Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Departure Day


Today, Jan 5, I'm headed to Germany. Leipzig, Germany, to be exact. About 2 hours by train south of Berlin. And, the city where Bach lived and worked for the last 27 years of his life, 1723-1750.

I've been to Germany before, but never to any of the Bach cities. With some down time before the semester starts at Butler, this seemed like the perfect chance to rectify that situation. In Leipzig, I'll attend services and concerts at Tomaskirche, (Saint Thomas Church) where he worked. I understand that there have been some significant renovations to the building in the 250+ years since his day. Still, it's sure to be a "pinch yourself" moment in person! Stay tuned to this blog for detailed posts about the trip each day.


Most of Bach's works were written for particular events/occasions, which we can positively identify. Cantatas for particular services in the Lutheran liturigcal cycle, secular works for community festivities, keyboard works for teaching, etc.

Not so for the Mass in B minor. It's just not possible to say why this complete work was created (though for many of the movements based on pre-existent material, we DO know for what services/events they were composed). It's likely, in fact, that the complete Mass in B minor was never performed during the composer's lifetime.

I've been intrigued by this notion. What other "great works" of humanity are we unable to explain?

(from upper left: Stonehenge in Great Britain, Nazca monkey figure in Peru, Easter Island figures off the coast of Chile)

Further inquiry turns up further questions. For example, it was common practice in Leipzig for the Lutheran services to contain performances of musical settings of the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria texts from the Roman Catholic Mass liturgy), but complete settings of the entire Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie and Gloria, plus Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei) were not the norm. Was Bach's intention to compose a work for someplace other than Leipzig? And, close examination of the composer's manuscript copy shows four distinct, and some have argued "separate" compositions, loosely bound together in one score: Missa, Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), Sanctus, and Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem. Was it even Bach's intention that all these elements be considered as one complete, very major work (and one unlike anything else he is known to have written)? Or is it possible that the composer viewed them as four distinct compositions, separable in performance, only residing together in the manuscript by virtue of the shared text?

Scholars have given us all kinds of valuable and interesting hypotheses on this, and other, questions. And we'll take some of them up in greater detail in future posts to this blog.


I'll end today's post with the following thought: it has been remarked that the Mass in B minor is one of the greatest works of all time. As a 19th century publisher remarked, "The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All Peoples." As an achievement of the human race, it's up there with the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon, Great Wall of China, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Constitution of the United States.

And yet, there's so much we don't know about it.

I'll look forward to learning--and sharing--more about this magnificent creation with you in the posts to follow.


  1. Can't wait to hear more! Just don'forget to come bach :)

  2. Love "sharing" this adventure with you, Eric

  3. Eric... thank you so much for "taking us" on your pilgrimage. It is exciting to read about what you are experiencing. I'm sure you will transfer much of this and incorporate it in the music as to teach us more about the work of, and the man, Bach. Jim B.