“God manifests himself in devout music”, Johann Sebastian Bach noted in his personal bible. Bach was a devout man and the greatest musician of his time, perhaps the greatest musician ever. He was a Protestant, and what he noted down at the time shows how much music was valued by the adherents of the Protestant faith. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther had made public his ideas about how to reform Christian faith. In 2017, Protestants all over the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. 2017 will be an interesting and challenging year for me. I will systematically study Luther’s ideas, the works of his sidekick Philipp Melanchthon, the differences and commonalities between the Protestant and the Catholic world and confront again the question of faith.
Dedicated to the glory of God
More than 250 years after Luther’s revolutionary act in Wittenberg (Germany), Bach composed his famous Mass in B minor, BWV 232. I can recommend two excellent recordings: On by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, and the Freiburger Barockorchester under Hans-Christoph Rademann, one by Concentus Musicus under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Bach composed this masterwork – actually his legacy in the field of sacred music – between 1748 and 1750. It is dedicated to no one except to the glory of God. It wasn’t commissioned by anyone. It seems that it was triggered by Bach’s intimate desire to create something unique, something that would transcend his time. A majestic religious feeling was seeking a way of expression and found it.
The Mass in B minor is actually a Catholic mass. Bach was a Protestant, he lived in Leipzig and mainly wrote sacred music to be used in daily Protestant services. He wrote hundreds of cantatas. However Leipzig lies in Saxonia and was ruled at the time by Prince-Elector Frederic August II, who had converted to Catholicism to become King of Poland. Bach was a flexible and resourceful man, and 200 years after the brutal civil war that followed Luther’s move, peace reigned between the two Christian communities in Germany. Bach believed in the one God and could compose for both creeds.
A masterwork of sacred music
The Mass in B minor is the culmination point of Bach’s creativity in the field of sacred music. I know of no parallel to such a masterful contrapuntal interweaving of solo voice, choral and instrumental bass. I see no necessity to elaborate any further on the form of the mass, this music transcends any description by words. You will discover its sublime character without any help. Because its eternal beauty, its persuasive power, the deep emotions it expresses, the dramatic experience of God’s grace are evident.
If you don’t believe in God: Happy New Year! And if you believe in God: Happy New Year and may God bless you!
© Charles Thibo