Well, here we are… we have finally reached the end of our own little Bachfest. Although next week will bring new, different music, we have one last piece to say goodbye (for now) to the great J.S. Bach. There are so many amazing pieces we did not look at this month, but the final musical moment of this series was an easy choice: his epic Mass in B Minor.
Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is a setting of the missa ordinarium, or “ordinary mass,” and was Bach’s last major musical undertaking in the final years of his life. There is no known occasion for this work, but scholars note that even though he was probably THE famous Lutheran, Bach sought to contribute to the canon of the Roman Catholic mass, which at the time was the most demanding and prestigious musical genre apart from opera. He first composed the opening settings of Kyrie and Gloria in 1733 and presented it to the then Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus II, accompanied by a letter in which Bach humbly requests that he might “regard it not according to the imperfection of its composition, but with a most gracious eye…take me into your most mighty protection.” There is also further research that suggests that Bach’s desire was to preserve his choral works in a medium with wider appeal than his own church cantatas. He actually reused many fragments from his cantatas as movements the mass… like a remix!
There are many elements make the B Minor Mass unique from other works of the period, such as Bach paying homage to earlier masses by combining Renaissance style with modern form and technique. For example, several movements, such as the opening section of the Credo setting, Credo in unum Deum, are written in what’s called a modal style. Modes were the predominant harmonic and melodic system in the Renaissance (1400-1600) but were mostly replaced by 1733 when this movement was written. Another unusual aspect is that not only did Bach compose this massive Catholic mass while being a devout Lutheran, but he also completed it in the form of a Missa tota, which means it is a setting the Eucharistic mass text instead of the traditional Latin. Still, the defining characteristic of the mass is its scale: a complete performance time of about 2 hours, and a scoring for two SATB choruses, soloists, and an expanded orchestra (itself unusual in that time) with an increased wind section, strings, continuo, and 3 trumpets. Today, the B Minor Mass is largely recognized as one of the crowning achievements in music history and is performed regularly with both period and modern instruments.
The moment I chose for today’s moment is the final movement of the mass, Dona nobis pacem, or “Give us peace.” Many of you may be aware of other settings of this text, but this is one of my favorites. With the final notes of his final piece of music, Bach combines the Renaissance style with more imitative material on the word “peace.” a quote from a previous movement Gratias agimus tibi, thus connecting his praise to God (gratias) with a prayer for peace (pacem). This short final movement provides a beautifully appropriate closure, not only to this masterpiece but perhaps moreso to a life of music and faith well lived. I chose this recording of Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir because I think his drastically slower tempo choice really enhances that feeling.
To me, Bach has always felt relatable in so many ways, and the more I study and learn about his life, the stronger my connection to his music becomes. Thank you to everyone for following me through this musical journey. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. Next Bachfest needs to be in Leipzig, who is with me?! 😊
Liebe grüße an alle,