Feb 12

Kyrie II: Mercy

Nicolas Poussin, Christ and the Adulteress, 1640

Nicolas Poussin, Christ and the Adulteress, 1640

I realize that I didn’t exactly leave things on a happy note in the last post!  I can’t apologize for that—one needn’t read very much Martin Luther to understand that the “renegade monk” definitely shared a hard message, and Bach is undoubtedly a Lutheran in the sense that he doesn’t shy away from the difficult stuff either.

However, the cross of the Kyrie II isn’t the end of the musical story.  It’s true that for much of the movement, the music seems mired in the thorny chromaticism of the opening motive, reinforced by a modal harmony that is unsettled and archaic.

You may remember that in the Kyrie I, we saw that Bach depicted man’s struggles with anxious music that tried (with only limited success) to break free of its “musical bondage” by reaching upwards towards God, but being continually dragged down again.  The same dynamic is at work in this Kyrie setting as well; through the use of the narrow-ranged chromaticism, Bach represents the sinner “spinning his wheels”, trying to reach upwards, but returning back to where he started.

In the Kyrie I, when the music did finally free itself from the chains of the repeated melodic figure, it did so with a large leap, whose following downward phrase represented God “meeting man halfway”.  I think the same thing happens in the Kyrie II with the secondary “mercy” phrase.  Like the first Kyrie, there is a hint of syncopation to it, adding a sense of metrical urgency and even a bit of relief.  Here is the phrase, which begins appropriately enough in the bass part, where the “cross” motive had begun:

Just like the “cross” motive, this is passed around the voice parts, rising to the tenor, then alto, then soprano.

Audio clip of “mercy” motive

I like to think of this as the “mercy” motive, since to me, it feels like the answer to the singers’ call for mercy—a descending figure that feels like a blessing after the angst of the “cross” motive.

As you surely know by now, I can’t talk about any of these movements without trotting out my theory about the B Minor Mass and the doctrine of the Trinity!  I’ve mentioned some links in this movement already—the cross relating to Jesus, the use of stile antico related to the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit often represents the church.  And in a moment, I’ll talk about a particularly far-fetched theory about one section of the movement.

However, before that, there is one other idea that I have about this “mercy” figure relating to the Trinity.

Of the 75 cantatas that I conducted with the Sydneian Bach Choir & Orchestra in Sydney, one that cantata really stood out for the wealth of its musico-theological language was BWV7, Christ unser Herr.  This cantata deals with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Baptism of Christ,  ca 1742-45

Andrea del Verrocchio, Baptism of Christ, ca 1742-45

As a sacrament, baptism deals with purification and being born anew.  Baptism also concerns the Trinity.  When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, all three “persons” were present: God the Father announced that Jesus is his son, and the Spirit is present as a dove.

I mention all of this because I believe that second motive of the Kyrie II, which I suggest represents the administration of God’s mercy, reminds me of the baptism figures in the chorus of BWV7, where Bach uses descending figures to represent the water being poured in baptism.

Here is a link to a page that lists the many motives in the chorus from BWV7: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Scores/BWV7-M1-Motifs.htm

There are so many “water” references here—often images of waves on the Galilean sea, but also (particularly in the continuo motive, #2), a reference to the pouring of water in baptism.

Have a listen to that movement, and listen for those “water” motives.


(If you want to follow the full score in a new window, go to the following window and and click on the “Score BGA” for BWV 7.  Incidentally, this website is an incredible resource for Bach’s vocal music.)


With this idea of baptism in mind, let’s go back and hear that “mercy” figure again, this time seeing in it the pouring of water in baptism—the sacrament that is so associated with purification.

Audio clip of “mercy” motive

Either way, by creating contrasting themes in the Kyrie II, Bach pairs the struggle of the cross with the reward of mercy, providing a musical balm to the harsh opening motive explored in the last post.