The Long Haul To A Choral Masterpiece

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor was completed during the last few years of his life but its musical origins stretch back to at least 36 years before his death.

Bach was a staunch Lutheran, proud of his descent from an ancestor who had fled persecution in Roman Catholic Hungary to live in Protestant Thuringia, in modern-day eastern Germany; and Martin Luther himself had been an old boy at Bach’s school in Eisenach. Johann Sebastian however eventually learnt that, to make a living and a name for himself, he would have to adapt his work to the needs of his patrons.

Nevertheless he could on the whole stick to his Lutheran beliefs, continuing to set German rather than Latin words in his liturgical choral works. When in 1733 the Elector of Protestant Saxony sought election to the Catholic Polish throne, Bach set to music the Greek and Latin parts of the Mass which were acceptable to both denominations so as to coax the favour of his monarch. Thus was composed the Missa which, some 15 years or so later, was to make up, with slight alteration, the whole of the first part of the B minor Mass.

Bach was by then safely ensconced as court composer and could look back over a highly successful career with, for once, the freedom to compose what he wanted rather than being at the beck and call of his masters. He pondered on what he had written over almost 50 years: now perhaps he felt he could write a piece of wider appeal than his made-to-order cantatas and expand on his earlier abbreviated Missa.

He dug through works dating back to at least 1714, even finding inspiration from music by the foreign composers he had studied in his adolescence. Bach exchanged the Latin words of the full Mass for the earlier German text creating a massive work, far too long for liturgical use in a Lutheran or Catholic church. He gave the work no overall title and was never to hear it performed but he had at least achieved his artistic goal: “the betterment of church music, free from…opposition and vexation”.

Much of Bach’s music had to wait many decades to be recognised outside his homeland. Felix Mendelssohn became one of his first champions; it was he who in 1838 painted the Thomaskantorei in Leipzig (see picture), showing the studio where Bach had worked on the Mass around 90 years before.

The Mass itself only appeared in print in 1845, and didn’t receive its first full public performance until 1859 in Leipzig, or its première recording (made in Britain) until 1929. And so, after this long gestation, what is recognised today as one of Bach’s masterpieces eventually won universal admiration.

Below is a Spotify playlist of some of the music Bach is thought to have adapted when putting together the Mass, see if you can match the originals with the result!

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