in what he can, and leaves fulfilled.
© 2015 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.