Yale Schola Cantorum | Bach: Lutheran Masses

Event time: 
Sunday, October 18, 2015 - 3:30pm to 5:30pm
Peter Jay Sharp Theater See map
165 W. 65th St.
NYC, NY 10023
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 


Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

with Juilliard415

BWV 234 and 235

 tickets at lincolncenter.org


Nola Richardson, soprano
Daniel Moody, countertenor
Adele Grabowski, mezzo-soprano
Tyler Ray, tenor
Brendan Fitzgerald, bass-baritone
Matt Sullivan, bass-baritone

P R O G R A M   N O T E S

When the Lutheran church emerged in the 15th century, one of its main tenets was that church services—and all associated music—must be in the language of the people: German. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent his life in service to the Lutheran church, and he set hundreds of German cantata texts to music for use in Sunday morning services. By the 18th century, however, it was no longer necessary for the Lutheran church to differentiate itself so fiercely from its Catholic ancestor, and Catholic texts—specifically the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass—sometimes found their way back into the liturgy. Leipzig, where Bach worked as Kantor of the Thomaskirche from 1723 to the end of his life, was one of the towns that used the so-called Missa brevis (Kyrie and Gloria only), and, in the late 1730s, Bach composed four Mass settings for liturgical use.

Although Bach composed many more cantatas than Masses, the latter genre carried a significant advantage for a composer. A cantata is uniquely tied to a specific celebration in the Lutheran cycle, which spans three years. Each of Bach’s cantatas, therefore, was heard only a few times before it was replaced with something up-to-date. A Mass setting, on the other hand, could be used at every service. It was Bach’s habit, therefore, to use the permanency of the Mass genre to preserve some of his best cantata movements. He accomplished this by retexting complete or partial chorus and solo movements with the words of the Latin Mass. Recycling music also saved time, but it is unlikely that this was a motivating factor for Bach, for he wrote very few Masses and was not under a particularly tight schedule. (Not that this even matters, for Bach could compose new music at a fantastic rate: he turned out one cantata a week during his first years in Leipzig.) Irrefutable proof of Bach’s reason for retexting, however, is found in his final choral work, the Mass in b minor. This enormous Mass was composed strictly out of personal interest, with no deadlines and no expectation of a performance—yet Bach chose to use it as a repository for his finest cantata movements, thereby rescuing them from obscurity.

Bach’s early settings of the Missa brevis were, on the other hand, highly utilitarian. This is evidenced by their brevity—about twenty minutes each—and their consistent form. Each Mass is in six movements: a Kyrie in three parts, as befits the text, and a Gloria divided among five movements. In addition, the Gloria always opens and closes with a choral movement, while the three interior movements feature soloists. Again, this arrangements suits the text of the Gloria, which opens with a grand acclamation (“Glory to God in the Highest”) and closes with a song of praise. The interior passages, which include petitions for mercy, are more intimate and therefore suited to the solo voice.

Bach scored his Mass in A major, BWV 234, for flute, strings, basso continuo, choir, and three soloists. While two of the movements are original, the remainder of the Mass borrows from four different cantatas. The entire first chorus of the Gloria expands upon a bass aria from Cantata BWV 67, while the concluding chorus borrows just a section from the first chorus in BWV 136. The soprano and alto arias are also borrowed, whole cloth, from preexisting cantatas.

For his Mass in G minor, BWV 235, however, Bach only used material from his cantatas. In fact, four of the movements—all in the Gloria—reinvent choruses and arias from the same cantata: BWV 187, which bears the title Es wartet alles auf dich (Everything waits for you). This cantata, which reflects upon the feeding of the four thousand as described in the Gospel of Mark, shares not only a key signature with the Mass but instrumentation—a pair of mournful oboes, strings, and basso continuo—as well. While Bach was not trying to draw an explicit connection between the Gospel story and the Gloria text, he clearly felt that the two passages shared emotional content, although perhaps not the same trajectory: the first movement of the cantata becomes the last movement of the Mass.

The Sinfonia from BWV 42 is wreathed in mystery. Today, we know is as the first movement of a cantata entitled Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (On the evening, however, of the same Sabbath), but there are several red flags. Cantata BWV 42, which was first performed the week after Easter in 1725, is the only work in Bach’s second cycle of cantatas to open with an extended Sinfonia. Musicologists have suggested that the movement previously belonged to a concerto; it has the texture of a concerto a due cori, in which the strings and winds take on equally important but distinct roles and engage in an exchange of ideas. The Sinfonia also resembles the opening movements of several Bach concertos, and is stylistically aligned with that repertoire.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is unusual in that it does not feature any soloists. Instead, each of the nine string players—three violins, three violas, and three cellos—are assigned independent, virtuosic parts, the result of which is that each becomes a soloist in his own right. The unusual instrumentation of this work links it with the other five Brandenburg Concertos, each of which features a bizarre or even unprecedented slate of soloists. This is the only unifying feature of the set; the concertos were not composed as a group and are conspicuous in their variety. In 1721, while serving in the court at Cöthen, Bach assembled the collection and submitted it to the Margrave of Brandenburg, accompanied by an ingratiating dedication. He hoped to be offered either money or a position, but the Margrave did not even acknowledge receipt. The concertos were never performed, and they remained in the Brandenburg archives until rediscovery in 1849—just when interest in Bach’s music was growing to fever pitch. Since that time, the Brandenburg Concertos have been Bach’s most beloved instrumental chamber music.

The first and third movements of the third concerto are in a typical ritornello form, in which a dominant theme alternates with exploratory passages. The second movement, however, is a bit of a puzzler, and has challenged modern interpreters. Marked Adagio, it is only one measure long and constitutes a simple half-cadence. Contemporary realizations of this unsatisfactory movement have ranged from extravagant cadenzas to the insertion of outside movements to omission. In Bach’s time, the musicians maintained a strong tradition of stylistic improvisation and would have known how to bridge the two fast movements appropriately without the aid of notation.

~Esther Morgan Ellis