Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Program Notes for Bach's Mass in B Minor

I prepared these program notes for a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor by the Combined Choruses and Orchestra of Furman University under the direction of Professor Bingham Vick, April 23, 2010. My sincere thanks to Dr. Vick for entrusting me with this privilege.

Program Notes for Bach's Mass in B Minor 

Bach's massive achievement in sacred music culminates in his Mass in B Minor, completed in 1749, the year before his death. A correspondingly massive body of literature discusses every facet of the Mass: its composition and compilation, its resulting coherence or incoherence, its Catholic or Protestant character, its wealth of symmetries and symbols secreted in the score. Tonight, however, the rare gift of a live performance of the complete Mass—for which Bach’s original had to wait a century—affords us direct, sensory experience of Bach's crowning expression of faith through music.

KYRIE (3 movements)

Kyrie eleison. Bach opens his Mass by invoking the Trinity with three imposing choral statements of Kyrie, “Lord.” The orchestra then introduces the theme of a monumental five-part choral fugue emphasizing eleison, “have mercy.” The music's chromaticism, minor tonality, concentrated texture, and sheer duration (this is by far the Mass’s longest movement) express the urgency of human need.

Christe eleison. In contrast to the Kyrie eleison, Bach’s appeal to the mercy of Christ is warmly welcoming in a major key, though, following a violin interlude, a second section returns to minor and conveys its own urgency. The two sopranos suggest Christ’s uniting of divinity and humanity as Bach alternates parallel and interweaving melodic lines.

Kyrie eleison. In Bach's theology God’s provision for mercy through Christ is by way of suffering and sacrifice, and the four opening notes of this choral fugue, first heard from the basses, seem to sketch the Cross: a beginning note, up to a half step above, down to a half step below, and back again to the original note. The four-part fugue on this cruciform theme accumulates power and ends in a major chord.

GLORIA (9 movements)

Gloria in excelsis. Trumpets, tympani, and virtuosic orchestral writing express the shift from human need to divine glory. Triple meter praises the triune God. On the repeated in excelsis, “in the highest,” the sopranos eventually climb to a high B.

Et in terra pax. Without a musical break, a sudden modification of mood and meter introduces “and on earth peace.” Bach expresses this prayer for humanity in music both imploring and hopeful. Fugal lines gather spirit and, upon the words hominibus bonae voluntatis, "all of good will," end in triumph.

Laudamus te. Solo violin and mezzo soprano declare “we praise thee” with ornamented, interlacing melody. Above the soprano’s final glorificamus te, “we glorify thee,” the violin climbs up and up to a stratospheric A, three octaves above middle C.

Gratias agimus tibi. An expansive and lyrical double fugue expresses “we give thanks to thee.” Gradually trumpets and tympani add their voices in proclaiming propter magnam gloriam tuam, “for thy great glory.”

Domine Deus. In the company of a winsome flute, soprano and tenor echo one another, singing complementary texts in a duet that express the duality of “Father almighty” and “only begotten Son.” Yet this duality is also unity, and following an extended central interlude for flute, the two voices sing together on Domine Deus, agnus Dei, “Lord God, lamb of God.”

Qui tollis peccata mundi. Without pause we hear the somber words “who takes away the sins of the world” in descending triads, minor tonality, solemn tempo, and a darkening of the chorus’s range, as Bach leaves the highest sopranos silent. Above the chorus two flutes wing their hovering flight.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris. Bach first assigns the theme of miserere nobis, “have mercy upon us,” to a plaintive oboe d'amore, evoking occasional soft sighs from the strings. The solo voice then pours forth supplication for the mercy of Christ, “seated at the right hand of the Father.”

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. What a surprise! Bach sets “thou alone art most holy...most high” to music quite low: hunting horn, bassoons and solo bass voice. The hunting horn is traditionally associated with royalty. Might the low register of this musical ensemble, unique in Bach’s music, suggest the paradoxical humility of Christ’s royal holiness?

Cum Sancto Spiritu. To celebrate the Holy Spirit—God's divine energy, the third person of the Trinity—Bach charges his music with energetic triple meter in a surging dance of praise. An exuberant five-part fugue leads to brilliant repetitions of in gloria Dei Patris, Amen, "in the glory of God the Father, Amen," a glorious climax to the entire GLORIA.

CREDO (9 movements)

Credo in unum Deum. The tenors begin Bach’s multi-movement proclamation of the church’s Nicene Creed with a Gregorian melody long used for that purpose. Out of this theme Bach constructs a five-voice fugue of imposing clarity and confidence, a fitting introduction to Christianity’s central definition of faith: “I believe in one God....”

Patrem omnipotentem. Bach praises “the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” in fugal writing of irresistible intentionality. In the final seven measures, the orchestra runs its full range from the lowest notes of the strings to the highest notes of the trumpet, sweeping upward through omnium visibilium et invisibilium, “all things visible and invisible.”

Et in unum Dominum. For the third time Bach chooses a duet to portray Christ's dual nature, Deum verum de Deo...descendit de coelis, “true God from true God...who came down from heaven.” This time the duet is double, with intricate interplay among oboes and violins, repeated and elaborated by soprano and alto.

Et incarnatus est. A reverential, descending motif in the violins introduces and accompanies the pervasive choral theme: a descending arpeggio, expressive of divine descent to humankind in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation ex Maria virgine, “from the virgin Mary.”

Crucifixus. The fifth movement of nine, Crucifixus is at the center of Bach’s CREDO, as Christ’s crucifixion is at the center of Bach’s faith. Over a descending, chromatic bass pattern in the orchestra, reiterated twelve times, Bach writes choral music intensely charged with chromatic tension. Then, at the very last, a miraculous modulation carries et sepultus est, “and was buried,” to a hushed ending as tender as a Pietà.

Et resurrexit. Resurrected life surges in a rousing dance. For the first time since the GLORIA Bach employs full orchestra. Amid the exultation, in an extraordinary innovation, Bach sets et iterum venturus est cum gloria, “and he shall come again in glory,” in what might be called a coloratura solo for the entire bass section.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum. Bach lightens texture to confess faith in the Holy Spirit, vivificantem, “life-giver.” This tribute to the third person of the Trinity is a trio for two oboes and bass solo, in triple meter. The setting is uncomplicated and the mood pastoral.

Confiteor. A confident choral fugue strides through the confession of faith in unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum, “one baptism for the remission of sins.” At the final occurrence of peccatorum the music slows dramatically and turns somber, leading without pause to the next movement.

Et expecto resurrectionem. “We look for the resurrection of the dead” is hushed and apprehensive. Then resurrection bursts forth in a dance of ecstatic celebration, and Bach concludes the entire CREDO with a series of florid, ascending Amens.

SANCTUS (2 movements).

Sanctus. In the biblical Sanctus of Isaiah, chapter 6, six-winged seraphs sing a threefold “holy, holy, holy.” Bach’s musical setting is a nesting of threes within sixes. A massive six-part chorus calls out in triadic groupings, proclaiming sanctus in whirling triplet rhythm.

Pleni sunt coeli et terra. With no musical break, the chorus enters upon a fugue. The full orchestra soon joins, and a lively swirl resounds until “heaven and earth” are indeed “full of God’s glory.”

OSANNA and BENEDICTUS (3 movements)

Osanna. After the Sanctus, with its full orchestra and six-part chorus, we might ask what resources remain for Bach to use in this subsequent outburst of salutation and praise: “Hosanna in the highest”? Bach’s answer: a full orchestra with eight-part chorus. The lucid architecture of Bach’s fugal writing leads to a gladsome instrumental conclusion.

Benedictus. In striking contrast to what has preceded, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” engages only three musical lines—wistful violin, tenor voice, and continuo—as if in sudden recollection that Christ’s blessedness takes the humble form of suffering servant. The final vocal phrase is abandoned by the violin, which then resumes to conclude the movement.

Osanna. In accordance with liturgical practice, Bach repeats the “Hosanna.” After the sobering Benedictus this startling recurrence of tumult seems oblivious to Christ’s impending suffering—as indeed the crowds seemed to be who cheered Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the foal of an ass.

AGNUS DEI (2 movements)

Agnus Dei. This aria for unison violins and alto, with its inconsolable chromaticism and minor mode, gives occasion for intent meditation on the sufferings of Christ as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” At one occurrence of peccata, "sins," Bach brings the music to a complete standstill.

Dona nobis pacem. For his closing movement, “ Grant us peace,” Bach returns to music he has earlier used for Gratias agimus tibi, “We give thanks to thee.” Thus Bach’s conclusion seems less an urgent petition, such as we heard in the opening Kyrie eleison, than a grateful acknowledgement of the peace presented by, and provided through, the Mass.


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