Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Bach's Mass in B Minor: An Evangelical Catholic Testament

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Bach's Mass in B Minor: An Evangelical Catholic Testament

Article excerpt

Johann Sebastian Bach, the well-tempered composer, worked throughout his career for what he called "a well-ordered church music to the glory of God." (1) It was not always easy to achieve this goal because he often had to contend with church and city councils (they were one and the same) that did not always deliver what they promised, or pietist pastors and a rationalist rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig who believed that church music exists primarily to edify the congregation (Bach thought church music existed soli Deogloria--"to the glory of God alone"). But, as Bach was at the top of his craft as a musician, he also was an astute theologian in the orthodox Lutheran tradition. To obtain the job of cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig he had to pass not only a musical audition but also a theological examination (conducted in Latin) given by the theology faculty of the University of Leipzig on behalf of the ecclesiastical consistory. Indications are that he passed with flying colors. (2).

Bach was, in the words of Christoph Wolff, "the learned musician." Bach's personal library contained hundreds of musical scores and works on music theory. He also had an extensive theological library that included two editions of Martin Luther's complete works and biblical commentaries by orthodox Lutheran theologians. His copy of the Calov Bible of 1681 was well underlined and annotated. This gives us some idea of the study Bach did in preparation for composing his church cantatas. Considering the expense of books in those days, and that the Leipzig cantor bought them out of his own salary, we see how "learned" he actually was. Wolff comments that "for Bach, theological and musical scholarship were two sides of the same coin: the search for divine revelation.or the quest for God." (3) It is clear from this data that Bach took seriously the theological dimensions of his church office.

There has been a tendency in recent scholarship to back away from the nearly hagiographic assessment of Bach's life and work in former studies, such as the romantic studies of Philipp Spitta who established Bach as the supreme church musician (4) and Albert Schweitzer who pronounced Bach to be "the fifth evangelist." (5) This reassessment is especially prominent in the work of Friedrich Blume, who argued that Bach's application for the cantorship at Leipzig was strictly motivated by the desire to secure a university connection to advance the careers of his sons and that writing church music was "not an affair of the heart." (6)

Blume's revisionist views were countered by Gunther Stiller point by point.(7) Whatever Bach's sense of vocation may have been (church musician and just the best musician he could be), his profound spiritual conviction is the soul of his sacred works, and his genius may be called the perfect synthesis of music and theology. Nowhere is this genius better expressed than in the supreme legacy of his craft, the Mass in B minor.

The Mass is in a sense a retrospective of a lifetime's work. It is not the product of one inspired moment or of any one particular period of his life. Bach completed the Mass near the end of his life, between 1745 and 1750, the same period during which he composed such encyclopedic monuments as The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue. Several movements of the Mass were anthologized from earlier compositions. Other movements Bach composed at that time or, in typical Baroque fashion, adapted from other works he had written. There is no doubt that Bach intended the complete Mass to be an anthology of the different types of choral writing that had emerged during what we call the Baroque Period. Whether or not he intended it to be more than that--a theological testament--can be ascertained only from an analysis of the musical architecture and compositional decisions.

Bach never heard the Mass performed in its entirety. Possibly, he did not intend that it be performed on a single occasion. …

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