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Bach's Mass in B minor: an evangelical Catholic Testament.

Johann Sebastian Bach, the well-tempered composer, worked throughout his career for what he called "a well-ordered church music to the glory of God." (1) It was not always easy to achieve this goal because he often had to contend with church and city councils (they were one and the same) that did not always deliver what they promised, or pietist pastors and a rationalist rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig who believed that church music exists primarily to edify the congregation (Bach thought church music existed soli Deogloria--"to the glory of God alone"). But, as Bach was at the top of his craft as a musician, he also was an astute theologian in the orthodox Lutheran tradition. To obtain the job of cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig he had to pass not only a musical audition but also a theological examination (conducted in Latin) given by the theology faculty of the University of Leipzig on behalf of the ecclesiastical consistory. Indications are that he passed with flying colors. (2).

Bach was, in the words of Christoph Wolff, "the learned musician." Bach's personal library contained hundreds of musical scores and works on music theory. He also had an extensive theological library that included two editions of Martin Luther's complete works and biblical commentaries by orthodox Lutheran theologians. His copy of the Calov Bible of 1681 was well underlined and annotated. This gives us some idea of the study Bach did in preparation for composing his church cantatas. Considering the expense of books in those days, and that the Leipzig cantor bought them out of his own salary, we see how "learned" he actually was. Wolff comments that "for Bach, theological and musical scholarship were two sides of the same coin: the search for divine revelation.or the quest for God." (3) It is clear from this data that Bach took seriously the theological dimensions of his church office.

There has been a tendency in recent scholarship to back away from the nearly hagiographic assessment of Bach's life and work in former studies, such as the romantic studies of Philipp Spitta who established Bach as the supreme church musician (4) and Albert Schweitzer who pronounced Bach to be "the fifth evangelist." (5) This reassessment is especially prominent in the work of Friedrich Blume, who argued that Bach's application for the cantorship at Leipzig was strictly motivated by the desire to secure a university connection to advance the careers of his sons and that writing church music was "not an affair of the heart." (6)

Blume's revisionist views were countered by Gunther Stiller point by point.(7) Whatever Bach's sense of vocation may have been (church musician and just the best musician he could be), his profound spiritual conviction is the soul of his sacred works, and his genius may be called the perfect synthesis of music and theology. Nowhere is this genius better expressed than in the supreme legacy of his craft, the Mass in B minor.

The Mass is in a sense a retrospective of a lifetime's work. It is not the product of one inspired moment or of any one particular period of his life. Bach completed the Mass near the end of his life, between 1745 and 1750, the same period during which he composed such encyclopedic monuments as The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue. Several movements of the Mass were anthologized from earlier compositions. Other movements Bach composed at that time or, in typical Baroque fashion, adapted from other works he had written. There is no doubt that Bach intended the complete Mass to be an anthology of the different types of choral writing that had emerged during what we call the Baroque Period. Whether or not he intended it to be more than that--a theological testament--can be ascertained only from an analysis of the musical architecture and compositional decisions.

Bach never heard the Mass performed in its entirety. Possibly, he did not intend that it be performed on a single occasion. Like movements from The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Little Organ Book, Bach expected parts of the Mass to be used when appropriate (which would have been the case in the Lutheran liturgy, which combined Latin and German). Such was the case when his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach first performed the Credo in 1786. Although various other sections of the Mass were performed over the next sixty years, it was not until 1859, more than a century after Bach died, that the entire Mass was performed as a whole.

The Mass reveals its anthologized nature without sacrifice to its sense of unity or strength of identity. Bach wrote it in the Italian opera tradition, with numbered movements. His original manuscript divides the Mass into four major sections, similar to the sections in musical settings of the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary. The newly composed sections were the "Symbolum Nicenum" or Credo and the final section with the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona nobis pacem. The third section in the manuscript, the Sanctus, is the one Bach wrote first. It was composed in 1724 and performed many times during his life. The first section, titled "Missa" and comprising the Kyrie and Gloria, was first performed on April 12, 1733, as a Lutheran Mass during the festival of the Oath of Allegiance to Augustus III, upon his accession as Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Bach had submitted the Missa with Bach submitted the Missa with his request for a royal appointment as a way to gain some leverage over the city council of Leipzig and the rector of the Thomasschule, Johann August Ernesti, with whom he was quarreling at the time over the appointment of a prefect for the boys' choir of the Thomasschule (the Thomaschor). Bach believed that only musically capable students should sing in the Thomaschor; Ernesti thought that any boy should be able to sing who had an interest in doing so. At the heart of the conflict lay the differences between the orthodox and the Enlightenment views of the purpose of worship.(8) Was the purpose of worship primarily to glorify God or to edify the people? This "worship war" between two honorable men, the Thomas Rector and the Thomas Cantor, did not bring much honor to either of them.

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It also has been thought that Bach provided the Latin Missa to the elector because the elector, as king of Poland, was a Roman Catholic. His conversion to accept the Polish crown had been a scandal to his Lutheran subjects, and when the elector had a magnificent court chapel built for the Roman Rite the citizens of Dresden erected the more magnificent Fruenkirche (Church of our Lady). It is thought that Bach's Missa was performed there. We know that in 1736 Bach played the dedicatory concert on the Silbermann organ in the new Fruenkirche.

However, the two-movement Missa (Missa brevis) was in keeping with the Lutheran tradition in Saxony in which the other parts of the ordinary (the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) were sung by the congregation to the chorale versifications from Luther's German Mass. Thus, if Lutheran composers wrote Missae, they typically comprised only the Kyrie and Gloria. The Creed would have been chanted in Latin by the ministers or sung in Luther's German versification ("Wir glauben all an' einen Gott") by the congregation. The Sanctus might be omitted if there were no preface, and the "Lamb of God" would have been sung in a chorale version during communion. Bach composed four of these munion. Bach composed four of these "Lutheran masses" (BWV 233, 234, 235, 236). Each one is in six movements; five of those movements are for the Gloria. Thus, the 9-section Gloria in the Mass in B minor is a departure from Bach's usual treatment of this movement. This is a piece of musical architecture that we must consider in our theological analysis of the Mass.

The four major sections of the Mass are broken into sentences or phrases to give 26 independent movements. This fragmentation facilitated incorporation of previously composed movements into the new, larger work. Of the 17 choruses, nine are set for five voices (SSATB) in the Italian Baroque choral tradition: Kyrie I, Gloria, Et in terra pax, Cum sancto Spirito, Credo I, Et incarnatus, Et resurrexit, Confiteor, and Et expecto. Six are for four voices (SATB): Kyrie II, Gratias agimus, Qui tollis peccata mundi, Credo II, Crucifixus, and Dona nobis pacem. The Sanctus is set for six voices (SSAATB). The Osanna in excelsis is for two antiphonal four-voice choruses.

The Mass opens with the intense and momentous Kyrie eleison I, which establishes the gravitas of the Mass to follow. Having seen that Bach was willing to engage in politics to get his way (he made many efforts to gain the recognition of the elector by composing cantatas on royal birthdays and on anniversaries of the elector's accession to the Polish crown--Bach used the cantata for the Polish accession as music for the Osanna in excelsis of the Mass), we note that the opening homophonic bars are similar to the masses of the Polish composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, whose support Bach enlisted in pursuit of his petition to the royal court at Dresden. The tense opening Kyrie is followed by a gentle, comforting duet between two sopranos in the Christe eleison. The duet symbolizes the two natures of Christ: divine and human. Kyrie II, with its twisting, chromatic fugal subject and its syncopated entrances, is an eloquent plea for God's mercy.

The Gloria is a contrast to the Kyrie in sound and intent. Predominantly set in major keys, (9) it was originally a jubilant hymn of praise and thanksgiving in honor of Augustus III. The nine movements are arranged symmetrically and feature all five vocal soloists. Many parts of the Gloria are derived from other works. The opening of the Gloria is undoubtedly a portion of a lost instrumental concerto to which Bach later added the chorus. The "Gratias agimus tibi" is taken from the opening chorus of Cantata 29, Wir danken dir, Gott. And the "Qui tollis peccato mundi" is adapted from Cantata 46, Schauet doch und sehet. Bach not only borrowed from cantatas to compose the Gloria but also later refashioned the first two movements of the Gloria, its central "Domine Deus," and the final "Cum sancto Spirito" into Cantata 191, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Commentators have spoken about the architectural character of Bach's works. In the finished Mass, one of the most interesting aspects is the parallelism between the Gloria and the Credo. Each section contains nine movements. At the center of each movement is the crucifixion of Christ: the "Domine Deus" with its reference to Christ as the "lamb of God" ("Agnus Dei") and the "Crucifixus"--"And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried." The sacrificial lamb of God is the crucified Christ. The other pieces frame these sections on each side to form a palindrome. The most dramatic moment in the whole Mass is the contrast between the "Crucifixus" and "Et resurrexit" in the Credo, which captures the surprise of the resurrection. Some audiences have been jolted by the sudden blare of trumpets in the "Et resurrexit."

The Credo is put together from several sources. Credo I is built on the ancient plainsong Credo I is built on the ancient plainsong Credo melody. The penultimate movement of the Credo, the "Confiteor," is also based on a Gregorian chant. Thus, Bach reaches back through centuries of musical development to compile this mass. Credo II is adapted from Cantata 171, Gott wie dein Name. The "Crucifixus" is a passacaglia fabricated from the opening chorus of Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. The "Confiteor"--"I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins"--is a chorale fantasia, while the "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum," fashioned from Cantata 120, Jauchzet ihr erfreuten Stimmen, is written in a concerto form. In the "Confiteor" Bach focuses more on the forgiveness of sins than on the baptism, and hence the music is more somber than joyful. Then, as if not to disturb the reflection on the gift of forgiveness, the voices and strings move up to "Et expecto"--"And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." The melody of "Et expecto" is an echo of the "Resurrexit" in the second article of the Credo, suggesting that by raising Christ from the dead God had given hope to believers.

I would also note that, unlike some later composers of the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach doesn't skim over "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Bach was at home in the church. This section is set to a dancelike pastorale that suggests the pastoral or shepherding nature of the church.

The trumpets and the palette of solo instruments Bach uses in the Sanctus add splendor to the proclamation of the glory of the Lord God of hosts. The six voices suggest the six-winged creatures flying around the throne of God in Isaiah 6. The "Osanna in excelsis" can be found in an other form in Cantata 215, Preise dein Glucke, which, as already mentioned, was a cantata celebrating the accession of Augustus III to the Polish throne. And the Agnus Dei is an expansion of the alto aria from Cantata 11, The Ascension Oratorio.

The musical setting of the final chorus, "Dona nobis pacem," is the same as the "Gratias agimus tibi" in the Gloria. The repetition links the texts of these two movements, as if Bach considered the plea for peace to be a thanksgiving for that peace which the world cannot give. This peace is given by the risen and ascended Lord whom the bass soloist had proclaimed as "the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ most high" in the "Domine Deus" movement of the Gloria.

Bach might well have used the musical idiom in the closing of this Mass as a personal message, that in the eve of his own life he was grateful to have attained an almost mystical depth of inner peace, both within himself and with the rest of the universe. Schweitzer noted the difference at the point of the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei between Bach's B minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. For Beethoven, the symphonist, these two sections are the culminating point in the drama of the Mass as he conceives it; for Bach, who thinks in terms of the church, they are the point at which all dies slowly away. In Beethoven's Agnus Dei the cry of the pained and terrified soul for salvation is almost dreadful in its intensity; Bach's Agnus Dei is the song of the soul redeemed.(10)

Thus, at the end of his life when Bach was summing up his musical art and his theological convictions, the Mass in B minor becomes his spiritual testament. It is an evangelical catholic testament. Bach had no reason to choose to set to music the complete Roman Mass (as it would have been seen by his Lutheran contemporaries--Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach designated his father's work as "the Great Catholic Mass" in his posthumous 1790 index) other than to make a theological statement. If his interest was only in choosing a large form in which to demonstrate various styles of choral writing, he could have opted for other forms (e.g., the oratorio form used by Handel or his own passion oratorios). Instead, Bach used the catholic form of the mass of the ancient and medieval Western church but simultaneously infused this catholic form with the evangelical "rediscovery of the gospel" by the sixteenth-century reformers. Blume resisted the attempt to read specifically Lutheran theology into this Mass, but there is no doubt that it is Christ-centered. It dwells on the acts of God to accomplish the salvation of humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Mass moves moves from the plea for mercy in the Kyrie to the praise and thanksgiving of God the Holy Trinity for the gift of forgiveness in the Gloria to the confession of faith in the Credo to the worship and adoration of God in the Sanctus to the gift of peace in the Agnus Dei. This theological content does not need to be seen as exclusively Lutheran, but it is certainly "evangelical"--that is, gospel-centered.

Bach's very use of the catholic form may have served a contextual evangelical purpose. Being the orthodox Lutheran that he was, he never shied away from theological controversy. Against the rationalism of the emerging Aufklarung (Enlightenment), Bach's Mass praised not some nondescript divine being or the great architect of the universe but God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One may see in Bach's choice of the form of the mass a countercultural stance. Against the growing unitarianism of the Enlightenment, Bach was unabashedly trinitarian. The historic creeds of the church were under increasing attack in the age of Enlightenment, especially the dogma-laden Nicene Creed. Bach made it the longest movement of a massive work.

Schweitzer said that the Nicene Creed is "a hard nut for a composer to crack." It proved to be a daunting challenge for even the greatest composers of the Classical and Romantic Eras. Schweitzer himself stumbled on these ancient ecumenical dogmas.

But Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out that John Calvin had said that the Nicene Creed "is more a hymn suited for singing than a formula for confession." (12) Schweitzer may have agreed with this when he wrote "Bach thus proves that the dogma can be expressed much more clearly and satisfactorily in music than in verbal formulae." (13) Indeed, in the High Mass the Creed was always chanted. In classical Lutheranism too the Nicene Creed was either chanted by the ministers or sung by the people to Luther's versification. Some truths simply can't be prosaically recited; liturgy is meant to be sung, including Scripture "readings" and (especially) the ecumenical creeds.

This ancient statement of dogma was never sung so powerfully and lovingly as by Bach in the B minor Mass. Yet Bach brought out of the text of the Creed that which is most existentially relevant rather than emphasizing the metaphysics of homo-ousios--"of one being with the Father" ("consubstantialem Patri"). As Pelikan opined, "The greatness of Bach's Mass lies in the fact that it managed to take full measure of the tradition without losing itself in archaeology." (14)

Bach was a learned theologian as well as a learned musician. What Bach has given to musical posterity in the creation of his Mass in B minor is indisputably great in both respects. But "learned" sounds pedantic, and for all that Bach's great Mass may have served as a musical and theological encyclopedia typical of the Enlightenment, it appeals to its listeners with its profound emotion and deep piety. Both the musical and spiritual genius of its creator are transparent.

The Mass may truly be an encyclopedic fusion of every possible Baroque compositional style and form, and it may embody the very essence of the Baroque art, but it transcends its historical time. Moreover, Bach's sacred works cannot be analyzed simply in musical terms, because his music is but a vehicle for the greater message. Beyond its intricacies as an inimitable study of Baroque vocal music, the Mass captures an inspirational quality defying description in words. It also is a luminous statement of the depth of the composer's spiritual commitment, and, we would have to say, of his personal beliefs. In a lifetime of serving God through music, Bach had finally created the ultimate expression of his faith. (15)

(1.) Mark Bangert, "Toward a Well-Regulated Church Music: Bachian Prescriptions with Enduring Shelf Life," dialog 24 (1985): 107-12.

(2.) Christoph Wolff. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000), 240.

(3.) Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach, 335.

(4.) Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685-1750, trans. C. Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, 3 vols. (London: Dover, 1893).

(5.) Albert Schweitzer, J.S.Bach, trans. E. Newman, preface by C. M. Widor, 2 vols. (London: Dover, 1962).

(6.) Friedrich Blume, "Outlines of a New Picture of Bach," Music and Letters 44 (1963): 214-27.

(7.) Gunther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman, Daniel P. Poellet, Hilton C. Oswald, ed. Robin A. Leaver (St. Louis: Concordia, 1984), 173ff. a request that he be appointed court composer, but the request was denied in 1733. It was finally granted in 1736.

(8.) See Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 34ff.

(9.) I was asked after the talk in which this essay originated (see note 15) whether there was any significance to the choice of b-minor. The only reason I could think of was that b-minor is the relative minor key of D-major, and D is a good key for valveless Baroque trumpets.

(10.) Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, 2:323.

(11.) Protestant Church Music: A History, ed. Friedrich Blume, Foreword by Paul Henry Lang (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 312.

(12.) Pelikan, 124.

(13.) Schweitzer, 2:319.

(14.) Pelikan, 125.

(15.) This essay in honor of my long-time colleague Professor Mark Bangert originated in a pre-concert talk at The First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia on June 10, 2007, at which my son Andrew Martin Senn conducted a performance of the Mass in B minor. When all is said and done, one must listen to music.

Frank C. Senn

Immanuel Lutheran ChurchEvanston, Illinois
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Title Annotation:Johann Sebastian Bach
Author:Senn, Frank C.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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