Bach, J.S.: Missa


Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany), and died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany). Bach composed his Missa, in 1733, drawing partly from works he had composed previously. Although the evidence is not ironclad, recent research by musicologist Michael Maul suggests that, contrary to long-held assumptions, this music may have been performed during the composer’s lifetime, in the form it took when Bach harnessed it to further movements to create his B minor Mass, BWV 232. It seems that the complete B minor Mass may have been performed on November 22, 1749, for a congregation in Vienna, possibly conducted by Johann Georg Reutter. (Ten years earlier, Reutter had shown the perspicacity to recruit the seven-year-old Franz Joseph Haydn to sing in the choir he directed at Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna; Haydn’s voice broke and he left the choir around the time of the purported Mass performance—actually, in the very same month, according to one early biographer). These are the first SFS performances of the Missa as a standalone piece, although the Kyrie and Gloria music has been performed by the Symphony as part of the complete Mass in B minor several times, with the first performances being led by Hans Leschke in 1933. The most recent performances of the complete Mass in B minor were in 2011, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. The score for Bach’s Missa calls for two flutes, two oboes (doubling oboes d’amore), two bassoons, horn (“corno di caccia”—a hunting horn), three trumpets, timpani, strings (first and second violins plus violas), and continuo (here rendered by organ, played by Jonathan Dimmock in these performances); also a mixed five-part chorus and vocal soloists. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes for the Kyrie, and about forty minutes for the Gloria.

Johann Sebastian Bach made an extended, and eventually successful, attempt to persuade Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony—who in 1734 also became King Augustus III of Poland—to grant him a title in the Royal music establishment. Friedrich August was born in Dresden in 1696, died there in 1763, and was based in that city almost his whole life. He inherited the position of Prince-Elector of Saxony upon the death of his father, Augustus II the Strong, in February 1733, and the following year a military campaign cleared the way for him to be also elected to the throne of Poland—or, to put it precisely, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Or we could offer his title even more properly by rendering it in its impressive entirety: August III, by the Grace of God, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlaskie, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia, Chernihiv, and also Hereditary Duke of Saxony and Prince-Elector.

Since it was understood that he would rule over Poland some day, he converted in 1712 from Lutheranism to Catholicism to accord with the religion of his future subjects there. Nonetheless, after he assumed the Polish throne he showed little interest in Polish-Lithuanian politics, delegating his authority to a virtual viceroy whose management of the affairs of state in the eastern lands allowed Augustus to focus on what really interested him: hunting, collecting art, and going to the opera.

Bach was a devoted Lutheran, but he was not closed-minded about religion. He had spent six years working for the Calvinist court in Cöthen, and he seems to have felt no ill will toward Catholics, at least in his personal dealings. The question of religion surely guided his campaign to win over Friedrich August. If he had been trying to curry favor in Lutheran circles, he might have supported his application by supplying a sample of the church cantatas that demanded much of his time in Leipzig. But since the court in Dresden was a Catholic court, it made far more sense for him to submit materials that concurred with Catholic rituals. In fact, the Latin Kyrie and Gloria remained a part of the Lutheran service in Bach’s time, a carry-over from the traditional Roman Catholic Mass. When Martin Luther charted his departure from Catholicism in the sixteenth century, he clarified that the reforms he was pursuing were mostly doctrinal rather than liturgical. When he published his formulation of the new Protestant liturgy in 1523, he supported the use of the complete Ordinary of the Catholic Mass—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei sections—which he expected to hear chanted in Latin (Greek, in the case of the Kyrie) by the choir. A few years later, he supported the adoption of a German-language version of the liturgy, but he stressed that this vernacular rendition was aimed at “unlearned lay folk.” He envisioned that more elevated churches would continue to use what was essentially the Catholic form of the Mass.

Nonetheless, by Bach’s time, the Mass in use by Lutheran congregations had most commonly shrunk to just the Kyrie and Gloria sections so far as polyphonic musical composition was concerned, and these two expanses together were typically referred to as the Missa (Mass)—which is what Bach called his—or else Missa brevis (Short Mass). Bach would compose four rather short Missae in or around 1738 (BWV 233-236), but the Missa performed here predates them. Bach wrote it in 1733 to support his request that Friedrich August II tender him an appointment in the Royal Saxon musical establishment. It would have seemed a sensitive way to bridge the religion gap by providing a large-scale sacred composition that was relevant to both Catholic and Lutheran practice (there were, after all, numerous Lutherans working at the Saxon court). In practical terms, the fifty-minute work Bach submitted—in parts rather than in full score—was more expansive than either liturgy would have been able to accommodate under normal circumstances, although the Dresden court was enthusiastic about large-scale Masses in the Neapolitan tradition.

Here is the letter that Bach delivered to the Dresden court along with his Missa:

To His Most Serene Highness, the Prince and Lord, Frederick Augustus, Royal Prince in Poland and Lithuania, Duke in Saxony . . . My Most Gracious Lord,

. . . To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present slight labor of that knowledge which I have achieved in musique, with the most wholly submissive prayer that Your Highness will look upon it with Most Gracious Eyes, according to Your Highness’s World-Famous Clemency and not according to the poor composition; and thus deign to take me under Your Most Mighty Protection. For some years and up to the present moment I have had the Directorium of the Music in the two principal churches in Leipzig, but have innocently had to suffer one injury or another, and on occasion also a diminution of the fees accruing to me in this office; but these injuries would disappear altogether if Your Royal Highness would grant me the favor of conferring upon me a title of Your Highness’s Court Capelle, and would let Your High Command for the issuing of such a document go forth to the proper place. Such a gracious fulfillment of my most humble prayer will bind me to unending devotion, and I offer myself in most indebted obedience to show at all times, upon Your Royal Highness’s Most Gracious Desire, my untiring zeal in the composition of music for the church as well as for the orchestra, and to devote my entire forces to the service of Your Highness, remaining in unceasing fidelity
Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant,
               Johann Sebastian Bach

This “poor composition,” this fruit of “slight labor,” did not immediately earn Bach the title he sought; not until November 1736 was the appointment finally granted, after he submitted numerous follow-up compositions. It went on to stake a place in one of his most revered masterworks when, near the end of his life, Bach assembled a complete Mass Ordinary out of old and new material—his towering, extravagant B minor Mass. We should not imagine, however, that Bach or his contemporaries would have viewed the Kyrie-and-Gloria Missa as a mere stepping-stone on the way to a larger piece. In 1733, it would have been viewed as a complete composition on its own, reflecting a form of liturgical setting that was common in both Catholic and Lutheran practice.

Bach drew on a good deal of pre-existing material when he composed this Missa. In some cases the self-borrowing is clear, but musicologists find themselves at odds in ascribing the genealogies of several sections that give evidence of being transcribed from original settings that are now lost. The Missa also served Bach as a source for recycling; in 1745, he adapted three of its movements into his Gloria in excelsis Deo, a Latin-language Christmas work often identified as his Cantata No. 191.

Among the glories of Bach’s Missa is the range of styles incorporated into its pages. We find evidence of the stile antico, the old-fashioned approach to carefully regulated, often monumental choral textures, in the stately, massive exclamations that open the Kyrie. This call-to-attention leads directly into an extraordinary movement of breathtaking scale, unrolling inexorably in fugal style (though not as a strict fugue) over eight minutes. The orchestra surrounds the choral writing, introducing the principal material at length and then revisiting it as an instrumental ritornello in the middle, where it takes a fleeting turn into the major mode. We mentioned Friedrich Augustus’s passion for opera, which in his case often involved the operas of his court Kapellmeister Johann Adolf Hasse. The “Christe eleison” that follows in Bach’s Missa has an operatic feel to it, light in its texture of two sopranos often singing in simple harmonies—rather resembling an up-to-date operatic love duet of the 1730s. The second “Kyrie eleison” is again an exercise in stile antico, now strict in its fuguing as it rounds out the symmetrical balance of the tripartite opening part of the Missa.

The second part, the Gloria, is considerably longer, covering nine movements—five of them choral, the other four comprising three arias and a duet that together spotlight all the vocal soloists. The sumptuous trumpet-and-drums exultations of the opening choral “Gloria” (in 3/8 meter) elide into the ensuing section in 4/4 time, “Et in terra pax hominibus,” where ascending appoggiaturas lift us gently along with the music. Here a pastoral spirit enters Bach’s score, encouraging a listener to connect those words—“And on earth peace to men of good will”—to the place where they fall in the Bible, in Saint Luke’s recounting of the Nativity story. This section is not quite so extended as the first Kyrie, but it rather recalls that portion in its capacity for spinning out its ideas, constantly flowing forth yet proving everywhere inevitable and compelling. We may all have our favorite moments in Bach’s Missa, but surely this expanse must be one of the most moving, most particularly when, after an orchestral interlude, the voices of the chorus enter sequentially—Soprano I, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Soprano II—in a fugal treatment of that ascending theme, with trumpets and timpani offering punctuation that is by turns subtle, shining, and soaring. These are among Bach’s greatest pages, never surpassed in affirming the finest aspirations of humanity.

The soprano sings her anthem of praise “Laudamus te” to an elaborate accompaniment in which solo violin is a full obbligato partner. Then we return to the neo-Renaissance stile antico for “Gratias agimus tibi,” a fugal movement of textural density—unquestionably one of the repurposed sections of the score since in 1731 Bach had used it in a cantata celebrating the election of the Leipzig City Council, his sometime nemeses. This monumental choral ricercar could hardly be more different from what follows: the “Domine Deus,” a duet for soprano and tenor, with obbligato flute—those three parts weaving with gracious elegance against the lightest of accompaniments in which the violins and violas install mutes and the lower string tiptoe pizzicato through their walking bass-line. In the performing parts Bach submitted to the Dresden court, he noted that the flute should render its line using the “Lombard rhythm” (also known as “Scotch snap”), a “reverse-dotted” rhythmic figure in which a beat is divided into two notes, the first of which is accented and is shorter than the second—for example, a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth note. This galant mannerism developed into almost a fad in the 1730s, and it was popular among the Dresden composers, including Johann Georg Pisendel and Jan Dismas Zelenka. Bach’s indication is unique to that notated part and does not appear in his final manuscript score, inviting consternation in its wake and giving interpreters a choice about whether to employ this curious period affectation or not. One hears it both ways in modern performances. Now we encounter another elision between movements, and the duet cadences into the beginning of “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (which Bach derived from his Cantata No. 46, of 1723). At that point, the strings remove their mutes, but some of the flavor of the preceding number carries through thanks to the decorations of the flute lines (now two flutes instead of one) and staccato markings in the bass parts. The music culminates in a half-cadence, which in turn resolves into the ensuing number, the aria “Qui sedes” for alto with obbligato oboe d’amore.

Up to this point, Bach has shown off a vivid and varied palette of instrumental colors and vocal-instrumental combinations. In “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” he reaches into the realm of the outré with one of the most remarkably orchestrated pieces of the late Baroque: an aria for solo bass with obbligato hunting horn and two bassoons, all accompanied by the basso continuo. These deep-voiced participants infuse the music with enveloping warmth, but it all gives way to blazing sunshine when—another elision—the aria cadences into the chorus “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” which fairly leaps and laughs in jubilation through to its final Amen.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Bach’s Missa is scarcely recorded as a standalone work, although an interesting performance of the “1733 Missa” comes from the ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon (Alpha Productions). As part of his complete B minor Mass, BWV 232, recommended versions include: Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir (Erato)  |  Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Collegium Vocale Ghent and La Chapelle Royale Paris (Harmonia Mundi)  |  Masaaki Suzuki conducting the Bach Collegium Japan (Bis)  |  Marc Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre (Naïve)  |  John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (Archiv)

Reading: Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (Harcourt)  |  J.S. Bach: A Life in Music, by Peter Williams (Cambridge)  |  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford)  |  Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner (Knopf)  |  The New Bach Reader, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, revised by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bach, by John Butt (Cambridge)  |  Bach: The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass, by George B. Stauffer (Yale)  |  Bach: Mass in B Minor, by John Butt (Cambridge Music Handbooks)