If I said the words "Bach" and "Mass" in the same sentence, I think most music lovers would assume I was referring to Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. Regarded as one of the towering masterpieces of western art, Bach's monumental setting of the whole of the Ordinary of the Mass - some two hours of music - was compiled over many years and only reached its final form shortly before his death in 1750. I have discussed it in detail earlier in this blog, here.
You'll notice that I described the B minor mass as being "compiled" rather than "composed". Of course Bach composed it, but its various sections began life as different pieces written for different contexts, some with different words (some of which were even secular), and it was only late in life that he decided to bring together music from various sources to make the mass as we now know it. It is nothing less than a compendium of his life's work as a church musician, a summation of all he stood for and all he achieved.
But what Bach produced in the B minor mass was "paper music", a document; as a whole it had no practical function in Lutheran worship in its final form. But this is not to say that Latin texts weren't used in German Lutheran churches in Bach's day. In addition to the hundreds of cantatas, plus the Passions, the oratorios and the chorale settings - all of which were in German, the language of the people - Lutheran worship still used Latin texts in the liturgy on feast days. Christmas is an obvious example here, for which Bach composed not only the famous Magnificat (in Latin) but also many settings of the Sanctus (also in Latin), which had a special place in Lutheran Christmas services.
The normal four-hour morning service in the main churches in which Bach worked in Leipzig went from 7.00 till 11.00 am. It combined what in Protestant churches today would be thought of as a morning prayer service and a communion service. At the centre was the one-hour sermon, and the sections of the service connected with the communion used texts from the old Catholic mass, in both German and Latin.
On feast days the Kyrie and Gloria were sung in more elaborate musical settings by the choir, and in the parlance of the day, these settings of the Kyrie and Gloria were known as a Missa, or Mass. Bach's usual practice in Leipzig was to use Kyrie and Gloria settings by other composers and as these were always part of the Catholic mass he had a rich source of traditional Catholic (as well as Lutheran) music to draw on. His preference was for settings by Italian composers, and he is known to have used music by Palestrina from the 16th century, Peranda, Kerll and Baal from the 17th century, and Bassani, Gasparini, Pez, Lotti, von Wilderer, Durante, and his own second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, from his contemporaries.
In addition to all this, Bach wrote five settings of the Missa - the Kyrie and Gloria alone - that we know of. One of these, from 1733, was spectacularly complex and written for the court of Dresden. Years later it became the Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor mass. As such, this setting is by far the best-known of the five, although many people seem unaware that it had a previous existence before becoming part of the larger mass which is now so famous.
The other four Missa settings are almost completely unknown. They're sometimes called the "short masses" to distinguish them from the B minor mass, but the Bärenreiter edition uses the term "Lutheran Masses" so I'll go with that. When I made the radio program on which this article is based, I said that I'd never heard them live and wondered if they'd ever been performed in Australia. Since that time I've had the incredible privilege of conducting them all myself in Melbourne a few years ago, in a single concert, and I know now of other performances. But even so, many music lovers are unaware of their existence. Among those who do know of them, these masses are often dismissed as unworthy of consideration because almost every movement reuses music from the cantatas. Early Bach commentators like Albert Schweitzer and Philipp Spitta praised the B minor mass to the skies and in the same breath regarded the four other masses as not worth our attention, clearly unaware that most of the B minor mass - and not just the Kyrie and Gloria - is also recycled from earlier works. (So is most of the Christmas Oratorio, and all of the Easter Oratorio, for that matter.)
With that in mind - and confessing up front that I've long loved the four other masses in their own right - I want to share some of their beauties with you.
The Mass in A major, BWV234, is the only one of the four Lutheran masses known to have been performed by Bach in Leipzig. His manuscript survives and it was written around 1738-39. The instrumentation is delicate, just two flutes in addition to the strings and organ, but right from the start it's clear that the flutes have a soloistic role, setting them apart from the rest of the ensemble. The Kyrie, a single movement in three contrasting sections, is one of the few movements in the Lutheran masses where we don't know what earlier music it might have been based on. [listen]
All four of the Lutheran masses are structured the same way (and this sets them apart from the Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor mass, which Bach clearly viewed differently because it was written for the Dresden court). The Kyrie is a single movement, sometimes in 3 different sections for the three statements of the text, as in the A major mass. Then the Gloria, a much longer text, is set in five movements: an opening and closing chorus with three movements for solo voices in between. Furthermore, in all four masses, the first solo movement in the Gloria is always given to the bass; but there seems to be no obvious reason for this.
The opening of the Gloria is an outburst of praise, and in the A major mass Bach reused music from his cantata no 67 to great effect, with tempo changes marking the choir and solo voices within a complex movement covering a lot of the text. The flutes again feature as soloists in the slow sections. [listen]
The first aria of the A major mass is another movement where we don't know of an original version of the music; as many of Bach's cantatas are lost to us now perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. But the statistics are interesting. Each Lutheran mass has six movements, making 24 in all. Of these 24, there are only four now that can't be traced back to an earlier version. One other movement (the Kyrie of the Mass in F) is a reworking of an earlier setting of the same text. The other 19 are all reworkings of music from the cantatas with new texts and some musical rearrangement.
The bass aria, "Domine Deus", uses solo violin and continuo to accompany the voice. [listen] The flutes appear again, hauntingly, in the following aria for soprano. Here we have one of those rare moments in Bach where the continuo line - the bassline - is silent. The flutes and the voice are accompanied by the violins and violas in unison. [listen]
A far more jolly aria follows, returning us to praise as opposed to a prayer for mercy, with the alto voice accompanied by the violins and violas in unison, supported by the continuo. The resulting tone is warm and comforting, with the instrumental part and the vocal part both in the alto register. Bach seems to be at pains to vary the texture throughout the masses and provide light and shade at every opportunity. [listen]
The final chorus of the Gloria is a virtuoso piece in a brisk 12/8, the music being taken from cantata no 136. However to make the connection work with the preceding aria, Bach had to compose three slow introductory bars. [listen]
The second of Bach's Lutheran masses we'll look at in this survey is the Mass in G major, BWV236. Like the A major mass, the score in Bach's handwriting still exists and it also dates from the late 1730s, but we have no idea if he actually performed it in Leipzig as no performance parts survive. This raises the possibility that some or all of the Lutheran masses may have been written as a commission for someone else and not, at least initially, for his own use. This would explain the re-use of so much material from the Leipzig cantatas in the masses, because another city wouldn't have heard any of the music before, and re-using old music meant that he could write the pieces faster.
There's a belief among some Bach scholars that the Lutheran masses were written for a Count Franz Anton von Sporck, whose estate was in Bohemia, but the evidence for this is flimsy and far from substantiated. The fact is we don't really know why Bach wrote these works, and as there is evidence of only one of them being performed at Leipzig (the A major) the question for now must remain open.
This is not to in any way denigrate the masses themselves. The six movements of the G major mass are derived from four different Bach cantatas - BWV 17, 79, 138 and 179 - and uses oboes in place of the flutes we heard in the A major mass. It's fascinating to see in the Kyrie that Bach adapted a movement which in its original cantata version set a text contrasting genuine fear of God and hypocritical fear of God. He expressed this musically by writing a counter fugue. In a counter fugue, the fugue subject is answered not by itself but by an inversion of itself, the subject upside down. This makes complete sense in the cantata, where the original form of the subject represents genuine fear of God, while the inverted form represents hypocritical fear of God. But in the mass this fugue sets different words, in Greek: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison" (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy) so the original meaning of the musical device is lost. Bach uses the music as simply music, and not music with a close connection to the text.
This doesn't make it any better or worse than the cantata original. It's still a stunning fugue. It also, by the way, quashes a myth about the Mozart Requiem. Time and again you'll hear that the Kyrie of the Mozart Requiem was the first setting of that text to have the words "Kyrie eleison" and "Christe eleison" sung simultaneously. Not so; Bach does it right here more than half a century earlier. [listen]
The opening chorus of the Gloria of the G major mass is one of my favourite pieces of Bach. It starts with a feeling of leisurely ambling along. Then the orchestra takes off with rhythms that are twice as fast, creating the sense of the tempo doubling, and the two "moods" - leisurely and busy - alternating, then combining. From what starts out sounding like the most laid back Gloria ever ends up being one Bach's most exciting pieces of church music...and that's saying something. [listen]
The three solo movements in the middle of the Gloria are all exquisite. The radiant bass aria, setting "Gratias agimus tibi", gives the voice a full string section accompaniment. [listen]
A darker mood pervades the duet for soprano and alto which follows. It starts with the continuo alone, after which the voices enter, and only then do the unison violins enter with a commentary, rather than an accompaniment, to the voices. [listen]
And the final solo movement features one of Bach's most searching and wide-ranging oboe solos, which accompanies the solo tenor as he begins the final part of the text. [listen]
The Mass in G ends with one of Bach's typically bubbly chorus movements in which every line - the four choir parts, the two oboe parts and each line in the string orchestra - is of equal importance. The oboes are often contrasted against the two violin parts, and every musician involved requires terrific agility and finesse to negotiate the incredibly complex texture. This is some of my very special music. [listen]
The Mass in G minor, BWV235, reuses every possible movement of one of Bach's cantatas - No 187 - as well as movements from two other cantatas. It's scored for the same forces as the Mass in G major - 2 oboes, strings and continuo, in addition to the voices - but it inhabits a much more serious emotional world by virtue of its minor key. The Kyrie is extensive, with the three lines of the text given completely separate treatment within one large movement.
The "Christe eleison" and the second "Kyrie eleison" are each set to fugues, and the second Kyrie has an angular fugue subject which contains two tritones for the voices to negotiate. The tritone is an interval of three whole tones, known as a diminished fifth or an augmented fourth, and in traditional vocal writing it's avoided because of its supposed difficulty to sing. Bach clearly had no such fears. [listen]
The opening lines of the Gloria are traditionally set to joyous music as befits their sentiment - "Glory to God on high and on earth peace, goodwill towards men" - and in all his other mass settings Bach follows this practice. In this mass though, he maintains the home key of G minor, resulting in one of the darkest settings of the Gloria I know. [listen]
As in all the Lutheran masses, the central three movements of the Gloria are given to solo voices, and the first is an aria for the bass. The violins are in unison, while the oboes and violas are silent. But the mode remains in the minor, in D minor this time after the G minor of the preceding two movements. [listen]
It's not until the central aria that we encounter a movement in a major key. In the "Domine fili", the alto is accompanied by the full string section, with the first oboe occasionally doubling the first violins to provide changes in colour; the oboe has very little on its own in the movement, but its colour is somehow indispensable. [listen]
The sense of emotional repose is enhanced by Bach's sequence of keys from this aria - in B flat major - to the next, which is in E flat. Movement of this kind, to the subdominant key (the key of the fourth degree of the scale), always creates a sense of calm, and Bach's setting of the "Qui tollis" for solo oboe and tenor is simply ravishing. We encountered a tenor-with-solo-oboe aria in the G major mass and here again he shows that this particular combination of timbres must have been special to Bach. In this case though the aria is in two sections, slow then fast. [listen]
As he did with the first movement of the Gloria, where he stayed in the minor mode despite the sentiments of praise in the text, so here in the final choral movement Bach does the same, returning to and remaining in the home key of G minor. The opening section, in close imitation among the voices, is followed by a formal fugue of intense and intricate counterpoint, making great demands on the virtuosity of both the singers and the instrumentalists. Yet again he shows himself to be the master of this sort of writing. [listen]
As with the G minor mass, the Mass in F major, BWV233, presents many questions as to its origins and purpose. Bach's score is lost and we have no idea as to its date. The Kyrie, we do know, is his revision of an earlier setting of the Kyrie text, but the original versions of the two movements which follow it are not known.
The remaining three movements are revisions of music from cantatas Nos 40 and 102. One might think that the final version of the mass would be something of a hotch-potch, but if you weren't aware of the borrowings - as I wasn't when I first discovered these pieces - you wouldn't suspect that it wasn't conceived in this form. As in all the masses, Bach reuses and adapts just the right music from his past works in just the right way. The seams never show, and in the case of the F major mass the result is magnificent and thrilling.
An interesting point here is that in setting German texts in his cantatas, Bach frequently used da capo form, a form most commonly associated with opera of the period. In this, a main first section is followed by a contrasting middle section, after which the first section is repeated "from the top" ("da capo" in Italian). In setting Latin, though, Bach never used da capo form; the texts don't permit it. This raises the question: what did he do when adapting a da capo original setting a German text for use in works with Latin texts?
The answer is that he usually wrote out an ending to the movement which is based on the opening - so preserving the sense of a three-part structure and providing musical balance - but this ending is not an exact repeat of the first section "from the top". This can be seen on a number of occasions in his Latin settings which make it clear that the original was a da capo movement. The F major mass contains a couple of notable examples, which I'll mention as we come to them.
Of the four Lutheran masses, the F major uses the biggest instrumental forces, with pairs of horns and oboes in addition to the strings and continuo. The horn parts are extremely demanding and as with Bach's horn and trumpet parts generally, shows that he must have had highly accomplished players at his disposal.
The Kyrie doesn't give any hint of the exuberant colourful writing to follow. It sets the three sections of the text in three separate fugues. Over the top of this, the horns and oboes in unison intone the hymn tune Christe, du Lamm Gottes. The hymn is a prayer to Christ for mercy, which is exactly the same intent as the central utterance of the Kyrie, "Christe eleison" (Christ have mercy). The result is music that is rich and comforting and completely satisfying on every level. [listen]
The opening chorus of the Gloria of the F major mass couldn't be more different to the equivalent movement in the G minor mass. Here we have the horns and oboes released to be soloists in their own right, working in intricate counterpoint with the strings, and it's here that it becomes obvious that if Bach intended to use this music himself then he must have had two extraordinarily gifted horn players in mind. The choral writing is also virtuosic, in a rollicking 6/8 meter with complex cross rhythms. The exuberance and joy in this music is seriously amazing.
It's also clear that, even though we don't know what the original music was that Bach adapted for this movement, it must have been in da capo form. The middle section begins at "Laudamus te" and the quasi reprise at "Gratias agimus tibi". [listen]
Uniquely among the four Lutheran masses, the first two solo movements of the F major mass are connected. The bass aria "Domine Deus" modulates from C major to G but then stops. It shows its origins as a da capo aria, but Bach only uses the first two sections. [listen] It's then interrupted by the next aria, which is in G minor. This is yet another extensive oboe solo but this time accompanying a soprano. [listen]
A stern-sounding aria in D minor for alto completes the three solo movements in the F major mass. Like the soprano aria before it, its music originated in Bach's cantata No 102. The "Quoniam" is the beginning of the final part of the Gloria text, returning to praise from a series of pleas for mercy, but the D minor key maintains a tone of seriousness a little longer. [listen]
The final chorus of the Gloria in Bach's Mass in F major returns to the scoring and colours of the opening movement, with horns and oboes to the fore in the accompaniment. Based on a movement from his cantata No 40, this fugue in the voices has a drive and energy which hides the incredible intellectual rigour he brought to creating this music. Every part, every voice is important. In a sense, nothing is an accompaniment, and the music moves to its logical yet thrilling climax in under three minutes. [listen]
As I said earlier, the Lutheran masses are hardly ever performed today, and this is a tragedy, although they've been recorded several times in recent years, making this music more widely known and available to music lovers. Fortunately, prejudice against them is fading away as we come to understand that their extensive use of borrowings from earlier works doesn't negate their interest or brilliance as works of art. And the fact that many much-loved works by Bach also use earlier material makes us realise that pedigree has nothing to do with quality, especially when it comes to this composer
This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2015.