Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What’s a Nice Lutheran Like J.S. Bach Doing Writing a Latin Mass?

On Sunday, March 22, Connecticut Choral Artists (CONCORA) will present its immensely popular annual all-Bach collaboration with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. (Details are at the end of this post.) On the program this year is a rare performance of Bach’s Missa Brevis in G minor (BWV 235), one of several short Latin masses Bach composed during his years in Leipzig. Long overshadowed by Bach’s 200-plus church cantatas and seven motets, and most of all by his B Minor Mass, these Masses are little known and seldom heard. It’s possible that this performance of the G Minor Mass by CONCORA is the first in New England in many years, if not the first altogether.
To understand why Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the acknowledged master of Lutheran German-language church music, would provide a musical setting of the Latin liturgy, we must look back to Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the roots of the Protestant Reformation.

Though Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521, he continued to observe many of its rites and liturgies. In particular, he retained the Mass, that solemn commemoration and symbolic mystical re-enactment of the Last Supper of Christ. The Ordinary of the Catholic Mass includes five sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. In fashioning a revised format for his 1526 Deutsche Messe (the “German Mass”), Luther essentially followed this familiar model.

Though Luther preferred to use the German language to ensure comprehension, he initially specified that the five sections of the Ordinary should continue to be sung in Latin. Later, he eliminated Latin in favor of German, although he acknowledged the value of retaining parts of the centuries-old Latin rite for use on feast days and other occasions. Acknowledging the importance of the Latin texts to many parishioners, Luther endorsed the use of Latin texts “for those who love and understand them.”

When Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, polyphonic settings of the Kyrie and Gloria (called the Missa or “Short Mass”) were sometimes sung in the Protestant churches, though on most Sundays the words were simply chanted in unison. Between 1737 and 1748, Bach wrote at six Latin-language “Short Masses,” consisting of polyphonic settings of the Kyrie and Gloria for soloists, choir, and orchestra; the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were not included. The Mass in G Minor was probably prepared around 1738-1739 in Leipzig. Also in Bach’s Latin-texted sacred oeuvre are five settings of the Sanctus, two settings of the Magnificat, and the stupendous Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (enlarged from the Missa a 5 Voci), which includes his only known settings of the Credo, Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei portions of the Latin Mass.

Bach’s "Short Masses" have come to be known as the “Lutheran Masses,” though they are appropriate for use in both the Catholic and Lutheran liturgies. The “Lutheran Mass” terminology may be preferred by those who reserve the term “Missa Brevis” for Mass settings in which most of the portions of the Ordinary are present but in which the texts are shortened, generally by “telescoping” or overlapping texts, or sometimes by omitting the Credo, as may be found in the missa brevae of Mozart and Haydn. Because Bach’s Short Masses include, by Lutheran tradition, only the Kyrie and Gloria, they do, indeed present themselves as “Lutheran Masses.”

Don’t miss this rare performance of Bach's Mass in G Minor! The concert will take place on Sunday, March 22, at 4:00 p.m., at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington). Plenty of free parking is available.

This concert often sells out quickly, so purchase your tickets soon! Group discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

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