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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Bach’s best-known religious pieces are the ones most comparable to Handel’s oratorios and to even later, Catholic religious music. They include two Passion settings (out of five he is once reported to have composed), one based on the Gospel of Matthew and the other on the Gospel of John. And, a bit paradoxically, they include a grandiose concerted setting, for chorus in as many as eight parts and an exceptionally variegated orchestra, of the Latin Mass, a text for which there was no liturgical use at all in the Lutheran church. These were the works through which Bach was “rediscovered” and reclaimed for the performing repertoire in the nineteenth century.

The Mass was assembled out of settings that had accumulated over a period of more than two decades. About half of it is derived from known prototypes (cantata choruses, mainly), and most of the rest is presumed to consist of “parodies” of this kind as well, even though their prototypes are no longer extant. The work is therefore cast in a mixture of styles that reflects its miscellaneous origins. Some of the choruses, although never without an elaborate instrumental accompaniment, are written in a deliberately archaic style that comes closer than ever to the official Catholic stile antico. Some of the arias, by contrast, are cast in the kind of showy, courtly (“galant”), somewhat operatic idiom that Bach associated with Dresden.

The Catholic electoral court at Dresden, in fact, seems to have been the original destination of the Mass, or at least of the Kyrie and Gloria, which Bach sent in 1733 to the newly ascended Elector, Friedrich August II, who also reigned (as Augustus III) as the titular king of Poland. Friedrich August was already a notable patron of the arts, from whom Bach was now seeking a favor—not a job but a title (Hofkomponist) that would entitle him to better treatment and higher pay from the Leipzig town council. Bach eventually did receive the title but not until 1736, after sending another petition.

The music, meanwhile, languished unheard. Bach returned to it in the late 1740s, after he had effectively retired from his cantorate at Leipzig, and by adding to it a Sanctus he had partly composed as early as 1724 and assembling from parodies a Credo and an Agnus Dei, he turned it into a kind of testamentary piece—a summary of all types of ecclesiastical composition unified by the ancient Latin text of the Mass, but far too long and elaborate to have been intended for actual performance anywhere.

Performances began only when Bach had been assimilated to the secular concert repertory in the nineteenth century. (Hence the curiously secular name by which it is generally known: “Mass in B Minor,” or “The B-Minor Mass,” after the key of the opening Kyrie, although most of the music is actually in D major.) Thus it is a work that has existed, in a sense, only posthumously; and it is to later music only that it can be compared. The first of many “oratorio-style” Masses in the repertoire, it is the largest of them all, but it is in no real sense the progenitor of the line. That line originated in Austria and reached its peak some decades after Bach’s death with the work of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But as we will learn in a later chapter, the antecedents to this Austrian genre were Italian, not German. Bach’s Mass, although a famous work today and therefore an essential part of the history of music from our perspective, was from the perspective of its own time an isolated curio—or, given its size, perhaps a white elephant.

A description of the Gloria, part of the original offering to the Saxon elector, can be our entrée into this glorious anomaly. The text is broken up into nine separate segments, if one counts the two contrasting halves of the first chorus as two separate settings. Bach certainly did, because he is known to have adapted them from two separate preexisting pieces. The first, a quick gigue, marked vivace (“lively”) and scored for an oversized orchestra of twenty or more (as per Bach’s “Short but Most Necessary Draft”), features the trumpets and drums for a brilliant evocation of the title word (which, as we know, is merely intoned by the priest in an actual liturgical Mass). The second, a hushed evocation of “peace on earth,” is suddenly in the slow “common time” of the stile antico. The trumpets and drums are silent for the most part, reintroduced only toward the end so that the piece can end grandly. Like Monteverdi’s eight-part Gloria from the Selva morale (see chapter 1), Bach’s “Gloria” chorus, with its vividly projected antithesis, is in effect a vaulting madrigal.

Thereafter, the Gloria proceeds as an alternation of choruses with arias for each of the five soloists in turn. The first aria (“Laudamus te”), for the second soprano, sets words of praise in an ingratiatingly ornate and courtly chamber style. The ritornello is a veritable violin concerto, and the vocal writing, with its trills and roulades, is as close to a castrato idiom as Bach ever came. This music was obviously meant for no choirboy, but for a Dresden court “canary.” The chorus that follows (“Gratias agimus tibi”) sets words of thanks in an austere, archaic idiom. Bach first used this music when setting the German equivalent of its text (“Wir danken dir, Gott”) in a Leipzig cantata two years before.

Next comes another operatic showpiece (“Domine Deus”), a duet for the first soprano and the tenor, in which the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son is symbolized by the twinning of the two voices. Each sings in turn about the Father and the Son, but whenever the soprano is singing “Domine Deus” the tenor is singing “Domine Fili,” and vice versa. Here the concertizing instrument in the ritornellos is the solo flute, playing for the most part in its most brilliant range, with typically “galant” affectations in the phrasing, such as slurred pairs (possibly also symbolic of consubstantiality) and long appoggiaturas.

The chorus that follows—“Qui tollis peccata mundi,” “[O Thou] who takest away the sins of the world”—maintains the lightness of the preceding duet as it describes the gentle cleansing action of the Lamb of God. The music had previously served to introduce a Leipzig cantata, on the words “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei” (Behold and see if there is any pain). In both of its contexts, then, the music represented the alleviation of distress.

The last part of the Gloria puts two arias back to back before a concluding chorus. The first aria (“Qui sedes”) is an alto solo, with an obbligato for the oboe d’amore (halfway in size between modern oboe and English horn) that implies an affettuoso style of performance. The instrument closely matches the singer’s range and twines all around the vocal part as the singer pleads operatically with the Son, sitting at the right hand of the Father, for mercy. The second aria (“Quoniam tu solus,” “For only Thou”), a commanding item for the bass, features a rare obbligato for corno da caccia (“hunting horn,” now called French horn) accompanied by not one but two bassoons, thus adding two more instruments to the already swollen instrumental roster. This aria may well have been adapted from a cantata in which the text used words like hunting, chasing, or pursuit as metaphors—words for which the horn itself could stand as a further metaphor. As adapted here to the Mass text, the singularity of the scoring may symbolize the singularity of Christ, as thrice detailed by the text.

The final chorus, “Cum sancto spiritu,” invokes the glory of the Trinity with a return to the vivace tempo and the brassy scoring of the opening chorus. It is in three sections, the middle being a fast melismatic fugue somewhat reminiscent of the ones in Messiah, and adding an element of showy virtuosity to the choral writing that is as rare in Bach as it is frequent in the oratorios of Handel, his great expatriate contemporary.

Bach’s “Testaments”

fig. 7-7 Bach’s autograph manuscript of the opening double chorus from the St. Matthew Passion.

There is nothing like this chorus in Bach’s surviving Passion oratorios, which were written for church use on the afternoon of Good Friday, the most solemn day in the Christian year. The one based on the Book of John, written earlier, was first performed in Leipzig in 1724, during Bach’s first year as Cantor there, and revived several times thereafter. Its text includes arias and a chorus drawn from the Passion poem by Brockes that Handel had set earlier. The St. Matthew Passion—conceived as a unity but on an enormous scale both as to duration and as to performing forces (two antiphonal choirs, each with its own supporting orchestra)—was probably first performed in 1727.

In both Passions, following the post-Neumeister conventions of the genre, the text operates on three levels, which interact to produce a sort of biblical opera-with-commentary. The original Gospel text is set as semidramatic recitative. There is a narrator (called the Evangelist), but all direct discourse (lines spoken directly by the actors in the story) is assigned to other solo voices, and lines spoken collectively by the “people,” following the “turba” (crowd) convention that goes back to the sixteenth century, were sung by the chorus, often in imitative textures that emphasized heterogeneity.

These recitatives are interrupted at strategic moments, just as they are in opera, by reflective arias—or “madrigals,” as the Lutheran poets continued to call them—meant to be set in da capo form. As in the cantatas (where, however, there is no plot line), these arias are not sung by characters but by “voice-personas” who represent and give utterance to the poet’s own meditations on the events of the biblical narration, and instruct the congregation on their Christian significance. In the St. Matthew Passion, all the arias, as well as the reflective choruses that open and close each part, are adapted from a single long Passion poem in Erbauliche Gedancken (“Edifying thoughts”), a cycle of texts for music by a friend of Bach’s, a Leipzig lawyer and playwright named Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700–64), who wrote under the name Picander and provided the texts for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas. The third textual element in Bach’s Passions consisted of chorales in “Cantional” or hymnbook style that are frequently interpolated to provide an additional level of commentary (and, possibly, congregational participation).

The two Bach Passion settings are quite distinct in character. The shorter and faster-moving St. John Passion is as close to an opera as Bach ever wrote (if for the moment we ignore a few minor civic or coffeehouse comedies that Bach called dramma per musica). The turba scenes before Pontius Pilate, in particular, show the Roman viceroy, the crowd, and the Evangelist interacting with great dispatch. In the excerpt given in Ex. 7-15, Pontius Pilate offers Jesus back to the crowd, who reject him and call for his crucifixion. The sharp dactylic rhythms in the orchestra recall the cry of “Kreuzige!” (“Crucify!”) from the previous chorus.

The St. Matthew Passion places more emphasis on contemplation than on action. Its emblematic sections are not the turba choruses but the monumental framing choruses on words by Picander. The one that opens the work, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (“Come, O daughters, help me in my lamentation”) is a conception of unparalleled breadth. By the use of antiphonal choruses (and orchestras) asking and exclaiming about the tragic scene at Golgotha, a panoramic scene is conjured up. The heavy bass tread and the slow harmonic rhythm in a broad meter at once sketches the movement of the procession of the cross and conveys the mournful affect of a traditional lamento.

Bach’s “Testaments”Bach’s “Testaments”Bach’s “Testaments”

ex. 7-15 J. S. Bach, St. John Passion, turba, “Weg! Weg!,” mm. 40–51

And it all turns out to be a gigantic chorale prelude, when a third choir of boys (soprano ripieno as Bach puts it) chimes in with the so-called Passion Chorale (Ex. 7-16), set as a cantus firmus above the fray: O Lamm Gottes unschüldig/am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet (“O spotless Lamb of God, slaughtered on the Cross’s trunk”). The innocence of the victim is cast in relief against the enormity of the sacrifice by playing the G major of the chorale against the E minor of its environment. A whole panoply of tonal and harmonic effects of which Bach was then uniquely the master—modulations, deceptive cadences, and other feints—is enlisted to underscore this tragic contrast. Even without the external trappings of drama, Bach was able through his manipulation of tonal (“purely musical”) procedures to express the essence of the dramatic conflict embodied in the Passion story as viewed from the Christian perspective.

Bach was well aware of the special place the St. Matthew Passion occupied within his vast output. He regarded it, too, as a testamentary work. He prepared a lavish calligraphic score of the work, replete with inks of different colors, to preserve it at a time when most music, including his, was composed for specific occasions, to be used and thereafter discarded. That fair copy passed into Carl Friedrich Zelter’s possession and provided the vehicle for Bach’s rediscovery and canonization as a musical Founding Father when the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a pupil of Zelter who would have a distinguished career as composer in his own right, conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie on 11 March 1829, a little over a century after its first performance in Leipzig.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07010.xml