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""Bach's Mass in B Minor as Musical Icon
(Read in Flash at digitalbach.com or YouTube)

This lecture was first delivered at Ball State University in conjunction with a performance of the B-Minor Mass by the University Singers in 1995. It was translated into Japanese by Tadaoki Jinzenji, and appears on the website of the Schneidt Bach Choir in Tokyo. The translation was used as program notes for a performance at NBC Hall in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 30 & May 2, 2000. In 2002 it was translated into Polish for a performance and CD of that work by the Academic Choir of the Nicholas Copernicus University of Torun, Poland. In 2005 it was translated into Persian (Farsi) by Sasan Golfar and published in Aahang (Tune) Musical Quarterly in Tehran.

""

CD1                                CD2
J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor
American Bach Soloists

Three hundred and ten years ago, last Tuesday, there was born a man who loved God and music with all of his heart, soul, and mind. This man was Johann Sebastian Bach. This man experienced emotion, pain, and suffering the likes of which you and I should hope never to see. Both of his parents died when he was ten. In his mid thirties, his wife and mother of seven children died (three of their children had already died). Only six of the thirteen progeny of his second marriage would live to adulthood. This man of few words said practically nothing about himself or his feelings. Yet his music says it all, for while we sometimes hear in it sadness, we hear more often great joy, humor, and zest for life. We also hear the heartbeat of one possessed of profound reverence and devotion--nowhere is this reverence more evident than in his Mass in B minor.

The first glimpse that the world would see of this Mass was in 1733 when Bach dedicated its Kyrie and Crucifixus to Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, a man who had converted to the Roman faith (abandoning his wife who would not convert) so that he might become eligible to assume the throne of Poland. For the next fifteen years Bach expanded this Missa Brevis, borrowing heavily from his German cantatas and adapting them to Latin, to produce a complete setting of the Mass ordinary . Bach did this knowing that the work would never see performance during his lifetime. So, in terms of its origin, the B Minor Mass is an enigma--a Latin work by a Protestant that is impracticable in both the Roman and Lutheran liturgies.

Purpose

Since January, when Dr. Amman asked me to prepare this lecture, I have thought about what I could say, in 50 minutes, that might contribute in some small way to a meaningful performance. I tell you now that, while it is certainly a great work of art, the B Minor demands that one approach it not merely as art, but as icon--a religious object crafted for the purpose of divine worship and instruction. In the words of Christoph Wolff, the composer himself saw his Mass as "the supreme opportunity to unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician in a single statement." By "icon" I do not mean that twaddling sense in which the word has come to be used of late. I use the word, rather, in its historical sense, especially as it is represented in one of the richest and most varied traditions in art history, that of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. We have all seen these icons, with their wide eyes, tilted heads, halos, vivid colors, and piously folded hands. I am talking about a type of art expressive of a people capable of devotion so profound as to be practically incomprehensible to the western mind.

Why do we "do" Art?


Michelangelo Buonarroti, David
British writer, C. S. Lewis, wrote: "We read to know that we are not alone." This, I think, is a very good starting place for why we do any art. We agonize through "Schindler's List" and laugh through Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," we contemplate Rodin's "Thinker," admire the youthful strength and idealism of Michelangelo's David, marvel before Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, and reverence Leonardo's Last Supper, to know that we are not alone. We revel in the ecstatic sensuality of Renoir's Diana, and dawdle with Debussy's faun through the first warm afternoon in spring, to know that we are not alone. We shrink in horror as we approach the lower regions of Dante's "Inferno" and hear the shriek of Penderecki's "Threnody" to know that we are not alone. This is what art is and this is why we do it, and this is certainly reason enough to perform the B Minor Mass.

The Icon: a Form of Liturgical Art

The Icon is Incarnational

But if we do art to know that we are not alone, the purpose of the icon is to assure us that God is with us--for the icon is first and foremost, incarnational. This word, "incarnation," refers to the Christian belief that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of Mary and that Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first century AD is true God and true man, "God with us." St. John of Damascus affirms the purpose of the icon: "God who has no body, nor form or limits could not, in the past, be represented. But now that He has come in the flesh and has dwelt among men, you can paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to be visible."
Enthroned Madonna and Child, 13th Century, wood
C. S. Lewis's purpose for art--"to know that we are not alone"--and St. John of Damascus's purpose for icons--to know that God is with us--both stand in stark contrast to the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre and others of our own century who portray mankind as very much alone and adrift in a meaningless universe, without God, but with a terrifying freedom to choose. The purpose of the icon, in particular, has been to say exactly the opposite, that the Creator did not leave creation alone, to its own devices, but that the Creator is active, involved, concerned, and full of love for his people. The incarnation of God is, therefore, the central belief of Christendom, where it is seen not only as the most important event in history but also as a great mystery beyond human ability to explain, or even to comprehend. Bach expresses this mystery in a series of falling triads that represent the Holy Spirit of God descending upon Mary, highly favored among women, Mother of God in the flesh.


Example 1: et Incarnatus of the Mass Credo
(CD 2 track 4)

The doctrine of the incarnation had important ramifications for early Christian artists, especially in the Orthodox tradition. First it affirmed the goodness of all creation. Contrary to the teachings of Greek philosophers who saw the physical world as a corruption of the spiritual, Christians reasoned that if God, who is a spirit, would reveal himself, perfectly, in physical form, the physical word must be capable of at least expressing basic spiritual truths. The Second Council of Nicea (787 A.D.), produced not only large portions of the text of Bach's Mass, but also allowed that artists could represent God in ways that were symbolic. This led the church, particularly the Byzantines, to produce a type of art that emphasized spiritual expression rather than naturalism. Visual artists were compelled to walk a fine line between artistic realism and the breaking of the second commandment, which prohibits the making of images.

Whereas in the western tradition the elements of art--line, shape, color, movement, form--were calculated to be beautiful (a Madonna might be, for example, a literal representation of the artist's mistress), in the eastern icon, these elements were calculated to invoke the presence of God. Shapes, hand positions, facial expressions, materials, and forms all meant something. Not only did they mean something, they came to be seen as physical manifestations of the presence of God in his people and in creation. As such, the icon was not merely an art object, but a spiritual artifact, a relic, worthy of profound respect and veneration.

The incarnational view of art in eastern orthodoxy finds a natural ally, musically, in the 18th-century doctrine of the affections. According to this doctrine, music is not about joy, sadness, love, etc., it is the physical embodiment of the same. Nicolaus Harnoncourt describes, for example how 18th-century instrumentation was governed by proportion theory. Those instruments capable of playing only the natural tones of the harmonic series--trumpets, horns, etc.--were accorded a special place as physical manifestations of God or the highest royal personages. This belief, that the work of art is not merely about spiritual truth, but embodies that truth in physical form, is illustrated in Bach's Mass by his use of the natural horn to set the words, Quoniam tu solus Sanctus..."Thou alone, O Jesus Christ, art God, the most high."


Example 2: Quoniam tu solus sanctus of the Mass Gloria
(CD 1 track 11)

While the Quoniam uses the natural horn to signify the divinity of Jesus, in the second Kyrie and Crucifixus, Bach employs a curious motive known as circulatio to represent Christ and his cross. A study of this motive could easily occupy our attentions for the entire hour, suffice it to say that Bach uses it often in his cantatas and passion music in conjunction with the words Kreuz (cross) or Christus (Christ). Not only does he use this motive, but he often substitutes the Greek letter Chi () an early Christian symbol for Christ or the cross--for those same words. In the following examples Bach's homiletical interest is obvious. Immediately recognizable as the tonal morpheme for the cross, the circulatio--first four pitches of the Kyrie (Example 3b)--imply that the Lord granting mercy in the third movement is the same Lord suspended from the cross of the Crucifixus (Example 3a).

Example 3: Circulatio (cross figures) in the Mass in B Minor
(a) sop. at 10th of 13 iterations of lamento ground in the Crucifixus
(CD 2 track 5)
(b) sop. at 10th of 13 iterations of fugue's subject in 2nd Kyrie (CD 1 track 3)

The Icon is Mystical

Earlier I mentioned the doctrine of the incarnation of God as one that Christians believe but cannot explain, rationally. It is a mystery, and as such represents a belief that the ways and the being of God are transcendent . . . the Creator cannot be limited by that which he created. The one who made space and time is not limited by space and time; the one who made the laws governing the cosmos is not limited by those laws. If God is transcendent then there are spiritual realities, not apparent to the senses, which, though they are real and relevant, are unintelligible using ordinary rationalistic means. The means of perception is, of course, faith . . . a type of "knowing" that is perhaps best expressed by the words: "Lord, I believe . . . help Thou my unbelief."

This idea of transcendence manifests itself, iconographically, in a type of art that is full of allusions to spiritual realities transcending one's immediate comprehension of the artwork itself. The icon makes these allusions, but the eye does not perceive them or their significance without profound contemplation. Example 3 revealed two such mystical allusions in Bach's Mass. In an apparent reference to himself, Bach's single statement of the Kyrie subject in B minor contains fourteen pitches and the sum of those pitches is forty-one (the numbers 14 and 41 being the sums of BACH and JSBACH respectively). Likewise referring to himself, Bach follows the cross motive of the Crucifixus with the musical equivalent of his own name, inverted. These self references can be likened to the custom of 18th-century religious artists of painting themselves into the picture as mystical expressions of their own appropriation of spiritual realities being represented. One of the more mystical expressions of the B Minor Mass is found in the Patrem Omnipotentem movement of the Mass Credo. Note that Bach restates the first clause (Credo in Unum Deum), which he has already set in the previous movement. The reason he restates these four words may have been to produce a total of 14 words and 84 letters in this particular movement. We've considered the significance of the number 14, but what about 84, a number that, incidentally, Bach writes at the conclusion of the original manuscript. Well, there are 84 measures in the movement--but was the composer merely counting measures? The eminent Bach scholar, Friedrich Smend, says "no," the number 84 has mystical significance as it relates to the creation (factorem) of heaven and earth (coeli et terrae). Please study Example 4.


Example 4: Patrem Omnipotentem of the Mass Credo (CD 2 track 2)

Smend proposed that this text had special significance for Bach, a "maker of music," in that it refers to God as "Maker of all things." As one who had studied the Greek language himself, Bach was surely aware, like Marthaler, that: "The Greek term used in the Nicene Creed for "Maker" is poieten--a cognate of our word "poet," but closer in meaning to the English word 'artist'." Bach's mystical intent here may have been to imply that he as an artist has shaped, formed, and brought into being, sounds illustrative of the very processes that God used to form the cosmos--processes involving the imposition of design and the giving of order to that which was chaotic and formless.

The Icon is Didactic

A third characteristic of the icon is that it is didactic . . . its purpose is to teach the faithful what God is like. While the Mass Text itself is exceedingly didactic, Bach does some powerful things, musically, to reinforce these in ways that words alone cannot. In the Et in unum Dominum of the Mass Credo, for example, the second soprano's line is continuously generated, in canonic imitation, from that of the first soprano. This canonic generation is a didactic elaboration not only of the clause genitum non factum ("begotten, not created") but also of Jesus' words "The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does" John 5:19. Underlying this movement is the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, one with God, yet fully human. As a sign of this duality, Bach does not allow the canonic follower to engage in unthinking mimicry but gives it some independence. Yet, in its continuously mutating time and pitch intervals, the canon follower (Christ) is audibly generated by the leader (the Father), and always doing the Father's will.


Example 5: Et in Unum Dominum of the Mass Credo (CD 2 track 3)
Show full score with canonic segmentations.

Four of the five parts to the Mass Ordinary--Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Agnus Dei--are structured in three sections: the first section addressed to God the Father, the second to God the Son, and the third to God the Holy Spirit. The first five lines of the Gloria, for example, glorify the Father, the next few lines glorify the Son, while the last line glorifies the Holy Spirit. The first demarcation--that is, between the first and second persons of the Trinity--comes in the middle of Bach's duet for soprano and tenor: Domine Deus. Please study Example 6a: notice that the first sentence (the underlined) addresses God the Father, while the second sentence addresses God the Son.


Example 6a: Domine Deus of the Mass Gloria (CD 1 track 8)

Normally composers separate these ideas into two movements. But not Bach. He not only combines them in one movement, but also causes the soprano to sing to one person of the Trinity while the tenor simultaneously sings to the other. Thus, the two sentences are continuously intermingled to exemplify the indivisibility of the Holy Trinity (see Example 6b). Such intermixture of lines of text was frowned upon during the last year of the General Council of Trent (1545-1563), and would later be prohibited by Papal decree. The reasoning of the Church was that it renders text unintelligible, therefore inappropriate for liturgical use. With Bach, however, the mixture is a didactic elaboration of Jesus' words: "I and the Father are one" John 10:30.


Example 6b: Domine Deus (CD 1 track 8)
(soprano and tenor singing different clauses at the same time)

The Icon is Dramatic

In its statuary, stations of the cross, frescoed ceilings, and stained glass windows, the iconographic art of the church tells the story of its Savior, Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, and Saints. This brings us to the last, and most important, function of the icon--namely, to lead the faithful into the presence of Almighty God. The Sanctus of Bach's Mass leads us into the presence of God in a preponderance of sixes (meter signature, choral parts, etc.). These sixes remind us of the prophet Isaiah's encounter with God in chapter six of his prophecy:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."


Example 7: Sanctus (CD 2 track 10)

These seraphs must have been awesome creatures, for Isaiah continues...
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. "Woe is me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

The message of Isaiah's encounter is that before one can come into the presence of God, one's sins must have been forgiven. This is the starting point for the drama of Bach's Mass--in the oldest words of the Christian liturgy--and the only part of that liturgy to survive from the original Greek--the supplicant pleads "Lord, have mercy."


Example 8: Kyrie
(CD 1 track 1)

But for there to be mercy there must be atonement--someone must pay the price. Christians believe that someone did pay the price--God's own son, the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. Jesus' crucifixion becomes, then, the center of this drama, and Bach shows this, musically, by placing the Crucifixus squarely between the only two movements in which a musical idea is repeated: the Gratias (we give thanks to thee for thy great glory) and the Dona Nobis Pacem (grant us thy peace). Do not think for a moment that Bach ran out of ideas here. He repeats the music of the Gratias in order to dramatize the centrality of the cross in the Christian gospel. This type of emphasis, known in 18th-century rhetoric as chiasmus, is another symbol of the cross. Bach uses it here to focus attention upon what falls precisely between the analogous sections--what the Germans call the Herzstück. The Herzstück of Bach's B Minor Mass, and the center of this drama, is his setting of the Crucifixus.


Example 9: Gratias  --  Crucifixus  --  Dona Nobis Pacem

         (CD 1 track 7) (CD 2 track 5) (CD 2 track 15)

Conclusion

I conclude with some ruminations on the problem of iconographic art in our secular society, especially in its public universities. I doubt if there is one of us here who does not feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with the discussion of liturgical art in the context we find ourselves. This discomfort traces perhaps to a desire not to offend, not to use public resources to endorse religious beliefs, or a desire not to be confronted with the iconographic claims of the artwork itself.

These legitimate concerns often manifest themselves in the tearing down of the icon, representation of the artwork phenomenologically to the exclusion of its iconographic function. The B Minor Mass is most often studied, for example, in one of the following ways: (1) formalistically--how does Bach use melody, harmony, counterpoint, form, timbre, etc.? (2) affectively--what feeling, mood or emotion does the Mass produce in the listener? (3) genetically--what were the circumstances of its creation? or (4) generically--how does this Mass compare with other Masses? While these questions are certainly important, their answers represent, at best, a superficial encounter when compared with questions like, "What does this icon say about us, our hopes, our despairs, our joys, aspirations, and failings--what does this icon have to say about the meaning of life--about God?" The Byzantines of the 8th and 9th centuries preached that art is powerless to say anything about God--that artistic representations of God, the apostles, prophets, saints, and martyrs, are dangerous because they lead people into idolatry--the breaking of the second commandment. These people ranged throughout Asia Minor tearing down icons, and it is from them that we get our word "iconoclast," meaning one who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions. Is it possible that the discomfort to which I have alluded is the result of Byzantine tendencies like those of the iconoclasts? I am simply asking a question. Are we seeing today, in the upturned nativity scenes and menorahs of our public schools, parks and courthouses, a species of iconoclasm not unlike that perpetrated in Asia Minor one thousand years ago? Instead of the church, is it now the state that destroys icons for fear of breaking it's own commandment: "Thou shalt separate the church from the state." I hope that as artists we can agree that to deny the essentially spiritual essence of much of western art does violence to that art, and to the human spirit. American poet laureate, Robert Frost, wrote: "Every time a poem is written...it is written not by cunning, but by belief." Frost's observation makes me wonder, when we as educators and art consumers allow art to be shorn of belief, does not this leave us with mere cunning. And while cunning does certainly energize the intellect, does it not leave the spirit cold? While the B Minor Mass contains exquisitely beautiful melodies, wonderful fugues, choruses in the stile antico, and brilliant concerted music--i.e. cunning--is this not somehow missing the point?


Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam
The French impressionist painter and sculptor, Pierre Auguste Renoir wrote that ". . . painting done for a community was possible when painters and community shared the same vision of the world." I suspect that the iconoclasm of the latter 20th century is producing a society that shares no vision--does nothing together except pay its income taxes by April 15th. Such iconoclasm, when applied to the arts, would have us see, in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" nothing more than two men (one of them naked) holding hands. But the icon would have us see God, his eyes intensely focused upon Adam, full of energy, reaching out to his creation, active, involved, interested--while Adam, in a daze, with his back toward God, reaches out with limp wrists and half-turned head, barely aware of what is happening to him. The iconoclast would have us hear in Bach's Mass only beautiful sounds . . . but the icon would have us hear the voice of God, himself, saying: "Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always."

Notes


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