The Mass in B minor by J.S Bach: an outstanding piece

The Mass in B minor by J.S Bach: an outstanding piece

On November 25 and 26, Bishop’s University Singers will perform the Mass in B minor by J.S Bach under the direction of guest conductor Julien Proulx in the magnificent St-Benoit du Lac Abbey and splendid St-François-Xavier Church in Bromont . A symphony orchestra will accompany our forty singer and sopranos Melinda Enns and Marie Magistry, mezzo-soprano Marie-Andrée-Mathieu, tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier and barytone Alexandre Sylvestre. The Mass in B Minor by J.S. Bach is the crowning achievement of a life dedicated to sacred music.  As complex and as magnificent as it is enjoyable to hear/listen to, the work is an in exhaustive in richness and discovery. We have asked Dr. Jack Eby, Full Professor and Chairperson of the Music Department, to talk in-depth about this outstanding composition. 

Last week marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church of his time, with his list of grievances hammered to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Many scholars are currently reflecting on the fallout of this simple act and its enduring consequences for Western civilization. In the musical world, Luther’s actions also initiated a “reformation” in church music (and beyond) as profound as in religion or social history.

A straight line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s clearly-articulated views on music down 200 years to the greatest composer of Lutheran church music, and arguably the greatest composer of all, Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther was one of those great thinkers whose ideas changed the world and whose thoughts – complex, profound, multi-layered – are hard for even the dedicated scholars to come to terms with. So also is Bach, worthy to be linked to Luther, albeit in the language of music. Two of Bach’s compositions – the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B Minor – represent the summit of his immense creative abilities combined with a deep personal faith. As for the Mass, books have been written exploring not only its musical beauties and complexities, but also the layers of meaning Bach wrote into the score. It’s a daunting task for any musicians to undertake the Mass in B minor, considered by the musical world to be the most difficult choral work in the repertoire to perform. Even so, the Bishop’s University Singers are hard at work preparing this music for performance at the end of November, and are already showing they will give us worthy performance.

It’s not as though the Singers haven’t tackled major works before now – in recent years they have performed other great masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, among others, frequently performing with the Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra. But it took a special set of circumstances – not least among them the 50th anniversary of the Department of Music and the 50th anniversary of the University Singers – to propel choir director Fannie Gaudette, Melinda Enns and their team to settle on the B minor. Once decided, the heavy work began. First a conductor: Julian Proulx, a consummate musician, scholar, and magician with choirs. Next the soloists: there are five, who have to understand Baroque style. They also have to sing the choir parts. Next a Baroque orchestra: they don’t grow on trees, surprisingly, and have to be assembled one by one. Next – an appropriate setting for the performance: despite their best efforts not in Sherbrooke, but amazingly at the Abbey of St-Benoit-du-Lac, and the beautiful parish church of Saint-François-Xavier in Bromont, both settings which are entirely appropriate for this supreme statement of Christian faith, which transcends any labelling as Protestant or Catholic.

Finally, back to the choir – requiring members able to read and learn quickly, and negotiate the intricate vocal lines and harmonies in a two-hour work where the choir sings most of the time. The core group comes from Bishop’s University Singers, and includes students, graduates, staff and faculty (all of whom needed to audition). A few “friends of Bishop’s” were also invited, to fill in the gaps. For Fannie, preparing for this event is a full-time job, since on top of rehearsals – and extra rehearsals – all aspects of the event must be arranged, organized, prepared, moved around and paid for.

And what can be said about the Mass, in less than a book? It is a work assembled in 1748-49, at the end of Bach’s life, when his eyesight was seriously diminished (he had cataracts), and his composing was slowing down, and at a time he was, so to speak, codifying his musical knowledge. He was also working on his Musical Offering, the Canonic Variations, and the monumental Art of the Fugue during these last few years. For the Mass he borrows liberally from many works written earlier in his career, re-working them and weaving them seamlessly with newly-composed passages into the final score. We must presume that this was for him almost a “greatest hits” collection. It was the only time he set the words of the traditional Latin Mass in their entirety. Luther had recommended that some parts of the service traditionally sung in the Catholic Mass not be performed in Lutheran services, and also had everything translated into German. Bach had set some parts in Latin earlier in his career, in hopes of some benefit from the new ruler of Saxony (based in Dresden, just down the road from Leipzig, where he lived).  Frederick Augustus II had converted to Catholicism, in order to hold onto the position of King of Poland held by his father – hence the interest of Bach in writing for a Catholic service.

What led him to put together the present work is not clear – there is no indication it was ever performed before he died in 1750. In the end it is a personal testament of faith filled with theological references, some apparent but many hidden in mysterious code and accessible only to the few who understood musical symbolism. Perhaps it was a private message to God. For the average listener today, the symbolism might be revealed in the metre (if it is three – think of the Trinity) or the key (B minor represents the redemption of mankind through Christ – the theological wellspring of the work).

The performers and the musicians present will have an inkling of the unsurpassed mastery of Bach’s harmony, counterpoint and part-writing – and a clear idea of the sheer difficulty of performing the notes. Most listeners are simply overwhelmed by the music. It is, by turns, sweeping in grandeur and sonority, or private and intensely emotional; pleasantly decorative, or cast in fiendishly complex counterpoint; dark and somber, or feverously joyous, with brilliant trumpets carrying Bach’s indomitable spirit heavenward. While it is wonderful to hear this music in a church setting, you don’t have to be Catholic, or Lutheran, or even Christian for that matter, to feel – and share – Bach’s message of hope and faith, or to share in the sense that you are listening to some of the greatest music ever composed.

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