Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 1 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Bach: Kyrie from Mass in G-minor, BWV235 (1738–39)

Each of the Kyries we shall consider in this multiple-entry posting is composed in three sections. This is determined in part by musical convention, but also by the threefold text: Kyrie eleison / Christe eleison / Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy / Christ have mercy / Lord have mercy.

This Kyrie is from Bach's Mass in G-minor, one of his four "short masses" composed in 1738–39. In it Bach reuses music he had originally composed in 1726 for the opening movement of his Cantata 102.

Here is one page from the Kyrie's score—actually, two pages published one above the other on a single sheet:

At a glance we see lots and lots of notes and almost no clear spaces. Bach often wrote music in this densely concentrated style. This is a characteristic principle of much music from the "Baroque" period, of which Bach was the supreme master. Scholars call it the principle of "elaboration," that is, the practice of filling every nook and cranny with melodic invention, variation, interaction, and imitation.

Bach opens both the second and third sections of his Kyrie with a fugue, that is, a melody strictly imitated by successive voices or instruments. In the first measure of the above pages of the score we see the beginning of one of those fugue melodies—a dotted rhythm followed by an upward leap of an octave—in 1st oboe, 1st violin, and the sopranos of the chorus. The melody recommences in the first measure of the lower page (1st oboes and 1st violins), and again in the next-to-last measure on the sheet (sopranos).

All the other musical lines on these pages are independent yet thoroughly interrelated melodies, and each and every one of these melodies is its own thing of beauty. One of the names given to this wondrous melodic interweaving is counterpoint.

I find myself thinking of this Kyrie, with its dense counterpoint and rich harmonic hues, as a profuse musical tapestry. Bach's fundamental harmonies are like warp threads. They provide a strong basic structure. And as a tapestry's warp threads are usually deeply embedded, not on prominent display, so too with Bach's harmonies.

For example, in the fourth measure of the excerpt above Bach comes home to his Kyrie's basic tonality of G-minor (see the lowest note of the Continuo part). But this return is not a harmonic event, not a musical cadence. Rather, it is an inconspicuous harmonic moment: Bach simply touches base with his home key and keeps on running.

Some listeners are skilled enough to keep track of Bach's harmonic modulations in a piece like this. I am not. After a few measures Bach leaves me behind in a state of wonderment. But never for a moment do I doubt that Herr Bach knows exactly where he is harmonically, and exactly where he is going.

Upon his sturdy harmonic warp Bach weaves his elaborate weft of melodies, displaying intricate patternings and subtle harmonic colorations.

Bach was a man of profound Lutheran faith. He considered music his divine calling, with counterpoint as a basic language of worship. Not merely counterpoint as elaboration; not merely as maximum elaboration. Bach strove for complete and perfect elaboration.

Upon first hearing Bach's counterpoint, Johann von Goethe wrote:
It is as if the eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have done, in the bosom of God, just before the Creation of the world.1
Remarkably, Martin Luther himself—exactly two centuries earlier—endorsed musical counterpoint as a worthy offering in praise of God:
When learning...develops and refines...natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet not to comprehend) God's absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music. Here it is most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor [the melody], while at the same time many other voices play around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine roundelay....2
That is Luther speaking of the comparatively simple counterpoint of 1538. What, we have to wonder, might Luther have thought of Bach's divine roundelays!

In this Kyrie, I feel, Bach offers God his most costly gift: a musical tapestry of complete and perfect counterpoint. It is an offering of gratitude: Bach's gratitude for God's mercy bestowed through Christ, and Bach's gratitude for his own God-given genius. Thus he wrote at the end of manuscripts: Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory."


One might especially listen for (a) the marvelous opening twenty measures of counterpoint where the instruments play alone, then for how the chorus joins in and the counterpoint grows more and more elaborate; (b) Bach's two different fugue melodies that open section two and section three; and (c) how in the Kyrie's final twenty measures the oboes repeat exactly their opening twenty measures, which Bach meshes effortlessly with the myriad melodic motifs he has introduced in between.

Recordings of the Bach Kyrie are available free at for anyone who signs up. I particularly enjoy the Purcell Quartet's performance: click on Browse and type in the Search box "bach, kyrie, mass in g-minor, purcell quartet;" then click on Show All Results.
(Continued in Part 2 of this 4-part posting) 

1. Arthur Duke Coleridge, ed., Goethe's Letters to Zelter (BiblioLife, 2009), p.293.
2. Luther's Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Fortress Press, 1965), Vol 53, Liturgy and Hymns, "Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae iucunde, 1538," tr. Ulrich S. Leupold, p.324.


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