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Hyperion Records

CDA67201/2 - Bach: Mass in B minor

Recording details: October 1996
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: February 1997
Total duration: 109 minutes 9 seconds

'King has succeeded brilliantly in reclaiming the profundity and emotional commitment of traditional Bach performances. This new Mass in B minor is a magnificent achievement and a joy to hear' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A reading which consistently brings out the joy of Bach's inspiration, not least in the great celestial outbursts of the Sanctus or the final Dona nobis pacem' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Robert King's recording is comparable with the best … a fine recording of a most persuasive interpretation' (Soundscapes, Australia)

Mass in B minor

Of all Bach's great output of sacred music, the Mass in B minor stands alone, not just for its supreme musical greatness, but because it was composed for no specific occasion. It is unlikely that Bach ever heard (or even expected to hear) it performed in its entirety. Instead, the composer seems to have occupied part of his final years writing a work that was intended to be a summation of his art, a document for future generations, and a supreme personal opportunity to unite his faith in God with his life's work as a musician.

This is the first recording of the Mass in B minor to use an all-male choir and soloists as envisaged by the composer: a very exciting release which has already provoked much comment and anticipation.

Of all Bach’s great output of sacred vocal music, the Mass in B minor stands alone, not just for its supreme musical greatness, but because it was composed for no specific occasion. It is unlikely that Bach ever heard (or even expected to hear) it performed in its entirety. Setting aside the improbability of performing in a religious service a work which is nearly two hours in length (that privilege seems to have been reserved, all too frequently, for sermons), a Missa tota could not have been performed in a Protestant Church, for Luther had removed all sections referring to the sacrifice of Jesus from the liturgy. It would have been equally improbable to have performed the Mass in a Catholic church, for its text did not follow the prescribed Roman format and the closing sections were laid out in an unliturgical form. Instead, the composer seems to have occupied part of his last years writing a work that was intended to be a summation of his art, a document for future generations, and a supreme personal opportunity to unite his faith in God with his life’s work as a musician.

Since the mid-1730s Bach had grown especially conscious of his own place in the Bach dynasty, drawing up a family tree around the time of his fiftieth birthday in 1735. He was well aware of his musical ancestors from the seventeenth century and regularly performed motets by his uncles Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach; he could see that his own sons too were following in the family tradition and becoming notable composers. Bach even went so far as to form an archive of family musical manuscripts. During the 1740s, though he never allowed musical standards at the Thomaskirche to slip, his ambitions moved away from the routine functions of Kapellmeister (which he had been carrying out, in a number of centres, for over twenty-five years) to the pursuit of musical science. In his own work he was not only intent on writing music of the highest calibre, but he was also determined to develop greater structural architecture, internal integrity and inventiveness. In instrumental music the result was Die Kunst der Fuge (‘The Art of Fugue’). In sacred music, looking back on a tradition which stretched beyond Palestrina (whose work he knew and admired) to Gregorian chant, his monument was a setting of a text which he felt would not date: the Mass.

In composing this work in B minor, by far his largest setting of the Mass, Bach did not intend to create a single, multi-movement work entirely from scratch. Instead, with an eye to history and posterity, and perhaps to create ‘models’ of his work, he inserted and adapted movements he had written over the past thirty years. But in no way was this a simple case of compiling movements into an anthology: the work was meticulously structured, with many of the sections based on existing material so heavily reworked that only thematic elements remain of the original composition.

Part I: Missa
The Missa (comprising the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’) may have been performed in Dresden around the time of its composition in 1733. Not for the first time in his career, Bach’s reason for writing such an outstanding work was a grand calling card – an attempt to further his career and receive a promotion. He presented a set of parts for the Missa to the Elector Friedrich August II of Saxony with the following dedication:

‘Most Illustrious Electoral Prince, Most Gracious Lord, It is with the deepest Devotion that I lay before your Royal Highness this trifling product of that science which I have attained in Musique, with the most humble request that you will deign to look upon it with a gracious eye, in accordance with your Clemency, which is renowned throughout the entire world, and not judging it according to the poorness of its Composition; and that you will also deign to take me into your most mighty Protection. For some years and up to the present day I have had the Direction of the Music of the two principal Churches in Leipzig, but have also been obliged to suffer one slight and another quite undeservedly, and also a diminution of the additional Honoraria connected with this Function; the which might entirely be withheld unless your Royal Highness shews me the favour of conferring upon me a Predicate in your Hoff-Capelle, and in respect of this places before the appropriate authority your high Command for the bestowal of a Decree; this most gracious accession to my most humble petition will impose upon me an infinite obligation, and I will offer myself in most dutiful obedience and will show my constant and indefatigable diligence in the composition of Musique for the Church as well as for the Orchestre at your Royal Highness’s most gracious desire, and will also devote all my powers to your Service, and remain in unceasing loyalty. Your Royal Highness’s most humble and most obedient servant. Johann Sebastian Bach, Dresden, the 27th Julii, 1733.’

Unlike the job application implied in the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, this attempt by Bach was finally successful, for he eventually received his desired appointment as the Saxon Hofkapellmeister late in 1736.

The Missa that he presented as his justification for promotion was a substantial one, with its two movements (between them containing twelve sections) lasting nearly an hour. In these sections Bach shows his debt to past musical forms – to the Renaissance polyphonists in his use of deliberately archaic styles and by ignoring the ‘modern’ da capo aria form – but also shows his forward-looking side, with an overall key structure, a handling of styles, and a use of instrumentation and compositional devices that are modern.

The ‘Kyrie’ falls into the expected three sections, with the spacious opening chordal progression followed by an extensive and complex fugue, worked frequently in six voices, with the two choral sections separated by instrumental fugal episodes. For the ‘Christe’ Bach indicates that he wants two sopranos: presumably he wanted to match the voices as for much of the movement he pairs them in thirds and sixths. For the third section, the second ‘Kyrie’, he writes a four-part fugue in the ‘prima prattica’ style of the Renaissance contrapuntalists, with the instruments reinforcing the vocal lines with note-for-note doubling.

The ‘Gloria’ opens in the bright major key of D, bringing the first entries of trumpets and timpani. Its opening has been thought by some commentators to be a reworking of an unknown instrumental composition, to which Bach added chorus parts. It leads without a break into the ‘Et in terra pax’, and a striking comparison of the brightness of heaven and its busy musical exchanges with the more conversational lowliness of earth. But Bach gives the two elements symbolic numerical equality (the hundred triple-time bars of the ‘heavenly’ first section are matched by seventy-five bars of four-beat writing for earth) and builds up the movement with inexorable power. The eventual entries of the trumpets symbolically unite earth with heaven.

The first solo section of the ‘Gloria’ is given to the second, lower soprano soloist: he is faced with one of the most technically demanding solos of the work, accompanied by a complex violin solo which itself would not have been out of place in one of the violin concertos. The choral fugue ‘Gratias agimus’ which follows is a reworking of the first chorus of Cantata BWV29 (1731): its original text (‘Wir danken dir, Gott, und verkündigen deine Wunder’ – ‘We thank you God and proclaim thy wonders’) is very similar to that of its new setting (‘We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory’). The ‘Domine Deus’ pairs soprano and tenor soloists, accompanied by the deliciously transparent texture of two flutes in unison (Bach’s manuscript is quite specific in requiring both players), muted upper strings and pizzicato bassi. This leads directly into the chorus ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, based on the opening chorus of Cantata BWV46, ‘Schauet doch und sehet’ (1723), though it is much altered here in its new home. The flutes maintain an important part in the texture, lending ‘other-worldly’ movement and colour to a dolorous section. Once again Bach takes a movement whose original text (‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow’) is similar to its new one (‘Thou who takest away the sins of the world’).

After instrumental solos for violin and flute, the next two movements feature darker colours. The ‘Qui sedes’ is a duet for oboe d’amore and alto voice, with the strings playing a simple, largely chordal accompaniment. Continuing downwards through the orchestral texture, the scoring of the ‘Quoniam tu solus’ produces one of the more unusual colours found in Bach’s writing (though looking through the cantatas one constantly finds the composer exploring and introducing exotic sounds): to illustrate Jesus in heavenly majesty Bach takes a corno da caccia (literally a hunting horn, though by now an instrument thoroughly integrated into the Baroque orchestra), accompanying it with two obbligato bassoons and continuo, and gives the vocal line to the bass soloist. This mixture of tenor and bass sounds presents a rich picture of heaven without detracting from the full orchestral and choral splendour that is reserved to represent the ‘glory of God the Father’ in the final chorus ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. Bach closes his ‘Gloria’ with a brilliant contrapuntal display for both choir and orchestra, capped by a virtuoso trumpet flourish.

Part II: Symbolum Nicenum
Only two movements of the Symbolum (the ‘Confiteor’ and the opening ‘Credo in unum Deum’) are thought to have been freshly composed: both are notable for looking historically backwards in their utilization of a plainsong cantus firmus. Yet if any proof were needed that Bach, despite this apparent recycling, conceived the overall shape of this work with anything other than a majestically clear vision, it is found in the Symbolum, which contains one of the most perfectly symmetrical, self-contained structures in any of his large-scale works.

The three central choruses are surrounded by a double frame, with the overall key structure of the movements forming a cadential progression in D major. The outer frame comprises a pair of choral movements, one composed in the stile antico and featuring a cantus firmus, the other a concertato fugue. The inner frame comprises two solo movements linked by instrumentation. At the centre come three astonishing choral movements:

Credo (stile antico, cantus firmus) D major
Patrem (concertato fugue) D major
Et in unum Dominum (solo) G major
Et incarnatus (chorus) B minor
Crucifixus (chorus, passacaglia) E minor–G major
Et resurrexit (choral fugue) D major
Et in Spiritum Sanctum (solo) A major
Confiteor (stile antico, cantus firmus) F sharp minor
Et expecto (concertato fugue) D major

The first of the pair of movements in that outer frame, the ‘Credo’, develops the plainsong melody in five choral and two instrumental parts over a running bass, acting almost as a prelude to the ‘Patrem omnipotentem’ (a parody of a movement from Cantata BWV171, ‘Gott, wie dein Name’): although the choir basses immediately begin the new text, the three upper vocal parts at first steadfastly repeat the ‘Credo in unum Deum’ text of the opening before they too are caught up in the insistent liveliness of the movement. The text of the soprano and alto duet ‘Et in unum Dominum’ clearly worried Bach at a later date, for his manuscript includes (at the end of the ‘Credo’) an alternative version which takes the text only as far as ‘Descendit de coelis’: in his original version of the duet he also sets the words beginning ‘Et incarnatus est’, which are then repeated in the succeeding chorus. Choosing the second version solves the textual repetition, but loses the word painting of the violins’ arpeggionic ‘descent from heaven’ and the humility of the far-flattened key of ‘et homo factus est’.

The three central choruses are magnificently poised. First comes the B minor ‘Et incarnatus est’, with the dropping arpeggios of the chorus echoed by an even more poignant, chromatically embellished arpeggio in the violins, all anchored over a slowly pulsing bass line. The earliest source Bach utilized anywhere in the Mass is found in the ‘Crucifixus’, based on the opening chorus of Cantata BWV12 ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ (written in Cöthen in 1714). It is a mournful passacaglia in E minor where the grief of the chorus and the wistful sighs of the flutes and strings are tied over a melancholy, chromatically falling bass. During the last four bars the key turns to G major, allowing the crucifixion scene to end peacefully. It is also a tonal preparation for the brilliant return of D trumpets in the ‘Et resurrexit’ which scholars have suggested may be a reworking of a lost instrumental concerto. Certainly the orchestral writing is extensive and complex: the movement ends with an orchestral sinfonia. Even the ‘break’ for the chorus basses at the midpoint is thoroughly instrumental.

The second solo movement of the ‘Credo’ is the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, where the two oboists (who had featured in a supporting role in the ‘Et in unum Dominum’) now take on a more soloistic role on oboes d’amore in their pairing with the solo bass (singing in a much higher tessitura than his first solo). Here is pure chamber music. Closing the ‘Credo’ comes the same combination of choral movements as opened it. The ‘Confiteor’ is again composed in the stile antico and features a cantus firmus, but is more ‘modern’ in feel, winding down to the adagio of ‘in remissionem peccatorum’ and a deliciously mournful ‘Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum’. As if not wishing us to comprehend the significance of the text, Bach leads us on, stressing the melancholy of ‘mortuorum’, until the message dawns – it is not the dead we are mourning, but the resurrection of the dead we are celebrating. Jubilation breaks out: still setting the same text, Bach presents a brilliant concertato fugue, reworking the 1729 ‘Wedding’ Cantata chorus ‘Jauchzet, ihr erfreuten Stimmen’ (BWV120) from four choral voices into five in the most exultant writing.

Part III: Sanctus
The ‘Sanctus’ is known to have been performed during Bach’s second Christmas in Leipzig in 1724 and again (in a revised version) in the 1740s. At the three principal Church Feasts in Leipzig the ‘Sanctus’ was sung in an elaborate musical setting, closing the Preface (and so leading into the Eucharist). Here, Bach’s scoring includes three oboes (as opposed to the two utilized up to this point), but no flutes. Orchestrally this allows for three separate three-part instrumental groupings (upper strings, oboes and trumpets), and the six-part choir too pits three parts against three parts. All this is set over a magnificently inexorable bass line. As elsewhere in the work, Bach’s numerological symbolism comes to the fore: the text repeats the word ‘Sanctus’ three times and additionally alludes to the Holy Trinity. There is symbolism too in the total of five groups (three orchestral, two choral), for the text of the Preface refers to the five groups who give praise to God: Angels, Archangels, thrones, principalities and all the Company of Heaven. The triple-time second section, ‘Pleni sunt coeli’, is a brilliantly conceived fugue with two expositions.

Part IV: Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem
In normal liturgical use the ‘Sanctus’ would be followed immediately by the ‘Osanna’, ‘Benedictus’ and second ‘Osanna’, but in Leipzig these movements (and the ‘Agnus Dei’) were relegated to the function of music sung during the administration of the Sacrament. That said, the ‘Osanna’ does seem to be linked directly with the ‘Sanctus’, both in key and the use of an identical triple-time metre. Its source is a movement from a Cantata, ‘Es lebe der König, der Vater im Lande’ written in 1732 to celebrate the name day of August II (BWVA.11, music now lost), and involves the largest vocal scoring of the work, with two four-part choirs.

All four movements of the final section (the ‘Osanna’, ‘Benedictus’, ‘Agnus Dei’ and ‘Dona nobis pacem’) are thought to have been assembled in Bach’s final years. Whereas we know the source for the ‘Osanna’, that for the ‘Benedictus’ is presumed by scholars to be an unknown aria. There is mystery too attached to which instrument should play its melody line, for Bach’s score (more constricted in space in the manuscript than most other movements) gives no indication. In the nineteenth century, perhaps following the example of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, a violin usually played the solo, but the flute seems more likely, given the line’s compass (never dropping below the flute’s bottom D yet rising to notes that the Baroque violin did not usually play), its convenient flute-like key, and its overall style and phrasing, not to mention the instrument’s unique colour.

For the opening of the ‘Agnus Dei’, Bach turned to the first section of a movement from the 1735 Ascension Oratorio (BWV11) ‘Ach, bleibe doch’. Here, in its more concise form and a tone lower in G minor (the only time that a ‘flat’ key is used in the whole Mass), it proves to be a most moving setting of the text. Bach’s final architectural block in this massive structure is a reworking of the ‘Gratias agimus’ from the Missa (with the prescribed text, ‘Dona nobis pacem’, here containing far fewer syllables). Here, as elsewhere, Bach’s writing is magnificently uplifting, with the final gesture of trumpets, as ever symbolic of heaven, soaring above all other voices and instruments.

Robert King © 1997

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