Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor:
The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People
The Tangeman Lecture delivered April 18, 2003
When we go to the movies or watch television, the first things we encounter arecommercials. No place in our life is uncontaminated by sentences like "Buy meI'm the best you can get," or "You will be most satisfied with this item." Commercials surround usexcept in the sphere of high art, of classical music, the place of purity. But we all know that this is not entirely true. The title of this article proves the contrary: "Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor: The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People." That sounds just like the slogan from a commercial. Replace "artwork" by "shampoo" and you could use the sentence on television.
The title, however, was not my idea. The Swiss composer and publisher Hans Georg Nägeli (1773-1836)1 used it first, in 1818, in an advertisement. Nägeli had bought the original manuscript of the B Minor Mass from the heir of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and intended to edit the first edition of the work.2 He was unsuccessful. In 1832 the German publisher Simrock printed a piano reduction of the work, and in 1833 the first half of the score was published by Nägeli. He advertised the second half for 1834, but when he died two years later it had not yet been printed. Finally in 1845 the whole score was published.3
Two other nineteenth century editors also failed when planning to publish the Mass, or at least parts of it. In 1816 the English composer Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), a forerunner in the rediscovery of Bach on the British islands,4 made an attempt to publish the Credo of the Mass, but was unsuccessful.5 And in 1818, only a month later than Nägeli, Georg Johann Daniel Poelchau (1773-1836), a member of the Berlin Singakademie and an important collector of Bach's manuscripts,6 considered printing the score of the worka plan that was never put into effect.7
The reason for the lack of success was that in 1818 only composers and music historians were interested in Bach's music, and the entire Mass had never been performed. Although his music was never completely forgotten, Bach was a composer for specialists, a model for composers; his works were rarely performed in public.8 The few pieces by Bach published during the first third of the nineteenth century served primarily as examples for polyphonic composition, or were understood as cornerstones of music history,9 but were not to be played in public.10
This situation changed when Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) performed Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, introducing Bach to the concert hall.11 Even then, however, it was long before Bach's large-scale works were an integral part of the concert repertoire, and even longer until as complicated a piece as the B Minor Mass was performed in a public concert. Although several movements had been performed in the first half of the century, the first performance of the entire B Minor Mass was no earlier than 1859.12
Nägeli's unsuccessful campaign was not the first time that the B Minor Mass was the subject of advertising. Bach himself created the first parts of the Mass, the Kyrie and Gloria, in order to apply for the position as court composer in Dresden in 1733. He was dissatisfied with his position as cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig,13 and since the old Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I (the Strong, 1670-1733), had died that year, and his son, Friedrich August II (1696-1763), had just been enthroned, Bach offered his services to the new ruler and sent him the following letter:
To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present
small work of the science which I have achieved in musique, with
the most wholly submissive prayer that Your Highness will look
upon it with Most Gracious Eyes, according to Your Highness's
World-Famous Clemency and not according to the poor composition;
and thus deign to take me under Your Most Mighty Protection.14
The music Bach mentions in the letter, and that he sent to the Duke of Saxony, was the first half of the B Minor Mass, the Kyrie and the Gloria. Although the pieces were not entirely new (some movements were taken from earlier cantatas; see the table at the end of this essay), the Mass was a showpiece for Bach's compositional skills.
But Bach did more than just present some of his most demanding pieces. It is obvious that he knew the style of Mass composition that was popular in Dresden at his time, and that he tried to compose in a similar idiom. He used, for example, a five part choir, which is unusual in his own compositions but rather frequent in Dresden masses; he composed several movements in the old stile antico, a polyphonic style that was rooted in the music of the sixteenth century and was also popular in some of the masses at the court in Dresden; finally, the division of the Mass into several independent movements alluded to Dresden models as well.
The letter and the Kyrie-Gloria Mass formed an advertisement, saying, "Take me as your new court composer." But, like Nägeli's eighty-five years later, Bach's advertising campaign was not successful, and only in 1736 did Bach received the title "court composer."15
The B Minor Mass was in its first centuries an unsuccessful piece. But something in the music made Hans Georg Nägeli believe that it was worthy to be published, and that something has inspired generations of choirs since the second half of the nineteenth century to perform it again and again. The slogan "The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People" might have been written to sell something, but it must contain a grain of truth. The following view of the Mass, of its genesis and peculiarities, will show how Bach built this artwork, and will try to reveal the unique character of the composition.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | Contents