The most celebrated of all Bach’s vocal works

By Masters student Andrew Frampton

Masters student Andrew Frampton, who is working with musicology Professor Kerry Murphy to develop a forthcoming Bach symposium, explains the significance of Bach’s Mass in B minor ahead of its much anticipated MSO performance in Melbourne in August.

It has been called ‘The Greatest Musical Artwork of All Times and All Nations’, an ‘opus summum’, and a crowning musical achievement of the Baroque era. And yet, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor remains an enigmatic work, a towering monument of Western art music that in its length and scope far outstrips anything else that had been previously written in the genre.

A work of sublime beauty, intense emotion and perfect construction, and one that continues to fascinate scholars, performers and audiences alike, at its time of creation it had no explicit purpose or performance context.

For a long time, musicologists thought the B minor Mass had been written entirely during the 1730s, when Bach had already completed the majority of his church cantatas and was turning his attention to other types of vocal music.

In fact, the work in its final form dates from the last years of Bach’s life, around 1748-49, but it had a far longer gestation, for much of the piece is made up of independently conceived compositions that were then later revised and incorporated into the final work.

For example, the Sanctus (the third of the four major parts of the complete Mass) began life as a separate setting for use in the Leipzig churches on Christmas Day 1724. Another of these individual pieces was a Missa (the first of the parts) that Bach composed in 1733 for presentation in Dresden to the new Elector of Saxony. His dedication letter to the Elector referred to it as a “small work of that science which I have achieved in musique”.

Exactly why Bach decided to expand the Missa into a complete mass setting remains uncertain. He had long been fascinated with Latin Church music, and had already written several short pieces in the genre, but there would have been no place for a complete Latin mass setting in a Lutheran church service, and in any case, the sheer length of the final composition (over two hours) would have made a complete performance in a liturgical context very unlikely.

Did Bach perhaps view the B minor mass as a kind of personal artistic legacy? Certainly, part of the appeal for him seems to have been that the text is not tied to an expressly Lutheran doctrine, but rather transcends theological boundaries. This made the Mass a truly ‘universal’ sacred work that could speak to the widest possible audience.

In its final 27-movement form, the Mass in B minor represents a complete synthesis of all the major kinds of vocal writing of Bach’s day. It encompasses music for every type of solo voice and complex choral textures for four to eight voices; it showcases the Baroque orchestra to its maximum effect and features representative solo instruments of all kinds; and it spans a vast range of musical styles and compositional techniques, from old-style strict part-writing to the most modern musical language. It draws on music written over a period of more than 25 years, and therefore represents in many ways the pinnacle and summation of Bach’s formidable vocal output.

On 7, 8 and 9 August, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will perform Bach’s Mass in B minor. In anticipation of this event, and in honour of the visit to Australia by one of the world’s most renowned Bach scholars, Professor Christoph Wolff, the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (in association with the Australian Bach Society and St Johns Lutheran Church) will be hosting a symposium titled ‘Bach Studies in Australia’, as part of the Melbourne Bach Forum. The symposium will showcase the very best of Bach scholarship from across the country, and feature concert performances of music by Bach, his family and his contemporaries. The highlight will be a public lecture on Friday 25 July given by Professor Wolff on ‘Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig’, where he will address general aspects regarding this period in Bach’s life, including a context for the Mass in B minor, this most universal and celebrated of all Bach’s vocal works.

Article was first published in Voice, Volume 10 Number 7 July 14 – August 10 2014

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.