Which Bach will you hear?

February 20th, 2012

Over the last several months my musical life has centered on the Bach “Mass in B minor.”  This great work is one of the most complex pieces of music in the repertoire and for those who know it, it is also one of the most talked about.  For me, this is a work where there are more questions than can be answered by a lifetime of performances of the piece.  That enigmatic quality is part of its beauty!

The work in the form that we know it was written over the last quarter century of Bach’s life.  The “Missa” (Kyrie and Gloria) date to 1733.  The Credo was probably composed over a two-year period from ca. 1747-48 (some scholars now believe that it may been revised right up to his death in 1750).  The Sanctus is one of the oldest portions of the work, possibly dating from Christmas 1724.  The Osanna, Bendictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem were written between 1732-34 and are probably a “parody” (more on this later) of Cantata #215.  What makes the dating of this so tricky is that the work was written over many years and much of it is a “parody.”

So, what does the term “parody” mean when it is applied to music?  Today, the word parody has a negative connotation often referring to a “satirical” treatment of existing material.  Earlier usage of the word was not derogatory but instead focused on the concept of re-working existing material (music) by fashioning a new text and adapting as necessary.  Some scholars propose that of the twenty-six sections of this work (including the repetition of the Osanna) at least nineteen of them are parodies of previously composed works.  We need to be clear that this was not laziness on the part of Bach.  This practice was considered to be a vital skill in a composer and in fact allowed them to write music that could be usable in a variety of situations.  If you are of a mind to do it, it is fascinating to look at the original and then the newly adapted version.  One of the easier sections of this work to do this with is the Gloria.  Bach’s Cantata “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is the model for the Gloria of the “Mass in B minor.”  You can see in this early work the building blocks of what would eventually become a much more expansive piece of music.

The issues of dating the work, the extensive use of parody movements and the fact that it is very unlikely that there was a performance of this work as we know it today during Bach’s lifetime make it very difficult to draw firm conclusions about it as a whole.  To sum up, we don’t know what Bach’s reasons were for composing this work or for “compiling” it.  It is possible that he was looking at this as a sort of “compendium” of existing forms and style like he did with other collections that he published such as the “Clavier-Ubung” series.  By 1729, he had all but stopped composing church music per se and this “Great Mass” of his is an interesting anomaly from a period where his musical sites were set elsewhere.  What we’re left with is an immense, complex work that yields more questions than answers.

For our upcoming performances on March 2 and 3, we are focusing on the “Missa,” and the “Sanctus” through the end of the work.  This excludes the Credo (also known as the “Symbolum Nicenum”) allowing us to focus on music that was all composed over a ten-year period and is more stylistically consistent.  To me, the Credo is a different animal musically speaking and I thought that for our first time out with this work it would be a good idea to present it this way.

Next up, how are we using the soloists for this work?

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