Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bach's Mass in B Minor, a major source for the compositional techniques of all western music

One Christmas Eve – actually Christmas morning after midnight in the mid 1990s, I was driving back to an Arlington Apartment across the 14th Street Bridge from a Christmas Eve service at MCC Washington in Shaw, the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” of the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232  , by J. S. Bach played triumphantly on the car stereo radio. I have near-perfect pitch, and wondered why the triumphant, rising theme of the final chorus (earlier the Gratias, BWV 29/2) ends in the relative D Major, rather than the Picardy Parallel B Major.  This is Bach's only complete setting of the "Ordinary" or "short mass".

I have an Angel-EMI recording with the Trevor Consort somewhere, but today I played on Youtube with the English Consort conducted bt Harry Bicket, recorded in 2012 in Royal Albert Hall in London. The soloists are Joelle Harvey, Caroyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon and Matthew Rose. It runs 110 minutes, slightly less than average.  The pitch in the recording is 1/2 step low (that is, B-flat minor to D-flat Major) compared to my Casio piano, which I believe is set to A440.

The Wiki notes explain that D Major is the key that Bach associates with Christ, with the elements of the Cross by the surrounding keys of B Minor (in which the work opens) and F# Minor, often used.

One of the comments says that the B Minor Mass, along with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, are the three greatest works of classical music ever composed.  The Mass was not completed until 1749, shortly before Bach’s death and reuses a lot of earlier material.
The work (especially this robust performance) demonstrates how “modern” Bach can sound.  Bach (whom my first music teacher starting in 1952 said was the greatest of all composers) was the first composer to standardize modern western harmony as well as counterpoint, away from the modal systems, and to enrich the process of key modulation, all possible because the technology of pitch temperament had improved during his lifetime. That fact gets relatively little attention now.  In fact, the way romantic composers (from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler) manipulated dissonances, sometimes allowed to hang unresolved (as with a famous moment in Beethoven’s Eroica) can be traced all the way back to Bach, especially this work.

In the 19th Century, most Romantic composers built cyclic works around harmonic concepts that Bach had developed to seemingly absolute perfection.  (There were rare exceptions, like Chopin’s B-fat Minor Scherzo, which ends in relative major, and sounds a bit trite to me.) It became common for large works in minor to end in the parallel major, often triumphantly. However, Mahler chose to end the Resurrection (#2) in the relative E-flat major, and ended the first movement of his Third in the relative F Major (as if the 30-minite first movement were one long Exposition in a bigger “process piece”) before ending the entire work with a (finally triumphant) slow movement back in the parallel D Major.  To my ear, a parallel major ending is more satisfying because it tends to ratify the original tonality.

As an example of the way Bach’s idea of progressive tonality works, consider the three minute popular song “In the Moonlight” (2010) by Reid Ewing, which his character Dylan sings on “Modern Family” The song seems to be in B Minor, and a lot of the melody swings around the notes B, C#, and D (just as in Bach’s Mass) and then makes excursions to G and F#.  But the song ends in the relative D Major.  Try memorizing this song – the music only – and playing it on a church organ (like the new Austin at First Baptist in Washington DC).  As abstract music, It actually works!  It almost sounds baroque. The words, “do me” – oh, well.  

I’ll mention something else about the close of the Bach Mass – the rising theme sounds a bit like the original inversion of the “hymn tune” (which is a comparable downward scale) as a major second subject in the reconstructed finale of Bruckner’s Ninth. Did Bruckner really intend homage to this work in the way he concludes his last symphony, “To God”

Wikipedia shows the Mass as in four major sections, each section a suite of smaller pieces of the mass. The shortest is the Sanctus.  The First section encompasses what is often the Kyrie and Gloria in many later masses.

Back in 1961, during that lost semester at William and Mary, another music friend, Jon De Longe, said that the opening of the Kyrie (in B Minor) is one of the most thrilling of all music to him.  I was already a romantic.

Bach is reported to have said, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”  De Longe often talked about “The Real Music” back in 1961.

Update: January 1, 2016

Sebastien Letocart recommends the performance with the Monteverdi Choir and John Rliot Gardiner (also on YouTube).  He also says that "western" tonality was well established by or for Byrd, Sweelinck, and Buxtehude.  He also says that the tuning convention for baroque music is A415, about a half step lower than common today. 

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