Wells Cathedral

J S Bach B minor Mass

Wells Cathedral
Saturday, 10th November 2007

Bach's spiritual masterpiece in one of Britain's finest cathedrals, a fitting climax to our 40th anniversary year!

“I noted a pronounced stillness among the departing company, the sort that occurs when a group of people have experienced a truly transformational occurrence together which then compels the individual to reflect on that experience.”    (Jaqui Strevens, Wells Journal)

“It was a splendid performance, so full of life. The choir were on very good form and exuded a wonderful sense of excitement. The fast passages were beautifully sung and the orchestra were first-rate as were the soloists.”
Professor Raymond Warren (Composer and Professor of Music at Bristol University 1972-94)

Joanne Lunn Soprano
Rachel Nicholls Soprano
Louise Mott Alto
James Gilchrist Tenor
Dawid Kimberg Bass
Theresa Caudle Leader

Peter Leech Conductor

For biographies and further information on the soloists, orchestra and conductor, click the relevant name above

Programme notes

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

By 1733 Bach had been in the Saxon town of Leipzig for ten years. That decade had seen the composition of five complete cycles of church cantatas, the St John and St Matthew Passions and many instrumental works and orchestral pieces. Despite this period of unbridled musical productivity, Bach was clearly feeling unappreciated and was often in disputes with his employers. Like most musicians of his era, he always had an eye for greener grass, and would not have turned down the opportunity to gain employment at a prestigious and powerful court.

Early in 1733 Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making in the region was temporarily suspended. Bach used the opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites. His aim was to dedicate the work to the new Catholic sovereign Augustus III, and by so doing, hope to improve his own standing. Upon completion, Bach visited Augustus and on 27 July 1733 presented him with a copy of the torso of the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria), together with a petition for the post of 'Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer'. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach did eventually gain a minor court appointment to Augustus in 1736. The Missa torso was first performed in 1733 during the festival of the Oath of Allegiance to Augustus III.

In the words of Christoph Wolff, 'the musicological debate over Bach's B minor Mass has been going on ever since Friedrich Smend's edition of the Symbolum Nicenum (Credo, Sanctus etc.) in 1955'. The genesis of the complete work is far too complicated to consider fully here, but as far as the Missa torso is concerned, the background is certainly intriguing. During his Leipzig period Bach was occupied with the study of masses by composers such as Palestrina and Antonio Lotti. Wolff has demonstrated that in addition to the numerous Italian works represented in Bach's library there is a a copy in the composer's hand, dating possibly from the 1720s, of a mass by the Palatine court composer J H von Wilderer, the structure of which shows strong similarities with the B minor Missa. Exactly how Bach obtained the Wilderer work is not known, though it most probably came from the circle of Dresden composers with whom Bach had been in contact: Pisendel, Zelenka, Graun, Heinichen and Hasse. If nothing else, the existence of the Wilderer copy demonstrates Bach's strong links with Dresden long before his contemplation of a court position there. It also shows definite early-Neapolitan traits then popular at Dresden, with highly varied orchestral writing and an extended tri-partite Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie. Although this form of Kyrie was traditional, the importance of the Wilderer work is that like the B minor Kyrie it has a homophonic opening statement as a prelude to the main material. In all of the surviving copies made by Bach of other masses, none has this feature. Wilderer also chose to use instruments to introduce the fugal theme and to use the opening stepwise motif as the basic material for the fugue. For Wolff, these and a sufficient number of other coincidences between the Wilderer work and Bach's show that it must have been influential in the genesis of the latter.

At what point Bach decided to expand the Missa into a complete setting of the Catholic Mass is not known. Some researchers suggest that the Symbolum Nicenum (or Credo) was composed between 1742 and 1745 and added to the autograph score around 1747. Others have shown that preparatory material for the Crucifixus probably dates from 1714 and that of the Et expecto from 1728-9. The remaining parts (Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem) were all probably added to the score between 1747 and 1749, derived from material which emerged in the first half of the 1730s. The Mass in B Minor therefore did not assume its final form until Bach's last years, perhaps as late as 1748. It may be that Bach wished the Mass in B Minor to be regarded as a grand monument to his skill, for it is a work based upon so many earlier compositions which he adapted and refined to satisfy the purposes of an extended Latin mass, the orchestrated and quasi-operatic form of which had become the standard model in European Catholic courts by the middle of the eighteenth century. Indeed, by expanding the work into an entity which certainly would not have received a complete liturgical performance in Leipzig, Bach showed not only an awareness of the general trend towards large-scale masses elsewhere, but also that he may still have had the possibility of a Catholic court appointment lurking at the back of his mind.

Bach never heard the Mass in B Minor, as we know it, performed in its entirety. It is possible that he only intended that parts of the Mass be used where and when they might be appropriate. Such was the case when his son C.P.E. Bach first performed the Credo in 1786. Although various other sections of the Mass were performed over the following sixty years, it was not until 1859, more than a century after Bach died, that the entire work was performed at a single sitting.

What is most remarkable about the overall shape of the Mass in B Minor is the fact that Bach managed to construct a coherent sequence of movements from such diverse and scattered material. When he presented the Missa torso in 1733 he clearly viewed it as a complete and independent work, yet he quickly relished the chance to improve upon it. Manuscript sources suggest that Bach conceived the final result in four major sections, similar to the sections in the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary. The first section is the torso (Kyrie and Gloria), with the second being the Symbolum Nicenum (or Credo). The third consists of a single movement, the Sanctus, and the fourth comprises the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem.

The magnificence of the work is evident at the very outset with the mighty adagio five-part setting of the words Kyrie eleison succeeded by a fugal section of monumental grandeur and chromatic complexity. The Christe eleison is a gentle duet for sopranos with a charming ritornello for strings. The second Kyrie, for four-part choir, has an intense, chromatic fugal subject.

The first part of the Gloria, a joyous outpouring, was probably reworked from a lost instrumental movement. The setting of Et in terra pax was grafted on to it without a break. The Laudamus te, with its sublime soprano solo balanced by an equally beautiful violin obligato, has, according to some writers, all the hallmarks of having originally been a violin duet. The Gratias is more or less a straight adaptation of the opening chorus of Cantata No. 29 (1731), the words of which 'Wir danken dir, Gott' ('We thank Thee, O God') represent a literal German translation of the Latin text, set with such solemn nobility and assurance. The Domine Deus, a duet for tenor and soprano with accompaniment from flute and muted strings, leads directly into the Qui tollis, a revision of part of the opening chorus of Cantata No. 46 (1723), 'Schauet doch und sehet' ('Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow'). The alto solo of the Qui sedes is matched by an accompanying instrument of corresponding pitch, the oboe d'amore. The Quoniam, with its dark tones of horn obligato and playful bassoon duet figurations, provides an impressive vehicle for the bass soloist, and leads straight into the gloriously jubilant Cum Sancto Spiritu, complete with an angular virtuoso choral fugue, marking the end of Bach's original Missa.

Like the Missa, the Symbolum Nicenum is an excellent example of Bach's concern with symmetry: the Crucifixus is the central pivot around which the trinity of movements concerning Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection revolve.

The Credo bursts forth with two vibrant fugal choruses. The first stile antico section, based upon one of the plainchant intonations associated with 'Credo in unum Deum', symbolises strength of faith. The second is adapted from a chorus of praise from Cantata No. 171 (1729) Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm ('God, Your fame is as Your name'). The duet Et in unum Dominum is set for soprano and alto with oboe and strings. The chorus Et incarnatus est depicts an intense awe-struck moment, with emotional intensity further deepened into despair at the Crucifixus, reworked from a chorus in a youthful Weimar Cantata, No. 12 (1714) Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. Springing from the depths of hopelessness, the jubilant Et resurrexit, apparently reworked from an instrumental movement, propels the listener into an elevated, ethereal world, suspended by the sheer power and energy of the writing. The symmetry of the structure is apparent as the bass aria, Et in Spiritum, recalls the tone of Et in unum Dominum, just as the fugal Confiteor, like the first movement of the Credo, harks back to the older church style and uses plainsong to underpin the traditions of the belief it represents. It is linked to the final joyous Et expecto by a passage of the strangest, most haunting quality - quite a contrast with the exuberant chorus which concludes the Credo.

Bach's magnificent Sanctus, with its exultant fugue, was written originally for Christmas Day, 1724. The choir for this piece is divided into six parts. But a double (eight-part) chorus is required for the sprightly Osanna, based an the opening chorus of the secular Cantata No. 215 (1734) Preise dein Glucke, gesegnetes Sachsen ('Praised be your fortunes, ye most blessed Saxons'), a piece performed in honour of the coronation of Augustus III as King of Poland. As one critic has observed, 'In a society which regards Kings as divinely appointed by God, [Bach] would have seen no incongruity in using the same music to praise the King of Poland and the King of Heaven'.

The Benedictus, apparently the vestige of a lost tenor aria, with its slow, long, graceful vocal and instrumental lines is an evocation of serene love and longing. The Agnus Dei, which follows a straight reprise of the Osanna, is scored for alto solo matched to a low-lying ritornello for strings. It uses almost the same music as Ach bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben ('Oh, stay with me, my dearest life'), from Cantata No. 11 (The Ascension Oratorio). The Dona nobis pacem reprises the iconic Gratias agimus tibi, bringing the Mass in B Minor to a triumphant close and linking majestically the concepts of peace, praise, and gratitude to God.

If ever there was a perfect demonstration in music of the divine majestic upward movement of figures in the greatest religious paintings and sculptures of the late Renaissance and Baroque period, then Bach's music for the Gratias and Dona nobis surely achieves this end. Proceeding almost like a slow and solemn, somewhat drawn-out Mannheim crescendo, this writing, with its combination of choral sonority and orchestral power, almost defies description. It surely comes close to being an aural representation of what the art historian Kenneth Clark referred to as 'an ecstatic repudiation of the forces of gravity'.

(back to top)