Bach for Christmas

Why are LCS singing parts of a Bach Mass at Christmas? Well, for one thing we are following the great man’s habit of shameless self-promotion. By giving our audience a foretaste of this music, we hope to tempt them – and you! – to come to our Royal Festival Hall concert on March 27th.

And Bach himself thought his music was seasonal: in the mid-1740s he adapted the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Et in terra’ sections as part of a church cantata to be sung on Christmas Day. The cantata, the only one he set to a Latin text, was Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV191.

As for the Mass itself, it is today universally acknowledged as one of Bach’s finest choral masterpieces. And yet it was almost as if it wasn’t meant to be: Johann Sebastian Bach was a staunch Lutheran and his church had no tradition of setting the full Mass liturgy to music. Its own musical tradition was for religious cantatas in German, and Bach was constrained to produce these throughout his life for any master that adhered to Lutheranism.

But one thing Bach’s life immediately demonstrates is that he was always supremely adaptable to his circumstances without compromising his own beliefs. When his patron was a Calvinist – with little need for church music – he wrote instrumental and orchestral works or secular cantatas. When he worked for a Roman Catholic, he set only set sections of the Mass that were acceptable to both the Lutheran and Catholic rites, such as the ‘Kyrie’ and the ‘Gloria’.

In 1733 there was a five month period of mourning for the Catholic Augustus II, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony. Public musical performances were proscribed, so Bach used the time to pen what he entitled a ‘Missa’, a setting of the ‘Kyrie’ and the ‘Gloria’.

In the subdued, slightly mournful tone of the ‘Kyrie’, Bach may have had in mind the recently departed monarch, while with the splendour of the ‘Gloria’ he surely was evoking the joy of the new Elector’s accession to the throne. For he needed to impress Augustus III: he wanted a promotion to become composer to the Saxon court in Dresden.

And, dear reader, he eventually got the job!

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