The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.
Hailed by Bach expert Christoph Wolff as Bach’s “musical and artistic creed,” the Mass in b minor is deservedly considered one of the most innovative and insightful works in the history of classical music. Yet in spite of its frequent performances and the extensive amount of time and attention music scholars, performers, conductors, and audiences have given to this work, it remains in many ways shrouded in mystery. Bach composed the mass over twenty-five years, amalgamating numerous musical styles and recycling many of his earlier compositions into it. Yet while Mass in b minor was completed in 1749, shortly before Bach’s death, the composition was kept relatively private within the Bach family; the score was not published until 1845, and the first known performance took place over a century later, in 1859.
The unclear nature of the work’s origins invites any number of questions. How did Bach want the work to be performed? Why do we now call this piece Mass in b minor when Bach himself never gave the work a title, and when his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in fact referred to his father’s work as the Great Catholic Mass (not to mention that only a small fraction of the work is written in the key of b minor)? Why did Bach, by all accounts a committed Lutheran, set the text of a Catholic mass? Why does Bach set the text of that mass at such length, creating a two-hour musical piece that would surely never be performed in the context of religious liturgy?
These questions really all just add up to one big question: What is Bach communicating through this work?
Given Bach wrote the piece over a time span of twenty-five years, refining it through to the end of his life, it can easily be understood as a form of musical summation. The Mass offers a reflection on his career and on musical style that offers, to use Maestro Vallée’s terms, an “encyclopedia” of Bach’s compositional practice and of European music history more broadly. Mass in b minor brings together the counterpoint, fugue, polyphony, and chorale writing that formed some of the hallmarks of Bach’s compositional styles, but the Mass joins them together with numerous other influences, including chamber music and Italian and French operatic vocal and instrumental writing. As Daniel Melamed has observed in his extensive scholarship on Bach, it was not uncommon for church music in the eighteenth century to incorporate popular and secular styles. What is unique to Bach, however, is the composer’s synthesis, his bringing together of “old-fashioned and fundamentally vocal” sixteenth- and seventeenth-century style church music together with “stylistic transplants from the chamber and the theater.” Arguably, the resolving and reconciliation of these musical styles is part of what Mass in b minor is about.
Yet there is still the mystery of the text itself, and the ways in which the richness, duration, diversity, and complexity of Bach’s music seems to at times imply more meanings or interpretations than the relatively brief, standardized text of the Catholic mass allows. One might wonder if Bach is using the mass’s words as a means of expressing something else, offering his listeners through his music some sort of statement or spiritual insight that isn’t found in the text. I would argue that, just as Bach’s music resolves musical styles, it tries to resolve the expression and the experience of faith itself. Or, put another way, perhaps Bach meant for his music to transcend the specificity of the text, sacred as it is, to instead invoking and represent faith and divinity in ways that can’t be comprehended in words.
While we can speculate and even try to make informed guesses as to Bach’s meaning, there are, ultimately, no answers – at least not definitive ones – to the questions Mass in b minor raises. But when I try to reflect on these questions, I keep coming to the same conclusion, if not an answer: as with any other sacred mystery, it’s not fully for us to know. The reward isn’t to be found in knowing, but rather in experiencing and sitting with the questions themselves, and all that they and Bach might have to teach us.
Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Daniel R. Melamed, Listening to Bach: The Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).