Why did Bach, a Lutheran, compose a mass?
I attended a small Lutheran college. My freshman choir sang 4-5 movements of the Mass in B Minor, and at some point during the rehearsal period this question occurred to me, and would not let go: Masses are Catholic; why did Bach compose one? Like many of my fellow college students, I grew up in a fairly segregated atmosphere; most Catholics lived on one side of town and attended Catholic school. The rest of us, primarily Lutherans, attended public school. The two groups were not, strictly speaking, enemies, but on fundamental matters we did not have much to do with one another. I never set foot in the Catholic church; we stayed clear of masses, along with priests and nuns and the Virgin Mary. I assumed no kinship between what we Lutherans did on Sunday, and what the Catholics did. Bach was a Lutheran—he was “ours,” and we claimed him, though we knew little about him beyond the chorale harmonizations we sang from the Lutheran hymnal. College courses in religion and music history broadened my knowledge of the mass as a liturgical structure and as the basis for extended musical form, but my viewpoint remained pretty parochial. Not until I moved to Chicago for graduate school did I begin to understand that the Lutheranism I knew bore only a faint resemblance to that practiced in Bach’s time.
Lutherans continue to claim Bach—some refer to him as the “fifth evangelist”— and others stress a symbolic father-son relationship between him and Martin Luther: Luther clarified the faith, and Bach set it to music. The Golomb dissertation to which I referred a few weeks ago even posits a “Lutheran” approach to the interpretation and performance of Bach’s music.
By all accounts, Bach was deeply religious. Although his professional responsibilities throughout his life included obligations to secular as well as religious authorities, and his surviving compositions reflect this career duality, the evidence reflected in his letters, in his professional trajectory, and in the very nature of his activities in liturgical composition and performance leave little reason to doubt his fundamental piety and spirituality. There is little doubt, as well, that he was thoroughly Lutheran in his theology. But Lutheranism as Bach experienced it was more than theology—it was the state church, a source of power and preferment, and it shared a good deal of space with secular authority. When Bach compiled the first half of his mass—called the Missa, it consisted of the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Ordinary— he was not only working comfortably within the traditions of the Lutheran Church (which continued, post-Reformation, to refer to the Eucharist as the “mass”), he was also seeking advancement from the court at Dresden, to whom he presented his Missa as a gift, in 1733. This limited (but complete) work, approximately one-half as long as the completed Mass in B Minor, did indeed receive a liturgical performance by the Dresden kapelle, and ultimately won for Bach the worldly preferment and protection he was seeking.
The larger question about Bach’s purpose is reflected in his “completion” of the Mass in the last years of his life. He in some respects pulled back from the day to day responsibilities of his position in Leipzig, and put his energy into the completion of major, somewhat theoretical works: Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, and Mass in B Minor. In these works, he seems intent not only on establishing his own legacy, but in creating a veritable encyclopedia of western European musical styles, forms, and procedures.
It seems clear that Bach never intended his Mass for liturgical use—clocking in at two hours without a break, it is simply too long. Rather, it appears to be what Bach scholar Christoff Wolff calls the summa summarum of Bach’s artistry. Wolff goes on to say, “We know of no occasion for which Bach could have written the B-minor Mass, nor any patron who might have commissioned it, nor any performance of the complete work before 1750. Thus, Bach’s last choral composition is in many respects the vocal counterpart to The Art of Fugue, the other side of the composer’s musical legacy. Like no other work of Bach’s, the B-minor Mass represents a summary of his writing for voice, not only in its variety of styles, compositional devices, and range of sonorities, but also in its high level of technical polish. “
Performances of the work reflect not only our perceptions of Bach’s beliefs and intentions, but our personal entry to the work. The first complete productions of the Mass, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, stressed its magisterial qualities—depicting Bach as an extraordinary man who communed with God on a level beyond human emotion and expression. Near-universal acceptance and practice of the Christian faith, which influenced all thought and politics of Bach’s time, still held a great deal of sway 100 years later. Bach was seen as an almost sacred prototype for the heroic figure later realized in Beethoven— the first complete performance of the Mass, in 1859, was actually inspired by the success of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Many modern performances stress, instead, Bach’s humanity, his imperfection, his kinship with musical tastes and procedures of his own time. This latter approach has invited participation by musicians who do not profess any religious creed, yet find the work to be universally compelling and uplifting. I suspect the Mass may be the most comprehensive, unifying work by any composer— Bach’s attempt to depict the universality behind both his private spirituality and the religious expression of his time. Albert Schweitzer described the work as one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator.