MUSIC: Bach’s Mass In B Minor

◆ by Jeffrey Huntsman

Unbridled expression is the commonest way great emotional intensity is realized. Ecstatic spiritual rites, dancing to exhaustion, talking in tongues, even a heavy-metal rock concert are highly individualistic manifestations of passion. Nonetheless, as spontaneous as they may seem, they are all best understood through lenses that reveal intentions, structures, and cultural meaning. In time such practices may become formalized into styles, movements, or even genres — think Romanticism in art, literature, and music. In these examples there is a kind of symmetry between the forms of expression and its intended content, so a wildness of expression serves a wildness in meaning.

But there is a contrary impulse as well, which works through a dynamic tension between a passionate intensity and a highly formal structure. The power of Kwakiutl carvings, early Celtic knotwork, and Islamic calligraphy all depends precisely on the spring-wound energy of the internal forms straining against the outer boundaries. Dylan Thomas’ most personal and wrenching poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” pushes his anguish about his dying father against the formal strictures of his sestina version, with a single pair of rhyming words throughout. The emotional storm is harnessed — barely — by the straited structure.


In Western music, there is no better example of emotional intensity manifested through highly formal structure than Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions — even the cantatas he turned out at a rate of one or more per week of his later professional life — are each models of precise musical genius. It is possible in many cases to demonstrate with mathematical exactitude the balance of musical motifs, textual meanings, and spiritual revelation — although just as surely Bach himself would never have overtly modeled his work mathematically. Writing one such masterpiece of controlled focus would be a wonder for most of us; the hope of “tossing off” hundreds is virtually unimaginable.

Out of a lifetime compendium of Bach’s treasures it is daunting to choose a single exemplar of supreme excellence, but if pressed to choose one, Bach’s Mass in B minor would be it for many. A product of his late life, the Mass in B minor (1749) is unusual for one composed by a Lutheran, because it sets the whole Latin text of the Roman tradition. Several parts were actually composed earlier: a segment of the Crucifixus dating from a cantata of 1714, the Sanctus from 1724, and the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733. Revisiting, reusing, and revising earlier material is something most musicians do, of course, and Bach’s companions here include among many others Handel, Janáček, and Lauridsen. But there is nothing stale in this reimagined masterpiece. The Mass was Bach’s last major composition, completed after he had gone blind and when he surely was most mindful of his impending mortality.

Although it apparently languished unperformed over two centuries until 1859 — Bach himself does not seem to have heard it in its finished form — it has since become recognized as an epitome of his writing for voice, with a compendious variety of musical styles, a breadth of textures and sonorities, and his characteristic richness of technical complexity and finesse. So towering is its stature that no one since, not even Beethoven (who tried twice to get a copy of the ms.), has written another mass in that key. That player’s number has been permanently retired.

The Chamber Singers, under the baton of Music Director D. Gerald Sousa, is returning to the Mass after a decade and a half of consistent growth in its size and musicality. For this performance, the BCS is partnering with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra (Artistic Director Barthold Kuijken), a group also with many past and current connections with IU’s Jacobs School of Music. It will be an especially rare treat to hear the Mass played on period-correct instruments, like Bach himself could have used, and the splendid venue at St John the Apostle Catholic Church, on the northwest edge of Bloomington near Ellettsville, is a virtually third acoustic partner.

[The Bloomington Chamber Singers, with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, will perform J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor on Saturday, April 13 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, April 14 (at 3:00 pm at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Bloomington.

The Ryder, March 2013