With little over two weeks to go, we at the YPC are getting increasingly excited about our first concert back in the newly refurbished Wakefield Cathedral, Bach’s B Minor Mass.
The Kyrie and Gloria for the Mass in B minor were composed in 1733, when a period of mourning for Friedrich August I, the Elector of Saxony, temporarily relieved Bach of the obligation to prepare and direct cantatas and a Passion at Leipzig. These two formed what was then known as a ‘Missa’, which was used in Lutheran services, even though the words were in Latin. However, the Latin words and their Catholic origins made the work entirely suitable for presentation to the new Catholic Elector, Friedrich August II, and this Bach did in July 1733, with a petition expressing the hope that His Royal Highness would look favourably upon ‘this insignificant example of the skill that I have acquired in musique’ and might appoint him to a position at court. Sadly for Bach, the petition was unsuccessful.
The complete Mass in B minor as we now know it was not compiled until the final years of Bach’s life – probably not until around 1749 – and Malcolm Boyd suggests that it was compiled “probably as a monument rather than with any performance in mind.” Certainly its sheer size makes it totally impractical for liturgical use. For parts of the Credo – which Bach preferred to call the Symbolum Nicenum – he used music from earlier cantatas. Patrem omnipotentem uses material from BWV171 (probably composed around 1729), Crucifixus draws on BWV12 (of 1714) and Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum uses music from BWV120 (of 1728/9). Indeed, Malcolm Boyd suggests, it seems quite possible that “the only original sections are Credo in unum Deum and Confiteor unum baptisma, both of them five-part stile antico settings incorporating plainchant.” For the Sanctus Bach used a six-part setting which he had written for Christmas 1724, and he completed the work with an Osanna which draws on BWV215 (of 1734), an Agnus Dei which uses material from BWV11 (of 1735) and Dona nobis pacem which repeats the music he’d earlier used for Gratias agimus.
However it came into being, the result is one of the finest pieces of choral music in existence, which has been described as “a conscious summing up of all his best work in the field of choral music – his legacy to posterity – much as the Art of the Fugue sums up his instrumental techniques.” Malcolm Boyd considers it “probably the finest setting of the Ordinary ever conceived”, which “raises fundamental questions about the nature of religious music.” He feels that “those for whom it represents a dedication to God of a whole world of human experience will not be duly disconcerted by its mixture of the near-galant and the deliberately archaic, by its juxtaposition of learned fugue and racy concerto textures, by its mingling of prayer with song and dance,” while those “for whom stylistic integrity is a sine qua non of the highest art, and for whom the setting of Et in Spiritum Sanctum in the Credo seems, more than anything in the short masses, to merit Schweitzer’s description as ‘perfunctory and quite nonsensical’, will continue to admire the B minor Mass for its parts while acknowledging that, as a unified religious and musical whole, it falls short of Bach’s supreme achievement in church music, the St. Matthew Passion.”