What was a devout eighteenth-century Lutheran doing writing a Latin setting of the Roman Catholic Mass? We’ll never know for sure, but Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in b minor” stands as the greatest Mass setting ever put to music and represents the last statement on sacred music from the composer who still reigns as the supreme musical genius of all time and who spent most of his life composing sacred music.
Chicago Chorale artistic director Bruce Tammen has expressed his own wish in the group’s press release that “we all come to understand, through experiencing [Bach’s “Mass in b minor”] that the work represents “not only the best that we humans can come up with,” but that it represents a transcendent goodness that shows that “there is more to us, more to hope for and plan for and celebrate, than the brutality, the violence, the hatred, which we daily confront in one another.” For Tammen, just knowing that “a human being, one of us,” composed “this monumental and life-transforming work… should make us better people.”
What is particularly odd is that such a sublime work was the product of a disgruntled composer who was miserable in his job as cantor at Leipzig where he was underpaid and overworked. Despite composing works unparalleled in quality and quantity during these years, Bach was not much appreciated by his employers, a squabbling town council, who thought his work teaching and looking after the schoolboys at Saint Thomas’ was as important as his composing for and supervising performances at the two town churches.
Bach wrote to just about anyone who would listen, asking for help in finding another job. One of his pleas went to Frederick Augustus II, the elector of Saxony, whom Bach sent parts of what he termed “an insignificant example of my skill in musique.” The parts were to a “Missa” setting in Latin, the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” from the Roman Catholic liturgy since the sacred music Bach would have composed for Augustus’ Dresden court would have been Catholic and in Latin, a great departure from Bach’s own Lutheran liturgical settings in German. The work was never performed there, nor was Bach offered a position, though after another petition three years later, Augustus did grant Bach the honorary title of court composer.
Late in his life, about the time Bach was compiling anthologies such as the “Musical Offering” and the “Art of the Fugue,” Bach finished the Mass by adding the other three movements of the Roman ordinary, the “Credo,” “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei.” The overall scope and scale of these movements and of the work as a whole was so grand that any practical use would have been virtually inconceivable, particularly since there was no such thing as a “concert” Mass in the eighteenth century.
Many musicologists and performers argue that Bach did not conceive the work as a whole, that it is merely a collection, and it is undeniable that the pieces were written at separate times and that Bach borrowed heavily from earlier pieces, a frequent practice of his and other composers of the time. Yet all the parts were gathered together and numbered liturgically, not chronologically, under one hard cover and really did allow Bach’s imagination to run wild. And performed as a whole, the work has a powerful impact that remains an experience all of its own.
The Chicago Chorale will perform the “Mass in b minor” with an orchestra of period instruments led by concertmaster Rachel Barton Pine and with soprano Ellen Hargis, alto Angela Young Smucker, tenor Christopher Cock and bass-baritone Ben LeClair. But the heart of the work are the chorale sections, which will be taken up by the Chicago Chorale under Tammen’s direction in the resonant acoustics and visual splendor of Rockefeller Chapel.
University of Chicago Divinity School Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Martin E. Marty, religious historian extraordinaire, ordained Lutheran minister and lifelong Bach lover, will present a free pre-performance talk at 2pm at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 East 59th Street. (Dennis Polkow)
April 3 at University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 South Woodlawn, (773)306-6195, 3pm. $15-$30.