Johann Sebastian Bach

Mass in B minor
Bach signature


The Providence Singers Presents

J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor

8 p.m. Saturday, October 28, 2006
VMA Arts and Cultural Center
Providence, R.I.

Andrew Clark, conducting

The Providence Singers   
Newport Baroque Orchestra   

   Andrew Clark, Artistic Director
   Paul Cienniwa, Founding Artistic Director

Amanda Forsythe, soprano   
Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano   
Donald Wilkinson, baritone   

   Laura Choi Stuart, soprano
   Alan Schneider, tenor

A Bi-Focal B-minor Mass!
Andrew Clark, Artistic Director
The Providence Singers


Welcome to the Providence Singers 35th season! We launch this exciting year with a performance of J.S. Bach’s B-minor Mass, the culminating work of an inestimable genius, the “summa” of this incomparable master. Through the texts of the ancient Roman Mass, Bach communicates universal hopes, desires, longings and joys as timelessly relevant today as they were in his lifetime.

We have called this monument the choral Mount Everest – towering above us as our genre’s magnum opus, our most ambitious yet rewarding climb that ultimately reveals a view unlike any other: a deeply enriching and meaningful experience of emotional, spiritual and artistic power. Paradoxically opulent and simple, divine and human, religious and universal, antique and modern – tonight’s musical journey expresses the human experience with the special magic that only music can capture.

Student, volunteer and professional choruses have long recognized this work as the crown jewel of the choral idiom. But choral societies, formed from the late 19th century to today and built for Romantic-era oratorios and large orchestral forces, do not resemble the choirs at Bach’s disposal. In the last 25 years, scholarship has suggested that his ensembles would have been no larger than 20 singers, many scholars arguing (and demonstrating through numerous recordings) that the work may have been performed with only one singer on a part, a chorus of eight members! Here lies the challenge for a group like ours: How do we keep this piece alive for our audiences and singers, honoring our tradition of celebrating masterworks, while striving for some historical and stylistic authenticity, respecting the composer’s wishes and vision?

I like to think that Bach, ever pragmatic, would enjoy the concept of tonight’s concert. In seeking historical accuracy, we perform with a period-instrument orchestra at Baroque pitch (A=415), singing Latin in the German dialect Bach heard, and using a smaller chamber chorus for the more intimate, thinly orchestrated sections. To celebrate the grandeur and monumental impact this work continues to inspire, we present other sections with our total forces, a more elaborate rendering suitable to our size. This “bi-focal” B-minor Mass, as a colleague of mine describes it, is one solution, of several, to this challenge and does not assume total authenticity. Rather, it offers multiple lenses to explore, appreciate and enjoy this everlasting masterpiece.


An Historically Informed Performance?
Paul Cienniwa, Founding Artistic Director
Newport Baroque Orchestra

In April of this year, Andy Clark contacted me about engaging Newport Baroque Orchestra to perform for tonight’s concert. At the core of Andy’s request was his desire for the Providence Singers to give a meaningful, contemporary performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass while not ignoring recent research into the field of “historically informed performance.”

Historically informed performance (HIP) is a practical musicology that uses historical documents such as treatises, iconography and historical accounts as a basis for the recreation of historical music. This approach to music making also considers historical instruments or modern reproductions of those instruments and the skills that go into creating music on those instruments. While HIP is often applied to music of the Baroque and before, it is now commonly being incorporated into performances of Romantic and even early 20th-century composers. Conductors have started to recognize that the sound world of the past – even the recent past – is quite different from what we have available to us today. Therefore, it is now not uncommon today to hear HIP applications in Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler.

There are a number of misnomers associated with historically informed performance. Sometimes “early music” is used to describe HIP; however, “early music” is moot in a field that also considers composers such as Brahms, Mahler and, I might suggest, Handel and Bach. Likewise, one sometimes hears of music performed on “authentic” or “original” instruments. While “authentic” is certainly less dangerous than “original”, we can hardly begin to assume that our instrumentalists are playing on the very same instruments heard at historic premières!

It is worth mentioning that there is a downside to HIP. More and more major symphonies are avoiding performing works of the Baroque. We know, for instance, that the Baroque orchestra was considerably smaller than the modern symphony. More so, Baroque orchestras did not have conductors in the modern sense of the word. We also know that modern audiences have become accustomed to hearing Baroque music performed with greater attention to HIP and, in many cases, with period instruments.

Is tonight’s performance “authentic”? Not really. Then again, sitting in a concert hall and hearing a concert is not an act authentic to the Baroque period. But what is happening here tonight is a performance that is sensitive to the musical trends of Bach’s time while exploiting the grandeur of this extraordinary 21st-century choir.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor (BWV 232)

Marc Mandel
Director of Program Publications
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. The various sections of the B-minor Mass were composed over an extended period of time and compiled into a single manuscript only near the end of Bach’s life, in 1748-49. There is no record of a complete performance in Bach’s lifetime.

The first documented American performance was of 11 selections (six choruses and five solos) given under Theodore Thomas’s direction as part of the Cincinnati May Festival on May 19, 1886. Twelve selections (six choruses, six solos) were performed in Boston’s Music Hall by the Handel & Haydn Society under Carl Zerrahn on February 27, 1887, with an orchestra of 50, a chorus of 432, and soloists Lilli Lehmann, Mary How, George J. Parker, and Jacob Benzing.

The first complete performance in the United States was given on March 27, 1900, at the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pa., by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem led by its founder, J. Fred Wolle, with 30 instrumentalists, an 80-member chorus, and soloists Kathrin Hilke, Luch Brickenstein, Mrs. W.L. Estes, Nicolas Douty, and Arthur Beresford. Another complete performance followed soon after, on April 5, 1900, at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Frank Damrosch leading the Oratorio Society and soloists Gertrude May Stein, Nicholas Douty, Joseph Baernstein, and Sara Anderson. An announcement for the performance stated that the work “has never been given in this country in anything like its entirety.”

The score calls for a five-part chorus (soprano I and II, alto, tenor, and bass) for most of the work, four parts in a few movements, six in the Sanctus, and eight (i.e., a double chorus) in the Osanna; two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass soloists; and an orchestra of two transverse flutes, three oboes, two oboes d’amore, two bassoons, three trumpets, one horn (specified as “corno da caccia”), timpani, strings, and continuo. (Nowadays the three solo parts for female voices are often divided between two soloists, soprano and mezzo-soprano. Given their different vocal ranges, it is also not unusual to find the two arias for low voice assigned to separate soloists, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” in the Gloria being taken by bass and the higher-lying “Et in spiritum sanctum” in the Credo being taken by baritone.)

General Background

Evidence suggests that J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor as we know it dates from the years 1748-49, at which time Bach compiled into a single manuscript an extended musical setting of the entire Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. This is not to say, however, that Bach composed his entire setting of the Mass at that time; in fact, we know that several portions of the work date from earlier periods of his life. The Kyrie and Gloria were sent by Bach to Dresden in July 1733 as part of his application for the position of court composer there. Though there is an early version of the Credo (or Symbolum Nicenum) from the early 1740s, the version in the B-minor Mass dates from Bach’s last years, the “Et incarnatus” being perhaps the last vocal composition he ever finished. The Sanctus – the third main section of the full Mass score – derives from a setting by Bach for a 1724 Christmas service; this is the oldest section of the B-minor Mass. And the final division of the score – the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona nobis pacem – represents a combination of, on the one hand, freshly composed music and, on the other, music “parodied” or reworked from pieces Bach had written earlier in his lifetime. In addition, various portions of the score’s first three divisions were adapted from single movements of cantatas and, in certain instances, perhaps even from purely instrumental works.

So, again, the compilation by Bach of the entire Mass setting does not mean that he actually composed the whole work at one time. Nor does it suggest that he meant it to be performed as a whole in the course of the church service; its length and elaborate nature seem to argue against that, in which respect it is often compared to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Another line of argument against viewing Bach’s work as one meant for unified performance derives from certain differences between the Roman Catholic Mass usage and the Lutheran Church liturgy of Bach’s time. For one thing, the Kyrie-Gloria complex (the “Missa”) is all that would have been set for a typical Lutheran service in Bach’s own church. Other portions of the Mass – the Symbolum Nicenum and Sanctus, for example – would only have been given an elaborate setting for voices and instruments on a special occasion. In addition, the Osanna and Benedictus which follow the Sanctus in the Roman Catholic service have no corresponding place in Lutheran usage. (In Bach’s manuscript, the Osanna and Benedictus begin the fourth and final division of the score and so are separated from the Sanctus, which itself makes up the score’s third section.)

As all of this might suggest, historical, liturgical, and musicological considerations have led to several theories about the origin and intent of Bach’s B-minor Mass. One theory views the work merely as a collection of pieces which happen to set individual portions of the service to music. Another theory holds that Bach did ultimately mean to assemble a complete musical setting of the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, as so many composers had done before him. (From this point of view, his division of the score may be no more than an indication of the regrouping of the choral and instrumental forces within the piece.) There is also the view that Bach, near the end of his life, was concerned with leaving a legacy that reflected the state of his art and therefore fashioned several works – the Mass in B minor, the Art of Fugue, and A Musical Offering among them – which served to codify the musical styles in which he wrote. And there is no doubt that his great collection of Mass movements, with its music for solo voice, chorus, and orchestra in a variety of combinations and relationships, achieves this purpose. In any event, as Christoph Wolff observes in the newly revised (2001) New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “In assembling the whole score in 1748-9 ... the composer undoubtedly had the intention of making it a comprehensive work of consistent quality.”

Bach never heard a complete performance of his Mass in B minor; in fact, he never gave the collective work an all-embracing title. We know that Haydn owned a copy of the score, and that Beethoven twice tried to get one. A partial performance of the Credo (through the “Et resurrexit,” with an orchestra lacking trumpets and oboes) took place in Berlin in 1828. The first complete performance of the Credo took place in 1786, in Hamburg, in a benefit concert under the direction of C.P.E. Bach, into whose possession the autograph manuscript came following his father’s death. The Berlin Singakademie under Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen performed the Kyrie and Gloria in 1834, and the rest of the work the following year. In fact, well before this, in the year from autumn 1811 to autumn 1812, the Singakademie under Carl Friedrich Zelter, Rungenhagen’s predecessor, had already sung through the Mass without performing it, Zelter describing it in a letter as “probably the greatest musical work of art that the world has ever seen.” That it took some time for the Mass to enter the repertory is not surprising, given the genesis of the work itself, and since it was only Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Singakademie that spurred broad general interest in the composer’s music. The first complete performance for which there is firm evidence took place in Leipzig, in 1859. The work was first given the title “Die hohe Messe” – the High Mass – in 1845, connoting comparison to the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven. And the title Mass in B minor – a title used only after Bach’s death – may even be something of a misnomer, since the predominant key with respect to both frequency of appearance and resolution of large-scale harmonic tension is clearly D major.

I. Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)

The Missa calls for orchestra (strings, flutes, oboes and oboes d’amore, bassoons, trumpets, and drums), chorus in five parts (two soprano sections, altos, tenors, and basses), and continuo.

The first Kyrie, in B minor, suggests the variety of relationships between chorus and orchestra to be exploited during the course of the piece. The theme is introduced first by the orchestra alone, and then treated fugally by the voices against a counterpoint in the oboes d’amore. This section leads to a filling out of the texture in which the orchestra both shares in and plays against the choral material. The Christe, in D major, is a setting for two sopranos, violins, and continuo, in which simultaneous declamation of the words “Christe eleison” by the vocalists is juxtaposed with florid, contrapuntal embellishment. The second Kyrie, in F-sharp minor, is in strict style, for four-part chorus with the orchestra restricted to doubling the vocal entries. Whereas the theme of the first Kyrie was expansive and rhythmically active, the theme of the second is comparatively brief and proceeds in slower note values, falling back to its starting tonic note very soon after it has begun.

The D major Gloria restores the chorus to its original five parts. The setting of the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is suitably festive, punctuated by trumpets and drums, which were silent during the Kyrie. Another difference in scoring here is that the brighter oboes replace the Kyrie’s oboes d’amore. A plaintive setting of “Et in terra pax” provides contrasting material. The “Laudamus te,” in A major, is set for soprano, obbligato violin, strings, and continuo. This is the first of the score’s combinations of solo voice with obbligato accompaniment and, like those that come later, is noteworthy for the interweaving of ritornello (instrumental refrain) and vocal material. The “Gratias agimus tibi” (D major) is another fugal setting in strict style, with full orchestra doubling four-part chorus. The presence of trumpets and drums affords an expanse and weight that help this section close out the first part of the Gloria as a whole.

Bach’s score suggests that the remaining sections of the Gloria are to be considered as a single unit, each moving directly into the next. The “Domine Deus” (G major) is set for soprano, tenor, obbligato flute, strings, and continuo. In the main part of the movement the soloists declaim different phrases of the text simultaneously. After the completion of what seems to be the final ritornello, there is an extension to a B major close, and then an abrupt change to the B minor of the “Qui tollis” setting for five-part chorus and string orchestra, during which two flutes provide a cushion of accompaniment derived from that of the preceding duet. The next two sections of the text again pair a vocal soloist with an obbligato instrument of comparable range: the “Qui sedes,” for alto, obbligato oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo, exploits the relationship between B minor and D major that is so characteristic of the score as a whole; the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” (D major) pairs the bass soloist with obbligato horn, accompanied by a pair of bassoons and continuo. The Gloria’s closing section (“Cum sancto Spiritu,” D major) restores the full orchestra and five-part chorus and, like the opening, is a festive, concerted movement punctuated by trumpets and drums.

II. Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)

The Symbolum Nicenum calls for the same performing forces as the Missa.

One of the most striking aspects of the Credo is its overall structure. It begins with a pair of choral movements followed by a movement for vocal soloists (soprano and alto). Then, the three central portions of the text are set for chorus and orchestra. Finally, the scheme of the beginning is reversed: a setting for vocal soloist (bass) is followed by a pair of choral movements. The effect is that of a mirror image, with the three central choral movements as the turning point. Of the Credo’s nine sections, four were adapted from earlier works.

The opening “Credo in unum Deum” derives its theme from liturgical chant and its “walking bass” from the realm of academic counterpoint. The movement is a strict fugue in seven parts – five-part chorus, first violins, and second violins – accompanied only by continuo. Just before the end, the basses of the chorus declaim the theme cantus firmus-like, in slow note values. The following movement for four-part chorus, strings, oboes, trumpets, and drums (“Patrem omnipotentem ...,” D major) offers an imitative treatment of its theme, punctuated by shouts of “Credo in unum Deum.” The “Et in unum Deum” (G major) is a duet for soprano and alto with paired oboes d’amore, accompanied by string orchestra and continuo.

Then come the Credo’s three central choral movements: the “Et incarnatus est” (B minor) with its throbbing bass, mournful violin accompaniment, and dirge-like choral parts; the “Crucifixus” (E minor) with its ostinato bass, spare choral and orchestral writing, and transcendent G major close; and the joyful “Et resurrexit” (D major) for full orchestra and five-part chorus. This is followed by the “Et in spiritum sanctum Dominum” (A major) for bass and paired oboes d’amore (the corresponding movement for soprano and alto earlier in the overall scheme of the Credo also employed oboes d’amore).

The “Confiteor” (F-sharp minor) is for five-part chorus and continuo. As in the opening “Credo in unum Deum,” a theme derived from chant is set fugally against a “walking bass” and is treated like a cantus firmus near the end. The two halves of the text are given contrasting musical treatment at the outset and then combined during the course of the movement. A slowing of the basic motion coupled with chromaticism suggestive of a late Renaissance madrigal creates an aura of mystery at the introduction of the words “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum,” and this passage unfolds into the bright D major of the Credo’s final movement for chorus and full orchestra. The music of this section once more explores the relationship between choral and orchestral forces along the way, with a concerted rush to the final “Amen.”

III. Sanctus

The D major Sanctus requires a significant regrouping of the performing forces, calling for a chorus in six parts (two sections each of sopranos and altos, plus tenors and basses), strings, oboes, and trumpets and drums.

The weight of the first half of the movement derives from the contrast of sonorities available within the massed forces: strings against oboes against trumpets and drums against divided chorus, all sounding simultaneously. The second half of the movement is fugal and, like earlier portions of the score, sets out choral and orchestral material in an energetic succession of shifting relationships.

Despite the division of the Sanctus from the Credo in the full score of the Mass, its weight and breadth serve to release much of the energy and tension accumulated during the course of the Credo’s succession of short movements. From this point of view, the Sanctus represents the climax of the B-minor Mass as a whole, given its position within the piece and the nature of the movements that follow.

IV. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem

The Osanna (D major) calls for another regrouping of forces and is set for double chorus and full orchestra. It closes with an extended passage for orchestra alone, thereby leaving any sense of finality to the massed choral and instrumental forces of the Dona nobis pacem.

The B-minor Benedictus (which is followed by a repetition of the Osanna) and the Agnus Dei in G minor are given comparatively spare settings, in contrast to the earlier movements for vocal soloists. The Benedictus is a setting for tenor, continuo, and unspecified obbligato instrument. The Agnus Dei calls for alto, violins, and continuo.

The Mass ends with a setting of the words “Dona nobis pacem” for chorus and full orchestra. Although the music is lifted in its entirety from the “Gratias agimus tibi” of the Gloria, there is a difference. In the Gloria, the D major of the “Gratias agimus tibi” had been preceded by the A major of the “Laudamus te.” Here, the Dona nobis pacem’s D major stands in sharp contrast to the F-sharp minor of the immediately preceding Agnus Dei. The “Gratias agimus” had closed a comparatively brief segment of the Gloria at an early point in the work as a whole. Here, the Dona nobis pacem holds its own weight both within the final division of the score and at the conclusion of the Mass. Finally, in harking back to the earlier movement, the Dona nobis pacem serves as reminder of all that has passed in the two hours since the music began.

Marc Mandel is Director of Program Publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Program notes copyright ©2006 Marc Mandel, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.