BBC Music Magazine
Building a Library
The sheer variety and craftsmanship of JS Bach’s final choral masterpiece enthral Paul Riley as he chooses the finest recordings
Paul Riley chooses the best recordings of JS Bach’s Mass in B minor; plus, we name similar works to try next
Hiring George Bernard Shaw as a music critic for The Star in 1888, the newspaper’s editor advised him to ‘say what you like, but for God’s sake don’t tell us anything about Bach in B minor’. In truth, there’s an awful lot to tell. ‘The Great Catholic Mass’, as CPE Bach dubbed it (not quite accurately), raises countless questions yet ultimately silences them by dint of its allconquering monumentality, the perfection of its myriad calculations, and the sheer humanity that informs every note. Haydn sourced a score from Hamburg; Beethoven twice requested a copy for himself – the second time with thoughts towards his Missa solemnis, whose scale and ambition owe something to Johann Sebastian’s example – and Liszt was among those present at what was probably the first complete public performance, which took place in Leipzig in 1859, over a century after Bach’s death.
Like Monteverdi’s equally compendious Vespers of 1610, the B minor Mass started life as a sort of elevated job application. Perennially status-conscious and increasingly ground down by the machinations of Leipzig life, Bach spotted an opportunity with the death of the Elector of Saxony in 1733. Hoping at very least to obtain an honorary title with which to bolster his authority, Bach composed an elaborate ‘Missa’ (a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria) to present to the new ruler. With its weather eye on the Court’s penchant for extravagant Neapolitanstyle Mass settings rich in quasi-operatic solo vocal writing, and mindful of the exceptional instrumental forces available, the new work had ‘Dresden’ written all over it. Dispatching a set of parts, Bach added a fulsome dedication commending ‘a small sample of the kind of scholarship I have attained in musique’. Whether it was performed in the Saxon capital is open to speculation and, in any event, three years would elapse before a title finally came his way. Nonetheless, emerging at the end of the decade a further four conspicuously more intimate ‘Missae’ suggest the idea had seeded itself – a bridge to that all
Bach became increasingly obsessed with what today would be called his ‘legacy’
embracing ‘sample’ of Bach’s most exacting ‘scholarship’: the B minor Mass.
During the 1740s, Bach became increasingly obsessed with what today would be called his ‘legacy’. Works such as the Art of Fugue, the Goldberg Variations or the Musical Offering were designed to showcase, in the most comprehensive way, his mastery of counterpoint. ★ow similarly to enshrine his achievements in the sphere of sacred music?
All too aware of changing fashions surrounding cantata poetry, he perhaps felt that the text of the Mass would remain a timeless anchor forever above the vicissitudes of popular taste. Moreover, a setting of the entirety, its scale determined by the 1733 Missa, would give huge scope for the encyclopaedic enterprise envisaged. By dusting down a Sanctus dating back to Christmas 1724 he was already well on the way, relying on the refashioning of existing material and minimal original composition to fill the admittedly considerable gaps.
The Credo’s Crucifixus, for example, revisits a cantata movement from
1714 Weimar (the earliest music to be ‘foraged’) while the re-fashioning of the Et incarnatus – a late addition – probably represents, alongside the Confiteor, the last choral music Bach ever wrote. The change of heart was to accommodate a searing (ultimately jubilant) choral triptych underscoring the centrality of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Indeed, almost looking forward to Mozart’s Requiem, and evidently touched by Bach’s recent acquaintance with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the tenderness of the Et incarnatus points up a stark contrast with the ‘stile antico’ austerity of, say, the second Kyrie fugue; the concerto-like brilliance of the Gloria’s explosive opening goes hand-inhand with the granite plainsong cantus firmus of the Confiteor, while the skirling soprano Laudamus te glances towards the opera house. As always with Bach, variety rules supreme.
It’s a variety, though, always at the service of a rigorous theological interrogation in which artful architectural strategies make room for cunning numerological conceits. And Bach the miracle-worker fuses the disparate into a whole, overwhelming in its cumulative effect. When CPE
Bach directed the Credo during a charity concert in 1786, the Hamburger Correspondent reported that it was ‘one of the most splendid musical works that has ever been heard’. Extended to the
Mass in its entirety, nearly a quarter of a millennium on, ‘Amen’ to that!
Turn the page to discover the best recordings of JS Bach’s B minor Mass