The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Mass in B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.
Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Mass in B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.
So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.
In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.
I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.
Credo in unum Deum.
J.S. Bach, Mass in B minor: