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Mar 12

Program Notes #1: The B Minor Mass in “Refracted Bach” Festival

The following is the first of two excerpts from the program notes for Saturday evening’s performance of the B Minor Mass at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th St, in Manhattan.  For ticket information, please visit www.dessoff.org.

In this inaugural Dessoff Midwinter Festival, we have used the metaphor of “Bach as prism” to explore the many facets of J.S. Bach’s work, as well as the unparalleled influence that he has had on subsequent generations of composers. The B Minor Mass, justly considered by many to be Bach’s magnum opus, is the perfect work to close our Refracted Bach festival, as it shows us several aspects of Bach’s musical refraction at work.

As observed in notes for the “Stile Antico” concert, Bach con­sidered himself just another in a long line of artisan musicians in the Bach family. He was intensely aware of his family’s—and his region’s—musical heritage, and throughout his life he compiled an archive of musical works by his own forbears as well as major com­posers of the North German school. His love of older musical styles extended further into the past as well. He was an ardent student of the music of Palestrina and other masters of Renaissance polyphony, and he put this study to great use in the B Minor Mass, where he employed the stile antico technique in a number of move­ments, particularly the Credo and Confiteor.

In the Festival’s opening lecture, George Stauffer discussed the extraordinary provenance of the B Minor Mass: scholars now believe that, with the exception of the first four measures of the opening Kyrie, every single movement may have been refashioned from earlier cantata movements. Given the specific function of so many of those cantatas (which would have been heard at most only one Sunday every three years, given the lectionary cycle), it is not surprising that Bach might have wished to give some of his great­est vocal movements another airing. In our Festival Sing-In, we sang through the extant original cantata movements and mar­velled at Bach’s ingenuity in recrafting these already stunning pieces.

Another “prism” aspect of the B Minor Mass lies in the history of the work, which might be characterized as a compilation as much as a composition. As Bach advanced in age, his “encyclope­dic” tendencies, already prominent, became stronger. In the final years of his life, he compiled several collections, such as the Art of the Fugue, which explored all the possibilities inherent in fugal writing, and the Clavier-Übung, his great collection of keyboard works. He also composed the Christmas Oratorio which, like the B Minor Mass, is largely a collection of movements adapted from earlier cantatas. In exhibiting this encyclopedic instinct, Bach was squarely a product of his age: the urge to draw together large col­lections and explain sweeping patterns in nature was part of the Baroque mindset, reflected especially in the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy of the era. Ever the devout Lutheran, Bach’s desire to pull together all of the existing musical forms, from the earliest Gregorian chants to the most modish style galant, carried with it religious connotations, as he sought to reflect God’s creation in order to reveal the hand behind the divine design.

Read more: Program Notes #2