Bach, B minor Mass. T. Herbert Dimmock discusses movements that praise God: the sixth movement Laudamus te and Sanctus. Then he provides a conclusion for this series on the Mass. BDP #288.

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


Let’s take a look at one of the pieces that I consider one of the greatest treasures of Western civilization—the B Minor Mass. Bach’s B Minor Mass enjoys a special place in his life’s work. It is part of that group of works that he sorted through and revised and assembled into collections in the final years of his life. The B Minor Mass represents what Bach felt was his absolute best music to express the essence of each part of the text of the Latin Mass or what we might today more typically call the Roman Catholic Mass.

Bach used many of his existing movements of his other pieces. If he thought that he had written a piece that was perfect to get at some idea or another—whether praise, thanksgiving, petition for forgiveness, exultation, whatever it might be—he went ahead and used it, sometimes adapting the text to fit the Mass text. Other pieces he wrote new. Thus, we can rightly assume that each piece is a quintessential look at Bach’s thinking and Bach’s language as to what is the sine qua non, the absolute best of all of his music in each of these many different parts of this larger whole of the Latin Mass.

The text of the sixth movement is Ladamus te. Again, I mention to you that Bach divides the bigger sections into shorter pieces to focus on words that are interesting to him. This entire movement is just on that word ladaumus te. In English, this means we laud or praise you God.

This is the first emergence of a virtuoso solo singer and a virtuoso violin solo. It is enormously virtuosic all over the place in terms of fast notes. This idea of lauding and praise is shown in two ways. First of all, it is long, it goes through time. We praise through a whole lifetime and then in the life to come in heaven in Bach’s viewpoint. But the other thing I find about this that I wanted to show you is how vivid it is. Praise is not just “OK, we praised you, yeah we praise you.” It is not mundane. It is very creative; it is inventive. There is almost limitless creativity, plasticity, and detail within the line.

I always love getting to this moment. It is a huge reward when you get to hear a great violinist and a great singer getting together. I can’t play the violin part because I don’t have a violin. He has all of these [sings] figures and then this virtuoso [music]. Then the singer [music]; on and on they go and then they have syncopated [music], then long notes that explode into motion. Then trills and leaps and all kinds of praises. It is something that Paganini would have been proud of one hundred and fifty years later. It is a really remarkable thing.

Today I want to look at just one movement. I don’t have a favorite. It is like a large family and saying that you have a favorite child. Like a large family, the moment that you are doing it, e music or the moment you are celebrating a family event, that is your favorite. So right now, this is my favorite movement of the B Minor Mass. It is the Sanctus. It comes toward the end of the Mass.

We know the English as “holy, holy, holy.” Consider, first of all, where the text came from. The text came from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6, the second and third verses. Those verses in English are:

Above Him are the seraphim with six wings. With two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew around Him and called out to one another, …and here is the Sanctus text…holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.”

Bach looks at all this and finds irresistible the use of various symbolisms within his music. So, the first thing is that he writes this piece for a six-part choir. That is important, why? It is the only six-part chorus in all of Bach’s works. There is one secular pan-cantata that has a moment of six parts in it, but it is safe to say that this is the only six-part chorus in Bach’s entire work that references Isaiah 6 and the seraphim who have six wings. Then he divides into two and three. The six wings divide into three groups of two: two, two, two, three groups. Bach writes this for an orchestra of three trumpets, three oboes—it is the only place in the 27 movements of the B Minor Mass calling for three oboes, three upper strings, and a six part chorus.

The text is “above them flew” and who do they fly above?—God. All of this is symbolized in the music. God is the perfect being. In Bach’s musical language the perfect being is represented by the most perfect musical interval, the octave. So, the basses sing over and over again [music] “sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” holy, holy, holy. Again, representing who they are flying above and beyond. And that is God.

Now the orchestra in the beginning divides into three groups. The three oboes pick up the idea of the declamatory quarter-note sanctus [music], which is ascending praise toward God. The trumpets in groups of three [music]: again, these ascending lines. Below that the upper strings are playing [music, singing]. This is a dancing figure.

If you think of the wings of the seraphim, which are undulating, the top three voices sing [music]. Again, that is the undulating idea. The lower two voices are going [music]. Again, this idea of Sanctus. All of this above God [music].

If you gave me this job at a conservatory and said to write something and put all of those elements in it … I guess I could have plagiarized Bach, but otherwise I would be at a complete loss. It is just and astonishing achievement.

So, the Sanctus is in two verses, two groups, if you will: the seraphim and God. So, Bach divides the text into two large sections. We just looked at the first of those two large sections, the text where the text is “sanctus, sanctus, sanctus.” The next text is “heaven and earth are full of your glory.” In Latin it is “pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus.” Here the music accelerates, we get dance rhythms, the earth is full of your glory, it is something to celebrate. And then Bach does something very interesting.

Let me play it for you and see what you hear. [music] If you listen to that think about the beat. [music with counting] We call that a hemiola. There is no test on this, you don’t need to remember that word. But in Baroque music hemiolas are where music in three [singing] goes suddenly into two [singing]. If heaven and earth is full of your glory, that is everything. For glory we had all of these notes. Then to show the fulness of it we go from the one meter to the other meter. It is full in both ways. Full in notes and full of many rhythmic possibilities. It is full of the only rhythmic divisions we have in music—2 and 3. “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus.”

The other way that Bach shows this fullness is if you look at the score, you see in the beginning that there is just one line. Then here comes a second line and they answer. Here comes the third line and they answer. Now we have three lines going. Here comes the rest of the choir and now the full orchestra comes in with three trumpets, three oboes, the tympani, and the strings. So, the fulness of glory is done in this musical form of a fugue, one voice following the other. We have first one and two and three then six and then all the nine parts of the orchestra come in. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

So, I find this piece very, very beautiful. It is an astonishing achievement. It is just one of twenty-seven moments in the B Minor Mass. He is twenty-seven for twenty-seven. There is not a single bad note or movement that you would like to omit. It is just a fabulous piece.

Some years ago when radio stations were still doing this I was invited to do one of these programs for NPR on a desert island. What would you take if you could take five pieces of music and one book on a desert island, what would you take? Well, I said, “The B Minor Mass” and then I said, “What’s left?” After I picked the B Minor Mass I thought “That’s the one I really want, it is so wonderful.”

So, Bach in Baltimore does the B Minor Mass every other season. And the thing about the B Minor Mass is not only is it this mountain-top experience, but it is rather virtuosic. In many place including cities of some size there are no performances in a given year. We are pleased and privileged to present it at least once every other year here in Baltimore.

We hope that you will stay in touch with us: Look for our next performance and do come join us.

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