Bach, B Minor Mass. T. Herbert Dimmock provides an introduction and discusses the Kyrie. BDP #286.

 <music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

If someone were to ask you to explain Bach’s B Minor Mass – or, perhaps offer an explanation as to why it is so highly regarded – what might your response be?  Of course, this is not an everyday question. But it is a question that has popped into my mind more than once. And, for me, the answer is easy. For me, this is the quintessential “desert island disk.” Actually, if I were told that I could only have only one piece of music on my “desert island” I would not hesitate in my choice. It would be Bach’s B Minor Mass. Permit me a moment to elaborate as to why that choice for me is so easy. To do that, let’s look together at the first couple of movements of the B Minor Mass.

The B Minor Mass is an absolute tour de force. The B Minor Mass is arguably the greatest music composed by Bach in his entire life. The work is twenty-seven movements in length. Bach’s division of the Latin Mass into 27 movements was achieved by dividing the entire mass into smaller phrases that were the most important to him. He could have easily made the setting five to eight movements long. After all, that is the solution that nearly every other composer makes in setting the Latin Mass. In Bach’s case, the choice of making many subdivisions offered him the opportunity to focus on concrete divisions of text that he found to be of particular interest. The reasons for those choices varied – some were liturgical, some offered chances for musical expression particularly appealing to Bach and some surely must have appealed to Bach for personal reasons that grew out of his life experiences.

Altogether, over the span of those twenty-seven movements, Bach composed music in all forms, all voices, and all instruments available in the late Baroque. Yes, one might argue or equivocate with that since opera was emerging during Bach’s lifetime that he could have included operatic forms. Regardless, if we do not include those few new and emerging musical forms, it is clear that Bach incorporated everything available to him in the mature Baroque period into the B Minor Mass. Bach assembled the B Minor Mass late in his life, finishing it in or about the year 1749. Musicologists often say that Bach “assembled” rather than composed the B Minor Mass because Bach reviewed his entire life’s work while putting the mass together. He then chose individual movements taken from various cantatas and other compositions that he felt best expressed the thought/theology behind each phrase in the entire Latin mass. Where he felt he might do better, he composed new music to add to the final overall composition.

Bach died in 1750. By the way, it is no coincidence that we choose Bach’s death date, 1750, to mark the end of the Baroque period. With Bach’s death, composers rightly felt that everything possible to be said musically in the Baroque style had indeed by said by Bach and Handel. Composers felt compelled to move musical style onward to new forms of expression.

I find interesting the large sweeping thoughts that Bach so powerfully explored in the B Minor Mass. I believe that Bach was searching not only for what he considered a comprehensive culmination of his life’s work, but also a compelling statement regarding what he considered to be a set of theological truisms. Bach sought to show through his music how those truisms were timeless. One of the biggest distinctions in the B Minor Mass is the juxtaposition of what Bach characterized as the “old church style” and the “new style.” The “new style” is well represented in the Bach Brandenburg Concertos. That music is instrumental in character, typically characterized with lively rhythms, melodies based on instrumental models (as opposed to vocal models) and an expansive use of orchestral color. The “old style” is best understood as the music composed a generation before Bach: Palestrina, and church motets would be a typical of that period.  That music tended to be slower in tempo, more choral in conception. Old style melodies tended to move by step (not with leaps).

The B Minor Mass begins with a Kyrie. The English translation of the entire text of this opening movement, kyrie eleison, is: ‘Lord have mercy.’ Bach’s Kyrie was composed in the “old style.” Let’s look together at the opening tune in the Kyrie. It is monumental. I find it deeply moving and very evocative.

Recently, I was in London and while there visited the church of St. Martins-In-The-Fields on Trafalgar Square (adjacent to the British Museum). Inside that church I heard a lovely concert. But what stuck in my mind more than the concert was a statue I saw. It was in a modern style: a Giacometti kind of statue. It was elongated. It showed somebody plaintively reaching up towards heaven, asking for mercy from the Lord. That is just what Bach does in the opening melody of the Kyrie in the B Minor Mass.

The opening tune moves upwards in little, tentative gestures. Listen: [music] Again and again the melody reaches higher and higher… [music]. Between each of those higher melodic gestures are bows - gentle, humble bows within the music. Bach is saying through his music that when we ask for mercy, we do it in a modest, beseeching way. We don’t demand it. After all, we are not Beethoven. We plead for mercy. Each time our pleadings go upward – towards heaven - we immediately and humbly bow down; respectfully requesting mercy. [music, singing] Those two components of Bach’s opening Kyrie sounds like this: [music]

This music is enormously effective; I think that the music makes it clear that Bach’s idea pleading for mercy was that it should be done respectfully… I have lived with this piece for many years – in fact for decades. For me, each and every time I perform the opening Kryie my conviction that this combination of an insistent request being made with humility is exactly what Bach had in mind. I invite you to consider that interpretation as you listing to this opening movement of the B Minor Mass.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>