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Bach's Mass in B Minor, with David Hoose

courtesy of Cantata Singers
David Hoose

On the program:

Selections from Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (translation) - Arleen Auger, soprano I; Ann Murray, soprano II; Marjana Lipovsek, contralto; Leipzig Radio Choir; Staatskapelle Dresden, Peter Schreier, conductor



Brian McCreath (BMcC) In the spring of 1733, around the time he turned 48 years old, Johann Sebastian Bach put pen to paper to write the notes you’re hearing now, the opening of what became the Mass in B minor. 

Bach was a success story, raised among an extended musical family, and growing up to hold a highly respected – if somewhat strenuous – position in Leipzig.

The craftsmen of the day constantly asked him to evaluate their newly built pipe organs, knowing that if Bach gave an instrument his stamp of approval, well, they had really achieved something.

He himself had, for all intents and purposes, achieved his own goal of writing several years worth of sacred music for each Sunday on the church calendar.

Along the way, he had overcome hardship after the death of his wife, Maria Barbara, rebuilding his family life through his marriage to Anna Magdalena.

So how did Bach come to write this massive setting of a Latin text that was far more deeply connected to the Catholic church than to his own Lutheran faith?  The answer to that question, and much more, is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath;   welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH.  Bach’s Mass in B minor is a pillar of Western music, and you’ll experience its transformative power on today’s program through a performance by the Leipzig Radio Choir, Staatskapelle Dresden, and conductor Peter Schreier.

And to guide us on the journey is David Hoose, the music director of Boston’s Cantata Singers, an ensemble with Bach’s music at its very core in history, practice, and, in a way, even its name.  You can learn more about Cantata Singers by visiting us online at Classical W C R B dot org. 

David Hoose has studied the Mass in B minor for years, and he’s conducted it many times.  He has a deep understanding of the piece, from its theological underpinnings to the way Bach reflected that theology in music. 

According to David Hoose, for all the power and transcendence embedded in the music of the Mass, Bach’s motivation for writing it is one we can probably all relate to:

David Hoose (DH) The first part, the Kyrie and the Gloria, were presented in 1733 to try to give himself a better title in his extant job as the Cantor in the Thomasschule.

Brian McCreath (BMcC) How would that work? How would the assembly of this piece lead to a better title?

DH I think it was like presenting his resume. It was like an updated CV. And so he presented it to the the Elector of Saxony and it didn't get anywhere. He wanted a better title, he wanted some more recognition. He wasn't asking for more money, although it might have come from that. I mean, money might have come from that recognition. And so, he didn't just give a list of things that he had done, "Oh, I wrote, you know, three hundred cantatas and I wrote all these wonderful pieces and here's the list of them." No, he presented his boss, as it were, a composition. Well, that in itself is sort of amazing that he would somehow, that the culture was literate enough that he could trust that if he showed somebody else what he could do, fresh, that it would be recognized. Well, it wasn't really recognized, but that was his CV, his updated CV.

BMcC Well, so when we begin to experience the mass in B Minor, as according to the mass form, begins with a Kyrie. So how does Bach handle those three sections in a way that that another composer might not have or hadn't thought of? Or what does he do, actually, that does reflect what other composers have done?

DH Composers often would break Kyrie - Christe - Kyrie into three parts and Bach does the same thing. Except that they are extraordinarily large movements. The first being a very large and chromatic and complex and interwoven choral fugue. That very heart-filled and wrenching kind of plea for mercy, followed by a joy-filled duet, a bright, kind of sunny and yet very complex florid duet.


DH And that's followed then, of course, by the inevitable return of the Kyrie, because that is the structure of the mass: "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." The return is a completely new composition. This second Kyrie is in what we would call "stile antico," old style, real motet style writing. Not florid at all. Straightforward, imitative music, very chromatic, like the first Kyrie, but without adornment at all. And it has a severity that really evokes a much earlier time, and it is if somehow the severity of that windy, sinewy line and then often the harsh dissonances that arise between the voices that those are somehow transformed and lifted. And so the severity turns into kind of, I wouldn't say "unfettered" joy, but an incredible release of the heart.

BMcC And here is that transformative second Kyrie eleison.  Once again, Peter Schreier conducts the Leipzig Radio Choir and Staatskapelle Dresden … here on The Bach Hour, from WCRB.


BMcC That’s the second of the two Kyrie eleison movements from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor. We're exploring Bach's iconic work with conductor David Hoose on this edition of The Bach Hour.

The Gloria comes next in the Mass. It’s a section Bach wrote symmetrically, with an equal number of movements for chorus and solo singers, and instrumental writing that features solo work from each part of the orchestra.  But does the listener hear that organization?  David Hoose:

DH I don't think listeners hear it. But I think they feel it. The things that a composer uses to organize his or her mind and his her music have enormous effect on how we perceive the music. Having said that, I also think that Bach was composing what he wanted to compose. If he had not composed what he wanted to compose, he would have had better jobs all his life. He would have paid more, you know, he would have had Telemann's job. But, no, he did what he wanted to do, and he did what was important to him. And so I also believe he was really composing for himself and he was composing out of a love of the divine. So while it has a profound effect on how we feel the music, I think really Bach is suggesting how God perceives us.


BMcC “We give you thanks for your great Glory,” the words sung by the choir to end the first half of the Gloria section of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, a piece he never heard performed in its entirety. 

And I’m pleased to have for you a conversation about the Mass with David Hoose, the conductor of Boston’s Cantata Singers.  After talking about the early sections of the Mass in B minor, I asked David Hoose about the next part, the Credo … what it means, and how Bach’s treatment is different from other composers.

DH It is the listing, as it were, of the things in which one believes, and so, you know, Beethoven will take out the parts that he really doesn't believe in. And often giving each of those parts of the Credo a little bit of attention. But Bach breaks it up into a lot of small parts and then focuses at great depth on each of those parts.

BMcC And here are the first five of those parts of the Credo, from Bach’s Mass in B minor.


BMcC That explosive choral movement is a setting of the words, “And on the third day He rose again…”  It’s the resurrection, depicted in music and included in the Credo, the statement of belief, in Bach’s Mass in B minor.

But that statement of belief brings up another aspect about Bach’s sacred music.  It’s music from a very specific historical time and theological position.  And yet this music seems to resonate with people of all faith perspectives.  How did Bach pull that off?  David Hoose…

DH What we think of Bach is not of his own time. You know, he was writing music that was both more conservative than the latest hot thing, and also much more advanced than anybody was doing at the same time. And in being not of his own time, there is a universality to that freedom. And I know a lot of people, people in Cantata Singers, listeners who respond to Bach's music, to the Cantatas, to those narrative pieces in the Passions. And if people can respond to the Cantatas and people can respond to the Passions, even though they may not share the religious tenets on which they are based, then the Mass itself is a perfect piece for people to respond to because there is not a narrative and there is room for people to hear the Bach B Minor Mass at whatever place they come to it.

BMcC Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, David.

DH Yeah. My pleasure.

BMcC David Hoose, conductor of Boston’s Cantata Singers.

And here are the final two movements from this monumental work, the Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, “Grant Us Peace.”


BMcC The ending of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor is a unique combination of majesty and serenity, and this performance of the final two movements of the Mass, the Agnu Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, was given by the Leipzig Radio Choir and Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Peter Schreier.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to David Hoose, producer Alan McLellan, and audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros.  I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll look forward to your company again next week, here on The Bach Hour.