The Hong Kong Bach Choir and Orchestra will mark its 40th anniversary with a star-studded performance of Bach’s seminal Mass in B Minor.
Described by one critic as “the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor is widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of music, a universal work treasured for its artistic value regardless of its religious meaning.
Joining the Bach Choir on stage is an impressive line up of international soloists – soprano Sylvia Schwartz, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, tenor Christoph Genz and baritone Stephan Loges.
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There are few if any musical paradoxes to compare to it. We know it as the B-minor Mass, but its direction and eventual destination is D major. Its text is associated with Roman Catholic liturgy, but it was created by a devout Lutheran at a time when the memory of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in Germany was still fresh, and German states were officially either Catholic or Lutheran. It may never have been intended by its composer to be performed at all, let alone complete in one sitting. And though we view it and hear it today as a single, large-scale, continuous work, it was compiled from a variety of sources – most of them not written originally as movements for a mass – over a span of 25 years.
At the heart of Johann Sebastian Bach’s vast oeuvre lie his more than 200 sacred cantatas. In Leipzig, where he lived for the last 27 years of his life, his weekly obligation was the direction of a cantata – divided into two parts, one before and one after the sermon – as a vital portion of the service in the city’s three main churches. While he sometimes performed works by others, during his first three years there he industriously labored to create a catalogue of original cantatas appropriate for each Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran church calendar. (This was necessary because Cöthen, his previous post, was a Calvinist town that forbade concerted music in the liturgy; there was no choral tradition and no full-size organ. Bach was responsible only for secular instrumental music there.) Only after he’d prepared, week by week, three sets of cantatas so that he would always have useful works at his disposal, did Bach begin to turn his attention to other avenues of musical expression.
Among these were works that might seem to us to be oddities: compositions in Latin whose texts are familiar from the Roman Catholic liturgy but today have no place in Protestant rites, at least in the original language. But although one of the foundations of Lutheran doctrine is the use of the vernacular instead of Latin (or Greek), in Saxony, at least, on certain holidays texts that were Roman Catholic in origin were sung in the original even in Protestant churches. These included the Magnificat and several portions from the Mass: the Kyrie and Gloria (known as the “Missa” or “Missa brevis”), and the Sanctus.
For his first Christmas in Leipzig, in 1723, Bach composed a Magnificat (BWV 243a), which he revised ten years later to produce the version frequently heard today. In 1724, his Christmas offering was a Sanctus, the first part of what we now know as the B-minor Mass to be written. Then, in 1733, the Elector of Saxony – Augustus II (“the Strong”) – died; in his memory Bach composed a Kyrie, followed soon afterward by a Gloria to celebrate the accession of Augustus’ successor Augustus III. This now-complete “Missa” or “Missa brevis” proved useful when Augustus converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne of Poland. Bach, frustrated in Leipzig, presented a copy to the Elector-King, hoping to be appointed court composer. One year later he wrote a cantata (Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215) to honor Augustus’ name-day; he re-used its first movement for the Osanna of our Mass.
From these details we can see that the “B-minor Mass” is not a single composition but a compilation of disparate pieces collated to comprise an entire setting of the “ordinary” of the mass – those texts that are fixed and don’t vary according to the occasion, and are the sections traditionally set by composers as a “Missa longa” or “Missa solemnis.” At some point in the late 1740s Bach decided to combine his existing mass movements with newly composed pieces, as well as revisions of earlier cantata movements such as the previously-mentioned one for Augustus III, fitted to new texts (a musical practice called “parody,” without any burlesque intended), to form a full-fledged Mass – a work that in its entirety no longer has any place in Lutheran worship but is entirely Roman Catholic. Yet the entire B-minor Mass, which in performance can last more than two hours, is far too vast in scale and length to permit its use in an actual Catholic service. Why, then, did Bach (a practical composer if ever there was one, as well as a devout Protestant) put it together?
The answer may lie in Bach’s view of himself and his place in history. He undoubtedly saw himself as the last great exemplar of the high Baroque in music (though “Baroque” was a term not yet in common currency). During his lifetime he was famed as an organist and for his keyboard improvisations but as a composer was more often viewed as a stodgy anachronism. However, in his chosen role as guardian of the standards he’d inherited, from early in his career until the end of his life Bach assembled sets of works in all the forms that he cultivated, in order to show the gamut of what was possible in that style. And while it is unlikely that he intended any of these sets to be performed in a single program (as they sometimes are today), Bach nevertheless ensured internal coherence within them through his organization of the tonal relationships (the sequence of keys) among the individual works in each set. Among these are the Brandenburg Concertos, the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, the solo cello Suites, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue… and the B-minor Mass.
As with the Art of Fugue – the other major achievement of his last years, whose score offers no indications concerning instrumentation – there is no evidence that Bach ever intended the B-minor Mass to be performed at all, or at least as a single entity. Though the work is too lengthy to permit its use as a whole in Catholic ritual, even so the notion of performing such sacred music in concert (where its sheer length is less of an issue) would have been incomprehensible to him, in whole or in part. And nowhere in the manuscript is there an overall title; instead, four sections, each with its own title page – “Missa,” “Symbolum Nicenum,” “Sanctus,” and “Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem” – are bound together. It would seem that Bach’s compilation of it into a single bound manuscript was simply a matter of convenience, perhaps combined with a mania for completion, for didactic thoroughness.
The work as a whole is an impossibility, yet it exists, and what is most astonishing, given the circumstances of its creation and the 25 years between the original Sanctus and the completion of the whole, is its coherence and perfection as a single, unbroken span. Not least significant is the fact that Bach wrote his customary “Soli Deo Gloria” (Glory to God alone) only at the end of the Dona nobis pacem, not at the end of each movement as he normally would have had he considered it a separate piece. Far more important, however, is the magnificently coherent sequence of tonality that Bach show us: Beginning in B-minor, we travel gradually yet inexorably, via a cleverly planned route of related keys, from darkness to the brilliant light of D major. It is as if Bach were able to imagine some future time when such a work might be heard, and therefore strove to devise out of its many parts an indivisible unity.
I can think of no more universal art work than this monumental, utterly impractical setting of the Roman Catholic Eucharist by a devout Lutheran who was the greatest composer of his, or perhaps any other, time. As an ecumenical statement it has few parallels and no equals. Its implicit message of tolerance is one that needs to be heard and re-heard, in every generation and in every part of the world.
- Jerome Hoberman -
Papageno at La Monnaie