AT last, in Leipzig, Bach would realize his final object: “well-conceived and well-regulated church music to the glory of God.”1 He was master of the musical service; he could elevate the musical liturgy to the loftiest heights of his imagination. In previous situations he had been active in parts of the service only. In Weimar he had furnished only the organ music that the service required. Inspired by Erdmann Neumeister and Salomo Franck, he conceived a new form of the cantata, but his subordinate rank prevented him from making full use of the form. Now, finally, he took up the gigantic task of composing complete yearly cycles of the liturgy—the musical part of the service that Luther had sketched out and suggested 200 years before.
The Lutheran Liturgy
The general program of the Catholic Mass was largely preserved in the Lutheran liturgy. Luther had changed only those parts that conflicted with the essential ideas of his reform. Otherwise he had kept its construction intact for he loved the sacred ritual and revered its significance—the commemoration of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. His reform was essentially one of emphasis, but because of these changes one function of the music of the liturgy came to dominate the service.
The sermon, not the acting out of the mystery of Holy Communion, was the climax of the Lutheran service. Instead of a priest performing the drama of the Eucharist alone, with the congregation as observers, a minister taught and interpreted the gospel. The music before and after the sermon gained in significance because it was sung to a text related to the preacher’s topic. This topic was determined by the liturgical calendar. The appropriate Bible passage was usually read in the early part of the service; in Leipzig, in Bach’s time, it was chanted in plainsong by the minister at the altar. Before the reading from the gospels a hymn, corresponding to the gradual in the Catholic Mass, was sung, called the Detemporalied, the song for the proper time. The liturgical rules of the Leipziger Kirchenstaat required that “a song were sung according to the nature of the gospel.”2
For example, on Advent Sunday the cantor might choose the hymn “Now Comes the Gentiles’ Savior” as an introduction to the corresponding passage in one of the four gospels. A chorale-prelude that Bach wrote to precede this congregational hymn contains graphic illustrations of the text, as well as the deep, often tender, sometimes exalted and jubilant musical representation of Bach’s personal reaction to the sacred drama of the text. The same hymn formed the musical motive for the cantata: and its poetic text would expound the topic of the day. It is easy to see why this coherence of gospel passage, sermon topic, detempora hymn, and cantata, inspired Lutheran composers to spend their greatest creative energy and imagination on this part of the musical service, which achieved central importance in the liturgy.
The other parts of the service—the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei— were less important. The first two were designated as “Missa,” the Mass. Bach did not necessarily compose music of his own for these parts, but usually used music of other composers, Protestant and Catholic alike. Sometimes the texts of these selections would coordinate with the topic of the day. Thus, on Christmas Day the motet before the Kyrie would be “Jerusalem Caudio Gaudio Magna.” Bach had access to motet collections of Erhard Bodenschatz (ca. 1576-1636), Melchior Vulpius (ca. 1570-1615), and the Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (1682) by Gottfried Vopelius (1645-1715),3 all in the Thomas School library. He seems to have had a preference for the collection of Bodenschatz,4 which included, among others, works by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), Andrea Gabrieli (d. 1586), Sethus Calvisius, Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), Christoph Demantius (1567-1643), Melchior Vulpius, Giovanni Gabriele (1557-1612), Melchior Franck (ca. 1579-1639), and Benedetto Pallavicino (?-i6oi).
Bach had envisioned his “well-regulated” church music as completely coordinated with the liturgy. Since the cantor—not the preacher—chooses the detempora hymn, Bach could integrate the music according to his own judgment. He could work at these compositions sufficiently in advance to give them all the care and attention such significant artworks needed. It has been estimated that the composition of a cantata took Bach about a month, and many of these works were conceived and composed long before they were performed.
The B Minor Mass
Although Luther loved the beauty of the Latin Mass, he realized that because of language the uneducated classes of the population were excluded from the instruction of the liturgy. Reluctantly at first, he published a German Mass in 1526. The Greek words Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy upon us), were retained, but only as a refrain in a German incantation hymn, Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeitl Gross ist dein Barmherzigkeit (Kyrie God, Father in Eternity, Great is Thy Mercy).5 Similarly, the Gloria in excelsis Deo became a hymn Allein Gott in der Hohe sei Ehr (Only God On High Be Honored). But, as Luther himself wrote:
On festival days, like Christmas, Michaelis, Purification, etc. it must go as hitherto, in Latin, until we have enough German songs because this work is in its early beginnings; therefore everything that belongs to it is not yet ready.6
Faithful to this pronouncement, Leipzig conducted the liturgy in both languages, especially in the Thomas and University churches, which the educated upper classes attended. Here many chants were alternately sung in Latin and German. On many festal days the entire service was in Latin.
Luther’s love of the traditional language of the church was probably Bach’s motivation for writing one magnificent Mass entirely in Latin— the B Minor Mass. Bach’s respect for Latin, shared with Luther, inspired his departure from the common German text, and does not, as many scholars have tried to prove, betray a leaning toward Catholicism. He did send parts of the Mass to the Catholic Elector of Saxony, August III. Admittedly, any part of the Mass could be used in the Catholic service, even the solo arias and duets, since similar songs appear in the Masses of Bach’s Catholic contemporaries like Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), a pupil of Nicolas Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti.7 On the other hand, Bach wrote five yearly sets of German cantatas, comprising the staggering amount of 295 (according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel as related by Forkel), as compared with a very small number of Latin works. He even composed German works for festal days, although Luther had recommended Latin; there are 56 German cantatas, among those extant, composed for such feasts as John the Baptist (Nos. 7, 30, and 167), Mary’s Visitation (10 and 147), Christ’s Ascension (11, 37, 43, and 128).8 Cantatas in Latin are rare; Cantata 191, in Latin, was performed during the festivities of Christmas.
Ten parts of the B Minor Mass consist of partial transcriptions from other works, six of which are cantatas.9 Recitatives were excluded from these Latin services, but Bach borrowed the great choral introductions and symphonies, as well as a duet and an aria for alto solo. The aria Ach bleibe dock, mein liebstes Leben from Cantata 11 (“Lobet Cott in seinen Richen”), became the Agnus Dei of the Mass, and the duet from the Latin Cantata 191, which became the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, was also derived from a German work, now lost. The Gloria in Excelsis Deo of 191 is identical with the Gloria of the great Mass; the Gloria Patri of this cantata, which was sung Post Orationem, appears in the B Minor Mass as part seven, Domine Deus f Rex Coelestis; and part three of this cantata, Sicut erat in Principio, emerges in the B Minor Mass with the words “Cum sancto Spirito in Gloria Dei Patris.”
The B Minor Mass was never performed in its entirety, nor did Bach intend this when he wrote the work. This, along with Bach’s overriding concern with the German cantata form, should dispel any doubts about his possible tendency toward Catholicism. Only parts of the B Minor Mass were performed for special festal occasions. Spitta is of the opinion that the Sanctus was used as a Christmas piece, even that it was composed for that purpose.10 Moreover, the rules of the Leipzig liturgy demanded that the Sanctus be sung at that time, at the end of the main service, before Communion. The Kyrie of the B Minor Mass, because of its unusual length, may have been sung on the Sunday before Lent. The Credo would fit in on saints’ days, when it was customary to sing the entire Nicene Creed.11 (In Bach’s time no independent services for saints’ days were observed, for they were merged with the nearest Sunday.) Bach’s son Philipp Emanuel, who possessed the vocal and orchestral parts of the Credo, performed just this section of the Mass in Hamburg when he was musical director there.
The absurdity of the supposition that Bach’s Masses were written with the Catholic service in mind is most evident in the Kyrie of the F Major Mass,12 which would never have been tolerated in the Catholic church. The Kyrie, a contrapuntal gem, has a Protestant chorale melody, played by two horns and two oboes, which form an obligato above the fugal quartet of voices. Together with this four-part fugue on the words Kyrie Eleison, and the hymn tune for the horns and oboes, the bass voice and the bassoon sing a cantus firmus which is clearly derived from the Litany, a chant that was intoned in the Leipzig churches on the first Sunday of Advent and Lent.13 Similar interweaving of the Catholic with Lutheran music appear in the Credo and in the Confiteor of the B Minor Mass. For the fugue of the Credo Bach used the theme of the ancient Georgian plain chant Credo in unum Deum, which was sung by the Lutheran choir after the gospel reading. In measure 73 of the Confiteor the bass sings another church intonation, Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum (I acknowledge baptism for the remission of sins). Luther discarded most of the sacraments, but not baptism, and this ancient chant could be used in Catholic and Lutheran churches alike.
Bach’s four Masses, in F major, A major, g minor, and G major (also derived from cantatas)14 contain only one Kyrie and a Gloria in four movements. Only the B Minor Mass is complete, including the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei, as well as the Kyrie in three movements and the Gloria in eight. In the Protestant liturgy the erm Missa, or Mass, referred to only those parts of the ancient Mass that were used in the Lutheran service, in particular the Kyrie and the Gloria. The Thomas Church prescribes:
MISSA: (Choir): Kyrie eleison, etc. or the hymn “Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit,” followed by the Gloria, sung by the choir either in Latin—in that case the entire text, which in the B minor Mass comprises eight movements, and in the four shorter Masses four—or in German. In the latter case the hymn “AUein Gott in der Hdhe sei Ehr” is suggested.
Besides these Kyries and Glorias five short Sancti and one Christe Eleison in g minor have been ascribed to Bach.15 One more major Latin work remains to be mentioned—the glorious Magnificat.
The Magnificat is the gospel canticle that the Blessed Virgin Mary sang in ecstacy when she knew she was to give birth to the Savior. Its text comes directly from Luke 2:46-55. Following tradition, and Luther’s admonition, Bach used the Latin of the Vulgate16 for this festal performance.
Since the fifteenth century composers have set this text to music, and have performed it at Vespers during Christmas. True to tradition, Bach’s Magnificat was performed on the first day of Christmas, in the afternoon. Since the bells began tolling at 1:15 p.m. and the sermon began at 3:oo17 —after the organ voluntary, the motet on either “Cum natus esset Jesus,” “Hodie Christus natus est,” or “Surgite pastores,”18 a cantata, and the pulpit hymn “Ein Kindelein so lobelich”— one may assume that the service began at between 2:00 and 2:30, and that the Magnificat was sung around 5 :oo, which brings it ad vesperam, at sunset. This work, which lasts about 35 minutes, is Bach’s only Latin work that can be performed in its entirety without violating the composer’s original design.
Not long before Bach came to Leipzig some ancient theatrical customs still prevailed. The churches continued to display the manger and to rock the Infant Jesus until 1702. Another custom, that of singing antiphonal hymns between the movements of the Magnificat canticle was followed in the early days of Bach’s cantorship: for in an earlier version of his Magnificat (in E flat)19 Bach had written out two chorales, a Gloria, and part of a Latin hymn Virga Jesse, which were sung by a small choir in the gallery opposite the main one, following the custom in Leipzig of singing antiphonal hymns, accompanied by a smaller organ on that gallery,20 between movements. But Bach abandoned even this last remnant of a theatrical effect in the definitive version (in D major).
Indeed, Bach needed no theatricals to communicate the content of this poem; his music portrayed the Virgin’s state of mind much more graphically and penetratingly than any visual display. Indescribable is the ecstatic joy in the music to the first verse Magnificat anima mea dominum (My soul doth magnify the Lord). Only by sharing grateful ecstacy with his own bride at her first pregnancy can Bach have absorbed so completely Mary’s feeling at this heavenly event. The austere text of the Vulgate and of the King James version does not adequately reflect Mary’s exalted state of mind. Just how Bach experienced it becomes clear upon reading the free paraphrase on this text in Cantata 189, “Meine Seele rilhmt und preist.” Instead of “My soul doth magnify the Lord” it reads, “My soul glorifies and praises God’s kindness and goodness, and my spirit, heart, and senses, and my entire being is filled with joy in my God. “ (Meine Seele rühmt und preist Gottes Huld und reiche GiXte, und mein Geist, Herz, Sinn, und ganz Gemute ist in meinem Gott erfreut.)21
The work was performed on Christmas Day, 1723, the year that the Bachs came to Leipzig. Since Bach first composed another version of this work, he must have conceived the work in Kothen. The first and last movements have the distinct character of a concerto grosso, the idiom which in Kothen so filled his mind. The other movements picture the text with surety and directness that call to mind the powerful brush of Michaelangelo, as in Luke 1 .-52, Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles (He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree), or the natural simplicity of a Giotto, as in verse 53, Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes (He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away).
The Magnificat lies close to the hearts of all Christians for its basic humanity from which the spirit soars to divine heights, while the B Minor Mass, though no less lofty, is not only more formal but more austere as well. No borrowings or transformations of former works led to the creation of the Magnificat, which ranks among Bach’s most inspired creations. His imagination was aroused by palpable human experience, sublimized by his idealistic and mystic conceptions of Virgin worship.
It is not difficult to understand Luther’s reluctance to translate the Latin texts when we listen to Bach’s Magnificat for, though the Latin of the Magnificat forms a regrettable barrier between the average listener and the full absorption of this sublime art, an adequate translation would be difficult without injury to its delicate sanctity. But Luther was thoroughly convinced of the desirability of congregational participation. The outgrowth of his reform, the Protestant hymn, became the principle foundation for the new Protestant art work that was to flourish in the next two centuries.