The 199th season opens with Bach’s glorious masterwork, the Mass in B Minor, which features a large period instrument orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists from the H&H choir, and Harry Christophers at the helm. H&H’s acclaimed chorus will dazzle audiences in this extraordinary work by one of the greatest composers of all time.
Jessica Petrus, soprano
Margot Rood, soprano
Teresa Wakim, soprano
Katherine Growdon, alto
Catherine Hedberg, alto
Margaret Lias, alto
Thea Lobo, alto
Emily Marvosh, alto
Matthew Anderson, tenor
Stefan Reed, tenor
Woodrow Bynum, bass
David McFerrin, bass
- J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor
News and Reviews
Glorious Bach at Symphony Hall
Boston Musical Intelligencer, September 29, 2013
"The chorus...sang with remarkable precision and expressive intensity."
Mass appeal: H&H Society off to strong start with Bach
Th Boston Globe, September 29, 2013
"The ensemble performed with spring-water clarity."
Handel & Haydn opens season with a moving and expressive Mass in B minor
Boston Classical Review, September 28, 2013
A letter to the editor published in The Boston Herald on February 20, 1887 explained why the Handel and Haydn Society had decided to present J.S Bach’s Mass in B Minor the following week:
“When two years ago, the bi-centenary of Handel and Bach was celebrated, we felt exceedingly sorry that that occasion passed by without a production of Bach’s grandest choral composition, which in its entirety never had been given in this country.”
Although the H&H performance on February 27, 1887 was not technically the American premiere (that was in Cincinnati in May 1886), nor was it complete, the significance of this work was not lost on 19th-century performers or audiences.One reason for the excitement over the Mass in B Minor was the availability of the score, precipitated by the publication of an edition by the Bach Gesellschaft (Bach Society), a group formed in 1850, and dedicated, in part, to publishing all the known works of the composer.
Exactly when Bach began working on the Mass in B Minor is not known with certainty; however, scholars generally concur that between August 1748 and October 1749, Bach gave the work his most devoted attention. That does not mean that he composed the Mass in that short span of time. In fact, Bach had composed portions of the Mass much earlier.
For his second Christmas in Leipzig (1724), Bach composed a Sanctus in D Major (BWV 232); this Sanctus would eventually become part of the Mass in B Minor. Similarly, he composed a Missa (Kyrie and Gloria movements) that was offered to Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, in the summer of 1733. Bach hoped to receive a court title and promised to compose more Kyrie/Gloria settings for the Elector’s Court in Dresden. In 1736, he was granted the title he requested and over the next few years composed other Missa settings.
The settings for Friedrich August II may have sparked Bach’s musical imagination, because in the 1740s, he began experimenting with different ways to set the first line of the Credo, the third movement of the Mass. These many years spent setting some mass texts (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus) and studying others (Credo) came to fruition in the late 1740s with the Mass in B Minor. The genesis of the Mass is consistent with the composer’s thorough treatment of musical genre. Unlike other Bach works, the Mass in B Minor was not known to have been written for a specific occasion; the reason Bach composed it probably rests on his natural tendency to create comprehensive works. The Sanctus from 1724 and the Missa from 1733 provided the nucleus for a larger-scale composition, an opportunity for the composer to explore a new combination of sounds, textures, and musical styles.
The text of the first movement of the Mass, Kyrie, is divided into three almost identical lines. Bach follows this division and composes three interrelated sections of music. The solemn tone of the Kyrie is set by the orchestra, which includes the sweeter, less-piercing edge of the oboe d’amore. This section is a fugue consisting of successive entrances of the same melody in alternation with other music. The primary melody begins with a distinctive rhythm, but on one pitch. Then the melody rises and falls, finding its way to a conclusion. By this point, the next line has entered (with the same melody). In this way, Bach constructs a fugue that feels something like a pilgrimage. The sense of a journey is also reflected in the steadily pulsing rhythm.
The unison violins and lack of imitation convey a very different feeling in the Christe. Bach’s use of the high range (sopranos and violins) lends a feeling of lightness to this section that is confirmed both melodically and rhythmically. This is a more personal interpretation, reflecting the change from the more imposing text “Lord have mercy” to the more approachable “Christ have mercy.”
In the last section of the movement, the Kyrie text returns and Bach returns to a fugue, but supplants the restless nature of the first Kyrie with a more ethereal sound. He achieves this by using the instruments to double (play the same pitches as) the voice parts, suggesting, as he did in the Christe section, a sense of unity. Also changed is the rhythmic propulsion so evident in the first Kyrie; Kyrie II is less about a journey and more about repose.
The solemnity of the Kyrie movement is offset by the joyous exclamations of the Gloria. Bach employs the five-part chorus with the full instrumental ensemble, replacing the oboe d’amore with the standard oboe to proclaim the opening of this movement. Fully aware of the origins of the opening text (the angels announcing Christ’s birth), he creates sixteen individual musical lines, each distinctive yet combined to an exuberant whole.
The “Et in terra pax” is a fugue for chorus with a gently rising melody that Bach uses almost like a refrain, returning to it for text and musical emphasis, while the “Laudamus te,” a section scored for solo violin and soprano, is a profusion of embellishments and melodic figures that turn and leap.
Each section, whether for chorus or soloist, never fights against the meaning of the text, and the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” which is elided with “Cum Sancto Spiritus,” alternates dance-like sections with fugue, but with the feeling of joy that characterizes the Gloria’s opening.
Bach titled the Credo movement Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed). This text, the longest of the Mass Ordinary, is the statement of faith by the believer. In his interpretation of the Credo text, Martin Luther had divided it into three segments that corresponded to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bach may have had this division in mind as part of an overall approach to organizing this movement musically.
Bach bases the opening of the Credo on a single medieval chant that was still in use in German churches in the 17th century. He borrows three melodic segments from this chant, one for the Credo section and two for the “Confiteor.” In the latter section, he divides the text into two parts and writes a melody that incorporates a chant segment into each part. Bach further unifies the Credo and “Confiteor,” the outermost portions of the movement, by setting the texts in a similar musical style. These sections create a kind of musical boundary, the center of which is the “Crucifixus.”
The central point of faith for the believer, Christ’s crucifixion, is also the central point of the Credo movement. Bach constructs a symmetrical form around the “Crucifixus” with the same arrangement of movements reflected on either side of it. He borrowed the music for this section from a cantata he had composed in 1714, the first cantata he wrote when he was promoted at the Weimar court. The text of that cantata began with the trials of the believers “who carry the sign of Jesus.” This direct reference to Christ carrying the Cross inspired Bach to write a bass line that sinks step by step. In adapting that bass line for the “Crucifixus,” Bach added rhythmic motion and emphasis in the upper strings and flute; in this version each step is heard, even dwelt on, before moving to the next.
After the devastation of the “Crucifixus,” the “Et resurrexit” is nothing short of unbridled joy. A clearly defined beat and triple meter evoke a dance while the trumpets, timpani, and predominantly rising lines emphasize and underscore the text.
Bach adapted his Sanctus (1724) for the Mass in B Minor. He retained the six-part chorus and three oboes from the original, which gives a new fullness to the sound. That fullness is amplified as the composer divides the chorus into high and low voices, accompanying the high voices with strings and the low with brass and oboe. Although Bach returns to the Sanctus setting like a refrain, each iteration is slightly altered. No less uplifting, the “Pleni” section is set as a fugue while the “Osanna” sections are set for two choirs and orchestra. Bach’s setting is continually varied, but always reminds the listener that both heaven and earth join in this song of praise.
The text of the Agnus Dei contains three lines; two lines are identical in their plea for mercy and the third ends differently, with a prayer for peace. Perhaps because of the similarity between this text and that of the first movement, Bach sets the Agnus Dei as an aria, reminding the listener of the Christe section of the Kyrie movement. What may seem unusual is the composer’s setting for the final line of the movement, “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace). While the text might suggest a more contemplative treatment, Bach chooses to return to music from the Gloria movement. It was common for composers to unify a mass setting by revisiting music from one of the opening movements and so Bach revives the “Gratias agimus tibi” music, which was itself a borrowing from an earlier cantata.
The dual nature of much of Bach’s music—that individual pieces as exquisite as they are challenging, when taken in context of the complete work, create a whole that truly exceeds the sum of its parts—is evident in the Mass in B Minor. With its variety of musical textures, styles, and instrumental combinations, it is a culminating achievement for the composer and a work that transcends ideology.
©Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2013
2013–2014 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Bach: Mass in B Minor
(The Sixteen; Harry Christophers, conductor)