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Bach's Mass in B minor

posted Apr 22, 2012, 7:45 AM by Steven Vaughan
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 into a family of professional musicians.  His father and uncles were all church organists and court chamber players who taught him to play the violin, harpsichord and organ.  Yet both of his parents died when he was ten, and while in his mid-thirties, his wife died.  Three of their seven children had already died.  What's more, only six of the thirteen children of his second marriage lived to adulthood.  In 1723, he became the music director for St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, remaining there for the rest of his life.  He composed an astonishing amount of music revered for its intellectual depth, technical virtuosity and artistic beauty; conveying both the profound sadness he experienced in life plus great joy, humor and passion.

His Mass in B minor is widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements of baroque music.  Scholars consider it a summation of his entire life; he originally began it for “diplomatic” reasons and eventually assembled it to form a complete Mass in the very last years of his life, when he had already gone blind.  The earliest part, the Sanctus for 6-part chorus, is from 1724, when he had just started his new job.  The Kyrie and Gloria were composed in 1733 for a Mass celebrating Augustus III, who had to convert to Catholicism to become King of Poland.  The last major addition was the Credo, written in the 1740’s. 

Dying in 1750, he never heard it performed in its entirety.  And why a Lutheran would compose a Latin Mass setting that by its size and length is impractical for use in a liturgy is an enigma; but  Bach himself viewed it as “the supreme opportunity to unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician in a single statement.”

I’ll be performing Bach’s Mass in B minor in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall next Friday evening, April 27 with the National Chorale.  For ticket information, call (212) 333-5333 or visit nationalchorale.org.  Or listen to a recording.  If you’ve never heard this masterpiece, introduce yourself to it…
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