To honor the occasion of the 326th birthday of the great composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach, we have selected one of his numerous masterpieces, his Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. The Mass is a work that bears quite a bit of mystery amidst its pages of sublime beauty – a complete Latin mass written by a staunchly Lutheran composer and Kappelmeister of a Lutheran school. The mass was clearly written in four different sections, each bound with its own title page, and the different sections are known to have been written during different time periods, yet the four sections bind together to form a consistent, contiguous whole. While it is believed that the Mass was never performed in his lifetime, neither as a whole or in its separate parts, he cared enough about the work to have made modifications to the work in the later years of his life. He also wrote out the entire score to the piece between 1747 and 1748, in notable calligraphy. These are not the actions of a composer who cares little about the piece, but rather one who wants to pass on the piece to the succeeding generations of composers and musicians.
Composition of the piece began as early as 1724, although a number of portions of the B Minor Mass are believed to most likely be recycled portions of other works. In 1733 Bach sent the Missa (a grouping of the first two sections of the mass, the Kyrie and the Gloria) to King Augustus III of Saxony in Dresden, along with a petition requesting to be made Court Composer. Although he was eventually made Court Composer, there is no known evidence of any encouragement from the Court for the completion of the work. Composition of the Mass came in bits and pieces across the years, and there are instances where some of the pieces were performed individually or as inserted into other compilations for various performances. But there is no evidence suggesting that the piece was ever performed in its entirety, and the primary evidence that Bach considered the individual parts to be bound together is the score that Bach copied in calligraphy in 1748. It is considered notable that when Bach copied the score, he ordered the individual parts in the manner in which the Mass would normally be ordered, as opposed to chronological order by when they were written.
Another interesting aspect of the mass is its length. With 27 separate movements and a time in excess of two hours, it is far too long for liturgical usage (most masses clock in at anywhere between half an hour and an hour). It is also rendered unusable in Catholic liturgy, as various portions of the text lend themselves to a more general Christian idealism, as opposed to a Catholic or Protestant view of the scriptures. It is also interesting to point out the numerological alignment of the music: 27 movements – a set of three, a set of 9, another set of 9, then two sets of three. This is very typical for Bach and his keen interest in numerology.
The recording that we are hearing is also fairly notable. It was recorded in June of 1960 by the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. Robert Shaw was a noted conductor who specialized in choral works, and in 1960 he assembled a touring company who took the B Minor Mass on a nation-wide tour, bringing this great piece of music to folks who may never have heard classical music prior to that. This recording won the 1960 Grammy for best Choral Recording. While the majority of Shaw’s career came prior to the popularization of historically-informed classical performance, his arranging and conducting technique might be considered to have helped further the trend, and his numerous recordings of the B Minor Mass, along with numerous recordings of major choral masterworks (such as Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Carl Orff‘s Carmina Burana and Verdi’s Requiem), remain highly regarded. In fact, tonight’s recording is a 1999 remaster from RCA Victor.