Video on demand from 20 Dec 2020
available until 31 Dec 2025

Bach: B minor Mass

The Balthasar Neumann Choir and Ensemble play Bach’s monumental work.

Johann Sebastian Bach's B minor Mass revolves around subjects that penetrate to the depths of the soul: loneliness and despair, joy and rapture. With Bach's last great vocal work, which breaks the boundaries of any sacred liturgy, Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann ensembles embark on a journey to life's existential issues.

Watch the trailer (in German)

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»For me, the B minor Mass is without any doubt the most important work in music history.«

Thomas Hengelbrock

We're doing this project anyway! :An interview with Thomas Hengelbrock (subtitles available)

Bach’s masterpiece :The B minor Mass and the history of its composition

»The dimensions of the B minor Mass are too huge for it to be performed at a church service.«

Thomas Hengelbrock

  • The greatest work of music ever written (1 of 4)

    »Your Royal Highness, I present to you with the deepest devotion this small evidence of the knowledge and skill I have attained in the art of music, with the most humble request that you judge it not by the poor composition, but with the leniency for which Your Grace is known all over the world.«

    Deliberately modest words which used Johann Sebastian Bach to address his new sovereign, Friedrich August II of Saxony, in July 1733. The »small evidence« he refers to consisted of two movements, a Kyrie and a Gloria, combined under the simple title »Missa« (Mass). Bach had written them that spring during the decreed period of national mourning for the deceased King August the Strong; the royal decree forbade any public music-making for six months, so that the composer was unexpectedly freed from his time-consuming  duties as Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

    Johann Sebastian Bach: Porträt von Elias Gottlob Hausmann, 1746.
    Johann Sebastian Bach (1746) © Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig

    The submissive tone that Bach used in his letter is not at all in keeping with the high regard in which the work came to be held in the course of time. For the »poor composition« is nothing less than the first part of the B minor Mass, which is not only Bach’s most frequently-performed major work nowadays, but which was praised by its publisher Hans Georg Nägeli as »the greatest musical work of art of all time and of all nations«. But what makes it so special?

  • The long road leading to a great mass (2 of 4)

    First of all, mention must be made of the complicated history of its composition, which lasted until shortly before Bach’s death. The composer only expanded the original two movements between August 1748 and October 1749, when he was pursuing an intense study of Latin church music. For many years scholars even doubted that this was a single, self-contained work that could be performed in concert in its entirety.

    In the meantime, these doubts have been refuted. It’s true that there is no title at the top of the complete score – the name determined by the key was coined by Carl Friedrich Zelter. But musical cross-references within the work, the numbering of the sheets and Bach’s note at the end: »Fine. DSGL« all speak in favour of one complete work. So today it’s perfectly legitimate to refer to »the« B minor Mass.

    Bach’s note at the end of the B minor Mass: »Fine. DSGL« (Deo Soli Gloria, to the honour of God alone)

    Bachs Signum »Fine. DSGL« (Deo Soli Gloria, Gott allein zur Ehre) am Ende der h-Moll-Messe
    © Stadtbibliothek Berlin

    First and foremost, it is the musical material that makes the work so special. It was probably the wish to put all of his skill into a single composition that prompted Bach to continue the mass, which is referred to with good reason as his »opus summum«.

    In the B minor Mass, Bach unites a wide variety of different kinds of writing and forms of expression, combining old with new and making avid use of the »parody method« common in his day: in contrast to its modern meaning, Bach and his contemporaries used the term to refer to the remodelling of an existing work for a new purpose. For Bach this was a type of work entirely on a level with actually composing.

    The governing principle of the mass is a successive intensification of the choral writing. Like the first two movements, the Credo is set in five parts; it is followed by the six-part Sanctus, and the work finally reaches its climax in the Osanna, which is set in eight parts, arranged as a double chorus.

  • Music that is addictive (3 von 4)

    Within Bach’s vocal repertoire, the Kyrie eleison is by far the longest opening chorus. This large-scale beginning defines the high standard and the aesthetic quality of the work. It is followed in the Christe eleison by a duet for the two sopranos – a symbol of Christ as the second figure in the Trinity. The Gloria represents a strong contrast to the aforegoing movements: here, Bach uses the full orchestra for the first time, with the instruments now playing independent parts.

    The Credo opens with a seven-part fugue; the actual melody is a Gregorian chorale. It ends with a jubilant final chorus of which Joachim Kaiser wrote that it was »guaranteed to make you addicted to the B minor Mass«.

    For the Sanctus Bach uses a movement that he had originally written for the 1724 Christmas service in Leipzig. The choir is present from the very first bar, thus giving the movement its clear liturgical character. Adhering to Lutheran tradition, Bach separates the Osanna and the Benedictus from the Sanctus, so that the two denominations overlap here.

    For his setting of the Agnus Dei Bach chose an alto solo whose key of G minor introduces a flat sign to the mass for the first time. In this way, Bach emphasises the expressive character of the movement and creates a counterweight to the otherwise predominant D major. In the Dona nobis pacem Bach makes uses of the Gratias from the Gloria. By turning around the sequence of the words for the second theme (pacem dona nobis), he gives special emphasis to the word »peace«.

  • Beyond any denomination (4 of 4)

    Exactly why the ageing composer decided to complete the B minor Mass is unknown. Thus it has often been assumed that it must have been an inner need that the composer had, with the mass being more of an abstract work of ideas – not unlike »Die Kunst der Fuge«, which he wrote at almost exactly the same time. And it does indeed seem that Bach intended the B minor Mass to lie outside the boundaries of religious denominations.

    For decades, this magnificent work was only performed in parts, and even Mendelssohn shied away from the high technical demands of a complete performance in 1838. But after the Second World War, the B minor Mass became the most frequently-performed of Bach’s major works, ahead even of the St Matthew Passion. It retains that status to this day.

    Text: Simon Chlosta

None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus

The Artists

  • Thomas Hengelbrock

    Thomas Hengelbrock is one of the most versatile and most interesting artists of his generation. Be it Baroque opera, Romantic symphonies or contemporary music, his energy-laden performances are always the product of a detailed study of the score and of his compendious knowledge about the content and meaning of the work. His Balthasar Neumann Choir and Ensemble are both top period-performance formations that he founded over 20 years ago; Hengelbrock has been enjoying international success with them ever since. He is a sought-after partner for many other orchestras such as the Concertgebouw Orkest and the Vienna Philharmonic, and he also appears internationally as an opera conductor and at festivals such as the Salzburg Festival.

  • Balthasar-Neumann-Chor

    Gramophone Magazine has called the Balthasar Neumann Choir »one of the world’s best choirs«. Whether they are performing music from the 17th century or contemporary repertoire, the vocal ensemble (founded in 1991) displays passion and a deep understanding of the music at all times. The singers can also be heard in a solo capacity, presenting familiar material in a new guise and interweaving music with literature or dance. With these activities, they follow the ideals of the man the choir is named after: Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann (1687–1753) stood for courageous creativity and integral concepts where architecture, painting, sculpture and garden planning all interact.

    The choir is regularly invited to appear at leading concert halls and music festivals such as the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival and the Munich Opera Festival, and it has been on tour to China, Mexico and the USA.

    Evonik Industries sponsors the Balthasar Neumann Ensembles, enabling them to undertake extensive musicological research and to realise projects in times of the pandemic.

  • Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble

    The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble is one of the world’s leading period-performance orchestras. Founded by Thomas Hengelbrock in 1995, it opens up new ways of looking at music of different eras – from the Early Baroque to the modern age. The ensemble is made up of top international musicians and is feted not only for its interpretations on authentic instruments, but especially for its expressive playing at the highest level. The orchestra focuses on the time when a particular work was written, and performs it on instruments dating from that period. The programmes often go beyond the bounds of a pure concert, relating the music to other art forms such as dance and literature.

    The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble is a guest in Europe’s most prestigious concert halls; it plays at international opera productions from Paris to Madrid, and appears at major festivals like the Salzburg Festival.

    Evonik Industries sponsors the Balthasar Neumann Ensembles, enabling them to undertake extensive musicological research and to realise projects in times of the pandemic.

»Played like this, sacred music can be directly sensuous.«

Hamburger Abendblatt

Performers

Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Solisten

Soloists from the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor:
Agnes Kvoacs
soprano
Stephanie Firnkes soprano
Anne Bierwirth soprano
Bobbie Blommesteijn soprano
William Shelton alto
Terry Wey alto
Jan Petryka tenor
Jakob Pilgram tenor
Joachim Höchbauer bass
Daniel Ochoa bass

conductor Thomas Hengelbrock

Live recording from 6 December 2020.

The Balthasar Neumann Ensembles have submitted with subsequent approval of its own hygiene and safety concept with multiple testing and quarantine during the project. This allows the general safety clearances on the stage to be eliminated.

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