Bach B Minor Mass Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concert on Mar 26, 2014 – Mass in B Minor – at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning.  Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

There have always been questions and confusion about the reasons behind the composition of the Mass in B Minor by J.S. Bach. Why would a Lutheran church composer based in Leipzig write a high Roman Catholic Mass? Bach actually composed a total of five masses. In the Lutheran church of Bach’s day, it was an accepted practice to employ just the opening two movements of the Catholic Mass. So there are the four short “Lutheran” masses by Bach containing just the Kyrie and Gloria sections. These Masses – in G major, G minor, A major and F major were all composed for Lutheran church services. But what about the B minor Mass – a full-scale Catholic Mass, where the Kyrie and Gloria alone take up an hour? This is a choral work so huge in scope and scale that it would never have found a practical place in any church service – Lutheran or Roman Catholic. The answer is revealed by Bach’s own conception and approach to music.

To Bach, music was a hobby and a love, as well as a vocation. He was a scholar of music as well as a gifted performer and composer. Bach pored over scores of the old masters that preceded him, and was very knowledgeable about their styles, techniques, methods and talents. He was also very aware of what and how his contemporaries across Europe were composing. As he grew older, it seems that Bach became more and more interested in leaving examples of his musical art to the future. The Art of The Fugue is one obvious example, but the B Minor Mass is another. It’s a kind of source book of the state of Mass composition at the mid-point of the 18 th century – a specimen book, a manual or a How -To guide. Many great composers before Bach had composed masses, and it’s not surprising that Bach himself wanted to try his hand at it, and make his own contribution to the great legacy and tradition of the musical mass. He never heard the work performed during his lifetime, and he may have never intended it to be performed as a whole.

With this knowledge and love of earlier and contemporary musical worlds, Bach employed a mixture of styles and techniques in the B Minor Mass. There are sections that clearly show the influence of earlier music from the Renaissance, from nationalities as diverse as German, Italian and Flemish, using a variety of musical forms, including the da capo aria from Baroque operas. On a simple basic level, the Mass in B Minor contains some wonderful melodies, imaginative harmonies and exciting rhythms. On another level lies the genius of Bach as a composer and his incredible talent for creating complex musical forms, like the contrapuntal fugue. Scratch away another level and you find all kinds of symbolism in the music – musical symbols and metaphors that strengthen the meaning of his faith and the feelings and emotions they create.

Bach assembled the B Minor Mass in a piecemeal fashion over a period of about twenty-five years, between 1724 and 1749. Much of it was culled from previous music he had composed and then re-worked. And yet it is unbelievable how concise and well-designed it is. It’s very unified, as if he wrote the entire mass in one sitting.

Throughout his life, Bach was always on the lookout to improve his status as a composer, so in 1733 he sent just the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the mass to the new Elector of Saxony in Dresden. Three years later, Bach did receive a new title from the Elector, able to fulfill the requirements while maintaining his job in Leipzig with only occasional trips to Dresden.

The Mass in B Minor is a crowning peak of Bach’s sacred music and one of the greatest musical creations of all time. Of all his many works, his use of his faith as a powerful stimulus and inspiration is perhaps nowhere better illustrated. Maybe the early 19 th century Swiss music critic Hans-Georg Nageli said it best when he called the mass, “The greatest work of music of all ages and of all peoples.”

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, reviewer, lecturer, concert host and musical tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.