The Whole of Bach in One Mass

News from 10/20/2017

Conductor Ton Koopman on the Mass in B Minor, a treasure of the Staatsbibliothek that now also belongs to the Memory of the World – performed in three concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ton Koopmann © Eddy Posthuma

Stored at a constant temperature of eighteen degrees Celsius with fifty percent humidity in the vault of the music department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) is the B Minor Mass by Johann Sebastian Bach. On October 27, 2017, this famous autograph manuscript will receive a very special distinction. The German UNESCO Commission will present the Director-General of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Barbara Schneider-Kempf, with a document certifying that the score has been entered in the register of UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme. At the same time, Ton Koopman will be in the Berlin Philharmonie with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, rehearsing for the first of three concert performances of what is generally considered one of the greatest compositions in musical history. Elmar Weingarten, who has recently taken over as the chairman of the Friends of the Musical Instrument Museum, talked to the Dutch conductor about this colossus among Bach's works. 

Even as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bach's Mass in B Minor was being praised by cultural opinion-makers such as Carl Friedrich Zelter as “the greatest work of art that the world has ever seen.“ What is it that makes this work so extraordinary? 

The various sections of the Mass in B Minor stem from different stages of his development as a composer. So this piece is special, for a start, in that the early Bach and the late Bach merge harmoniously and seamlessly. It is a work that encompasses Bach's life and oeuvre. To this day, we are sure neither of why he wrote the mass, nor of where it was first performed. Zelter himself never heard the piece performed in its entirety. However, he did know the score.

Johann Sebastian Bach compiled this mass towards the end of his life. One of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, brought it into the world as the “Great Catholic Mass“. Yet Bach's liturgical music is undoubtedly Lutheran through and through. Do you see this mass as a Catholic work of art, or is it supra-denominational? And the latter not only because it has become established as a masterpiece in concert halls all around the world.

In this connection, I interpret the word “Catholic“ as referring to the Missa tota, as opposed to the Missa brevis, which is also present in the Lutheran liturgy. A mass of the extent of the Mass in B minor is inconceivable in the context of the Lutheran liturgy; even in the context of the Catholic liturgy it is unusual. With a duration of almost two hours, it is simply not a normal mass. Johann Sebastian Bach himself only heard sections of it sung.

Is there a basic guideline that you follow, as a conductor, when interpreting this mass? Are there any particular challenges to be overcome, in contrast, for example, to the case of the Passions?

For me as a conductor, the greatest challenge is to bring across the feeling that these very different texts, which Bach has orchestrated so ingeniously, are a single unified work, an integrated whole. And at the same time to reveal the manifold dimensions of this mass: the sweetest, the saddest, and the happiest moments.

The interview was conducted by Elmar Weingarten.

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