The Masses of the three big B

Bach – Beethoven – Brahms

The three big B? Until around the middle of the 19th century, this meant Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Hector Berlioz. However, the emerging national trends in the second half of the 19th century, made it their task to prove that German composers, in particular, were capable of extraordinary achievements. In the course of this, Berlioz was replaced by the then still young Johannes Brahms and thus fell victim to a purely ideological development, the consequences of which linger to this day; for the names Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are too great. Although these three great masters lived at different times and worked in different musical epochs, it is the music-historical genre of the mass that occupies a special place in the oeuvre of each of them. A genre that, since the first setting of the complete Ordinary of the Mass by Guillaume de Machaut in 1364, gradually abandoned its original choral unity in favour of an independent instrumental accompaniment and the idea of an artfully soloistic aesthetic. This increasingly individual approach to the initially strict Ordinarium Missae can be illustrated by three extraordinary compositions, each of which has had a decisive influence on the history of the genre: Bach's Mass in B minor, BWV 232, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, op. 123 and Brahms's »A German Requiem«, op. 45.


»A regulated church music to the glory of God« 

- Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor

The extent of Johann Sebastian Bach's musical output was extraordinary even for his time: the Eisenach-born composer composed a total of 1100 works - not counting fragments and lost pieces of music. The majority is music for church services and church occasions: In addition to nearly 200 cantatas and almost 400 chorales, it is above all the two great Passions that stand out again even from his overwhelming oeuvre. It seems all the more astonishing that the best-known genre of church music is almost wholly missing: only five masses by Bach have survived today, four of them in the form of the Missa brevis - the short mass - which was widespread in the Lutheran church. In Protestant Leipzig, works by other, mostly older composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina were initially used for the mass. In contrast to these settings of the Kyrie and Gloria, there is only one Mass in Bach's entire œuvre in which he set the entire Ordinary of the Latin Mass text to music: the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

Yet the Mass in B minor was also initially conceived as a Missa brevis. After the death of Elector Friedrich August I of Saxony in February 1733, a period of national mourning lasting about five months was imposed, during which no music was to be performed. Bach used this time to apply to the new Elector as »Composer at the Court Chapel«in the same year with a Kyrie-Gloria Mass - a title he was finally awarded in November 1736 after much toing and froing.

»if your Royal Highness would do me the favour of conferring a Praedicat of the Court Chapel, and would therefore issue a decree of the appropriate order.«

Dedication letter from J.S. Bach to the Elector Friedrich August II of Saxony in July 1733

The plan to expand this self-contained work into a Missa tota - a through-composed five-movement mass - was probably conceived by Bach in the late 1740s. He took the Sanctus from a composition written for Christmas Day in 1724; the other movements were perhaps realised in the late years of 1748/49. For most of the complementation, Bach used the parody method: He borrowed existing movements from his cantatas, reworked them textually and musically and assembled them into a complete homogeneous work. Nevertheless, the inconsistent process of creation is well documented in the original score, in which Bach made corrections until shortly before his death: Each of the four different sections (Kyrie-Gloria, Symbolum Nicenum, Sanctus, and the concluding movements Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem) has its title page. The fact that he finally assembled all the musical material into a collection should put his primary intention of creating a complete work of enormous dimensions beyond question. A complete work that was possibly intended in its final version as a commissioned composition for the Cecilia celebration of the »Musicalische Congregation« in Vienna in 1749 since the Mass could not be performed in its form in Lutheran Leipzig at that time.  Nevertheless, Bach's ambition with the B minor Mass was to create an exemplary large-scale work in this genre. If one believes the music writer and publisher Georg Nägeli – Bach certainly accomplished. Nägeli praised Bach's Mass as the » most extraordinary musical work of art of all times and peoples« in »The New Journal of Music« in August 1818.


»From the heart - may it go again - to the heart« 

- Ludwig van Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

The importance of the B minor Mass in music history in the early 19th century is also evidenced by a letter Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel in 1810, requesting »a Missa in which [a] Cruxifixus with a Basso ostinato [...] is to be found« from J. Sebastian Bach, nine years before he began work on his Missa Solemnis, op. 123. When news reached him in March 1819 that Archduke Rudolph, his pupil, confidant and patron, had been designated Archbishop of Olomouc in Moravia, Beethoven postponed other planned projects in order to complete a Mass for the service for his friend's ceremonial appointment in March 1820.

»... the day on which a High Mass is to be performed by me for the festivities for H.K.H. (Her Royal Highness) will be for me the most beautiful of my life.«

L. v. Beethoven to Archduke Rudolph of Austria in March 1819

Beethoven quickly realised that he would not be able to meet the deadline; he laboriously kept seeking his connection to God. A time-consuming work which did not allow him to produce an obligatory setting of a traditional text and thus place himself in the centuries-old tradition of Mass settings by Orlande de Lassus and Palestrina. Even his C major Mass of 1807, which he composed as a commission for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, is characterised by a profound calm and avoidance of anything operatic and already clearly bears the hallmarks of a movement that became known as »Fideism«: A current that emphasised the personal and subjective character of religious life. With the Missa solemnis, however, Beethoven reached an incomparably higher sacred level: it is a large-scale composition that takes the theme of the Christian mystery of faith from its Baroque roots and transforms it into a call to self-responsible faith. And in which all the complex peculiarities of his late style and the associated musical freedoms correspond to those of the individual in society: not to be a victim, but a co-creator.

Beethoven paid particular attention to the special requirements of the declamation of the text and its religious content. The musical complexity constantly increases: the Kyrie, the prayer of salvation to God, is by far the simplest and most forceful movement, while the material already becomes more differentiated and multi-layered in the Gloria - corresponding to the incomparably longer and more complex text. Beethoven set each section of the text to music in a way that reflects its rhetorical form and liturgical significance, sometimes by using musical figures that had been handed down and known for centuries. In the autograph, and only in the autograph, he noted above the opening Kyrie the words »From the heart - may it again - go to the heart«. Probably a private note to the Archduke himself and once again an expression of personal affection towards his imperial patron. The situation is different with the section »Dona nobis pacem«: here, the heading »Request for inner and outer peace« is found in all copies, and in the manuscript, there is also the addition: »Dona nobis pacem representing inner and outer peace«. Beethoven thought of this movement as an expression of the longing for personal peace and peace on earth, for the »pax humana« as a prerequisite for a life unencumbered by war. A longing that can only be satisfied through a collectively and personally lived religiosity. From this point, it was only a tiny step for Beethoven to the next great work, the Ninth Symphony.


»I have completed my funeral music as a beatitude for those who suffer« 

- Johannes Brahms' »A German Requiem« 

»I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how we feel when we always hear such a giant [Beethoven, D.M.] marching behind us.«  These words, uttered by Johannes Brahms to the conductor Hermann Levi, testify to the huge shadow cast by Beethoven's musical legacy on his »legitimate successor«, as Brahms was dubbed by some contemporaries. However, before he was accorded the status of one of the most important composers of all, it was the Schumann couple who were among the first to recognise and promote Brahms' immense talent and with whom Brahms maintained a close friendship throughout his life. It was only at Robert Schumann's insistence that some of Brahms's works were published by Breitkopf und Härtel, which brought the composer to prominence for the first time.

»If he will lower his magic wand to where the powers of the masses, in chorus and orchestra, lend him their strength, even more wonderful glimpses into the spirit world are in store for us.«

Robert Schumann about Johannes Brahms on 28 October 1853 in the "The New Journal of Music"

It was probably the death of Robert Schumann in July 1856 and the impression of his musical mentor's previous suicide attempt that first prompted Johannes Brahms to consider various texts for funeral music. Not knowing that Schumann himself had noted down a German Requiem on texts by Friedrich Rückert as a Compositional idea in his project book, the first sketches for the words »Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras«(For all flesh, it is like grass) can be found in the same year. Sketches that were to form the basis for the haunting second movement of his later »German Requiem«, op.45. In 1861, he wrote down the texts of the first four movements and composed the music of the first two movements, before leaving the project for a long time and only taking it up again with the death of his mother in February 1865. It was due to his highly meticulous method of working and numerous other commitments that it took until February 1869 for the Requiem in its seven-movement, symmetrically closed version to be heard for the first time in the Leipzig Gewandhaus after two partial performances.

Brahms chose the title »A German Requiem« carefully. He did not mean THE Requiem, not a dogmatic axiom, but allowed himself a subjective religious perspective with a very personal message - in contrast to the B minor Mass and the Missa Solemnis, the composition was not an occasion or commissioned work, but arose from Brahms' own inner need. The texts Brahms set to music in his mother tongue are not a mere translation of the centuries-old Latin Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the Deceased), but rather his selection of biblical texts. A collection of verses that do not follow the traditional canon of the Requiem as a Mass for the dead, but rather focuses on the comfort of the bereaved - a Requiem for the living, full of sorrow, dignity and confidence. »I have completed my funeral music as a beatitude for those who suffer«, Brahms said. And »blessed« is also the keyword, the word with which everything begins and ends: The first movement begins with the line »Blessed are those who suffer«; in the finale it says: »Blessed are the dead«. A word that has many meanings from »blessed« to »fallen asleep« and finally comforts at the end: »Blessed are the dead [...] that they rest from their labour; for their works follow them.« No thought of redemption and no resurrection, but simply rest.

 That is why »[u]nto our heart [...] Brahms' Requiem is even closer«, opined the renowned music critic Eduard Hanslick. »Because it strips off every confessional dress, every ecclesiastical convenience, chooses German Bible words instead of the Latin ritual text, and chooses them in such a way that the very nature of the music, and with it at the same time the listener's mind, is drawn into more intimate participation.«

Hanslick was also the one who placed Brahms' work in the context of the three great B's: »Since Bach's Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, nothing has been written that can stand next to Brahms' German Requiem in this field.« And since no other mass composition of such great historical and musical significance has been written to date, Hanslick's statement does not lose its relevance even after almost 150 years.

Images © Creative Commons


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