J.S. Bach, Lutheran Masses — Mar 2010

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH: Lutheran Masses

When Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was in Leipzig, he had to compose music for the four major churches. Normally that entailed composing a cantata for each Sunday service—that is, a work for choir, soloists and orchestra (in different combinations), specifically for that liturgical day, often based on the hymn tune (chorale) for the day. On high feasts, however, the main Leipzig churches performed Latin music. For this reason we have wonderful pieces such as the Magnificat (for Vespers), separate mass movements, missae, and masses. The distinction between the missa (a Latin word meaning, in fact, mass) and the mass is that the latter term is used to indicate a setting of the five parts of the ordinary of the mass (those parts that are sung every day regardless of the feast, namely Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), while the former indicates a setting of only the first two parts of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, the missa of the B Minor Mass was composed separately and earlier than the rest (except for the Sanctus), and the manuscript of the B Minor Mass calls the first two parts missa.

While in Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 years of his life, Bach composed four short masses (or missae or missae breves), which are also known as the Lutheran masses, for it was customary in the Lutheran liturgy to perform only Kyrie and Gloria in polyphony. These short masses, BWV 233–236, mostly based on cantata movements, are a compendium of all the compositional techniques and styles employed by the master. Bach took previously composed movements from cantatas and changed their text, and often the music to some degree, in a technique called parody. The latter statement has, of course, two implications. The first is that even though the completed works date from the late 1730s or early 1740s, the music dates from an earlier period. The second implication is that by changing the texts of the pieces from the original German to Latin, Bach also untethered the music from its once-a-year-or-less position in the yearly liturgical cycle.

We don’t know the purpose of these specific works since no performance is known. However, they may well have been presented to the Dresden court, for which Bach had composed the B Minor missa in 1733. From the sole source that survives—a manuscript copied by Bach’s favorite copyist and later son-in-law J.C. Altnickol containing all four works—it is clear that they go together as a group. Also, the four missae have the same structure and layout both within the individual movements and within the larger setting of the missa.

Today’s concert features the two missae that use oboes: the G Major, BWV 236, and the G Minor, BWV 235. These works, each in six movements, are entirely parody works, i.e. each movement is the reworking and retexting of an already existing cantata movement. The cantatas used as models for the various movements in the two missae are listed after the table below.

The table shows the cantata movement, or model, for each missa movement, including the original form of the piece (BWV 187/1 means the first movement of cantata BWV 187). Most of the cantatas used for these two missae were also used for one or both of the other two, again creating connections among the four works.

Missa BWV 235 in g minor
1. Kyrie SATB chorus BWV 102/1 SATB chorus
2. Gloria SATB chorus BWV 72/1 SATB chorus
3. Gratias agimus B aria BWV 187/4 B aria
4. Domine fili A aria BWV 187/3 A aria
5. Qui tollis T aria BWV 187/5 S aria
6. Cum Sancto Spiritu SATB chorus BWV 187/1 SATB chorus
Missa BWV 236 in G major
1. Kyrie SATB chorus BWV 179/1 SATB chorus
2. Gloria SATB chorus BWV 79/1 SATB chorus
3. Gratias agimus B aria BWV 138/5 B aria
4. Domine fili SA duet BWV 79/5 SB aria
5. Quoniam to solus T aria BWV 179/3 S aria
6. Cum Sancto Spiritu SATB chorus BWV 17/1 SATB chorus

BWV 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, for Trinity XIV (9/22/1726)
BWV 72 Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, for Epiphany III (1/27/1726)
BWV 79 Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, for Reformation (10/31/1725)
BWV 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen, for Trinity X (8/25/1726)
BWV 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? for Trinity XV (9/5/1723)
BWV 179 Siehe zu, dass deine Gottes furcht, for Trinity XI (8/8/1723)
BWV 187 Es wartet alles auf dich, for Trinity VII (8/4/1726)

Some of the models were re-orchestrated too; nonetheless the reworked mass movements preserve the affect of the original, which is part of the reason Bach chose to parody them. Often composers would choose to rework an older composition not out of laziness or lack of inspiration, but rather to preserve a particularly dear or felicitous movement by giving new life in a new guise. In the case of these missae, the movements were certainly selected for appropriateness of affect and were given greater currency by being joined to a text—the Kyrie and Gloria—used at every service.

As stated, these missae are a compendium, an anthology of styles and affects. For example, the Kyrie of the Missa in G Major is an austere movement, a strict fugue in the older contrapuntal style. The instruments are limited to doubling the vocal parts, which begin with a strict fugal exposition on “Kyrie eleison,” with the theme heard both in its original and inverted form (the former ascending and the latter descending), then change to a different motive for “Christe eleison,” and finally combine the two. The next chorus, by contrast, is a modern concertato movement that starts as a duet for upper voices at “Gloria,” later joined by the lower two voices at “Et in terra.” The instruments (oboes and strings) have independent parts that echo the voices at times, but often play independent instrumental interludes.

The third movement, “Gratias agimus,” for bass solo calls for strings in three parts and basso continuo. The upper violin and the bass (both vocal and instrumental) have the most interesting parts. The movement begins and ends with an extended instrumental ritornello. For the fourth movement, “Domine Deus,” Bach goes to the upper voices to contrast the bass aria, thus transforming the original tenor part of the cantata duet into an alto part. In this delightfully delicate duet (I almost said delicious) the two violin parts play in unison while the two vocal parts move in parallel thirds or chase each other in sets of wonderful suspensions. The last of the three solo arias, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” calls for a virtuoso oboe player and, not surprisingly, a tenor. (Bach’s overarching concern with balance and symmetry is no secret.) The missa then concludes with a rousing chorus in the modern style, with full orchestral accompaniment and a fugue as well. This movement relates thus in style to the second movement rather than, as would have been customary, to the first.

The Missa in G Minor seems to be a “European catalogue,” featuring samples of Germanic, Italian, and French styles. It starts with a wonderfully lively concertato piece for full forces (two oboe parts, two violins, viola, SATB chorus, and basso continuo) in the Italianate style. The movement is tripartite and has new musical material for each of the three invocations. The next movement, “Gloria,” is in the same style as the “Kyrie,” and also tripartite, but with an ABA form. The difference between the outer A sections is that in the first A section the voices start top to bottom, and in the last bottom to top.

Unlike in the G Major missa, there is no part for the soprano in the three central solo movements. The “Gratias” in d minor is the movement in stile antico of this missa—a severe, tightly constructed contrapuntal piece for violins in unison, bass, and basso continuo. An Italianate movement for alto, oboe, strings and continuo follows, in great contrast to No. 3. The “Domine Fili unigenite” starts and ends with a lilting instrumental ritornello in B-flat major, parts of which are inserted between each of the soloist’s phrases. No. 5, “Qui tollis,” for tenor and oboes in unison (originally soprano and solo oboe) is in the French style, with all the customary embellishments, trills, runs and triplets we expect in that style. The second section of the movement changes from the French into a more German style. The concluding number is another concertato fugal choral movement in Germanic style, including extensive instrumental ritornelli and concluding with a very exciting passage.

The other two masses of the set similarly display a variety of styles and genres, and the four together have been compared to the B Minor Mass, not in terms of grandeur but with respect to encyclopedic variety.

On today’s program are also two independent single movements for a Latin polyphonic Mass, of the kind often used in Leipzig for Sunday mass on important feast days. The Kyrie-Christe, du Lamm Gottes in F major, BWV 233a, combines the standard Kyrie text (Kyrie eleison etc.) with the words and music of a German chorale, “Christe, du Lamm Gottes.” The chorale melody (published in a collection in 1528, possibly written by Luther himself) is sung in long notes by a portion of the soprano section one complete time for each of the three sections of the mass movement. Meanwhile the other four parts engage in lively contrapuntal movement with the sole accompaniment of the basso continuo. The latter sometimes follows the vocal bass but most often it is a “walking bass”—a bass line comprising one note per beat, as if walking with a steady pace. This feature lends the piece a peaceful but steady, almost irresistible, forward motion. This Kyrie is probably the earliest work in this genre by the master, possibly dating from before Cöthen, where Bach was appointed kappellmeister in 1717.

The other movement, the Sanctus in D major, BWV 238, features an instrumental complement to the voices, some independent (the violins) and others following the vocal parts. It was performed during Bach’s first year in Leipzig in 1723 on Christmas Day, when polyphonic music was once again permitted in the church service after being suspended for Advent, as for Lent. This lively movement starts with a fugue on the initial invocation, switching to a new texture, and an unusual 12/8 meter, for “pleni sunt coeli et terra,” which is also fugal. This delightful piece ushered in the Christmas Day celebrations with the pleasure of reintroduced polyphony.

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2010

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