Performance Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | 8 PM

Bach Collegium Japan

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Founded in 1990 in Japan, Bach Collegium Japan’s reputation for great Baroque performances is worldwide. “The fleet Bach Collegium emphasizes beauty and a flowing line,” says The Times of London, and their founder has a “subtle ear for color, a keen sense of harmonic direction, and an ability to make phrases breathe and rhythms live” (The New York Times).
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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685–1750) Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Amassing the Mass

The B-Minor Mass was not the product of a concentrated surge of creativity, but rather a remarkable amalgamation of over 40 years of work. Portions of it represent Bach’s final creations, while others have roots in music that was composed as early as 1714.

The first substantial installment dates from 1733, when Bach composed the “Kyrie” and the “Gloria” in the form of a Lutheran Missa for Friedrich II, the newly appointed Elector of Saxony. (While most of Bach’s church music was in the vernacular German, the Lutheran church occasionally allowed the first two movements of the Latin mass to be performed as a Missa). The composition was essentially a petition for a job in the Elector’s court, which, after a delay of three years, Bach won.

It was not until the mid-1740s—perhaps after pairing a newly composed “Gloria” with his “Sanctus” of 1724 at a concert celebrating the peace between Austria and Prussia—that Bach decided to create a full mass. He set to work on combining the Lutheran Missa with the “Sanctus,” composing some thoroughly new movements, and creating others through a technique know as “parodying,” adapting his earlier works to new text. Thirteen of the 27 movements in the B-Minor Mass are known to be parodies, and many more are likely to be so.

The great volume of parodies in the mass is by no means indicative of a lack of originality on the part of Bach; in his time, the technique was in fact greatly admired when executed well. Bach’s motivations were instead likely rooted in a desire to refine and amalgamate—and maybe even immortalize—his finest vocal compositions, much as his contemporaneous Art of Fugue can be seen as an exhibition of his mastery in instrumental music. Nor is the mass simply a compilation of Bach’s “greatest hits.” Each of the pre-existing movements is adapted skillfully and often extensively in order to create a coherent whole. Indeed, given the work’s various sources, its seemingly effortless unity is all the more impressive.

A Transcendent Work

Bach’s compositions are widely recognized for synthesizing various European styles and genres, and the mass appears to take this element of incorporation one step further, honoring not only styles that cut across geo-political borders, but ones that cut across time. Echoes of medieval chant can be heard in the “Credo” and the “Confiteor”; the second “Kyrie” recalls the contrapuntal expertise of the 16th-century master Palestrina. The “Domine Deus” reflects the levity of the contemporary galant style, and, while the music of the “Christe” would fit well in Baroque opera, the mass’s instrumentation and formal clarity seem to anticipate Haydn’s late symphonies. Even in terms of functionality, the work exists in the liminal space between the practical Catholic masses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods and the 19th-century masses, such as Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, that were composed for the concert hall. Ultimately, Bach’s magnificent mass seems not simply to incorporate styles from different periods, but to transcend time all together.

Some scholars have argued that the mass also moves beyond religious boundaries—that its denominational ambiguity serves as a statement of the overarching unity of Christianity. Why else would Bach, a devout Lutheran his entire life, compose a Catholic work? The content of the mass does indeed suggest a mixture of practices: Its text is in Latin (the standard language for liturgical Catholic compositions) rather than German (standard for Lutheran compositions), but in certain instances Bach slightly alters the text to reflect Lutheran convention; and even though the work follows the general form of the Roman Catholic Mass, the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” originated in a Lutheran Missa.

Despite a publisher’s 1818 advertisement that touted the mass as “the greatest musical artwork of all times and people,” there surprisingly is no firm evidence of it being performed in its entirety until 1859, well after many other Bach works had been revived. Then again, a century of incubation seems trivial for a work that flirts with timelessness.

A Closer Listen

Soon after a dramatic B-minor chord launches the mass, a theme introduced by the winds develops into an elaborate fugue—one that frames the entire first “Kyrie” movement. The ensuing “Christe” lightens the mood, paring down the instrumentation to a soprano duet with violins, and employing the galant style of the time. The second “Kyrie” returns to an involved fugal structure, initiated by a chromatically inflected choral bass melody that recalls medieval chant.

The spirited “Gloria” sings to the magnificence of God from the outset; and, like much of the mass after the “Kyrie,” it fittingly has D major—not B minor—as its home key. Its four movements featuring soloists (rather than choruses) are an exercise in variety, rotating through all the available solo voices and several instruments. The dance-like “Laudamus te” is led by the second soprano and violin; the central “Domine Deus” by the first soprano, tenor, and flute; the “Qui sedes” by alto and oboe d’amore (an instrument slightly larger than the standard oboe, and one favored by Bach for solos); and the “Quoniam” by bass and horn (resulting in a surprisingly “low” setting of text that declares Christ as “most high”). Bookending the “Gloria” are two joyous choral movements characterized by a lively triple meter and enthusiastic flourishes by the trumpets and timpani.

If the Missa’s formal structure is impressive, the “Credo” nears architectural perfection. With what is now believed to be the last notes he ever penned, Bach set the “Et incarnatus est” text as its own movement, inserting new pages of manuscript into the score as an afterthought, and two significant symbolic effects result: the “Credo” holds nine movements (arithmetically the square of the Trinity), and the “Crucifixus,” whose text illustrates the essential moment of all Christianity, is the central movement. The symmetry flanks outward from here, creating a symbolic cross: In either direction, the crucifixion movement is adjacent to a chorus, then a solo movement, then a pair of choruses. The “Credo” as a whole runs the entire gamut of emotions, perhaps best represented by the dramatic pairing of the beautifully sorrowful crucifixion with the suddenly uplifting “Et resurrexit.”

The “Sanctus,” dating from 1724 in its original form, is inspired by Venetian polychoral works of the previous century, and its florid vocal lines and lilting rhythm are appropriate for text that focuses on heavenly majesty. While the “Osanna” retains this energy and polychoral design, the “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei” are deliberately intimate settings for solo tenor and solo alto, respectively. The final “Dona nobis pacem,” no doubt set up by the understated nature of the preceding movements, is a grand restatement of the “Gratias agimus tibi” music from the “Gloria.” Once again, Bach intentionally creates a cross-like symmetry in form: Each of these sections is 10 movements away from the all-important “Crucifixus.”
Jacob Cooper © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Choral Classics series is made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for choral music established by S. Donald Sussman in memory of Judith Arron and Robert Shaw.

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