By Linda de Vries
Events occurring on this date in history definitively demarcate the Baroque and Classical musical styles. In 1703 Johann Christoph Bach died, marking the end of the early Baroque period. In 1732 Franz Joseph Haydn was born, a man destined to become one of the two greatest Classical composers. Overlapping both lived Sebastian, the greatest of the Baroque composers.
Our Bach Bagatelle for today is drawn, however, from two additional events on this date: The release of the film The Meaning of Life on March 31, 1983, and the performance on March 31, 2014 in Jordan Hall in Boston of Sebastian’s Mass in B Minor: The Ridiculous and the Sublime—a fitting conclusion to our birth month series.
The Meaning of Life is a Monty Python film (perhaps the epitome of the ridiculous) with a score by Eric Idle and John du Prez. In it they use Sebastian’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This is without doubt the most famous and popularized of his organ works, even used in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. Only it is not his work!
BWV 565, the Toccata and Fugue was first published in 1833 in a collection prepared by Felix Mendelssohn. Since the 1870s, though, musicologists have challenged its authenticity. This piece does not survive in his hand. The earliest source is a copy by Johannes Ringk, which exhibits dynamic markings unusual for German music prior to 1740.
Over the past 150 years there have been many attempts to attribute this piece, none of which is conclusive, other than that most agree it is not Sebastian’s work. He, as well as other of his contemporaries, often created fugues on the themes of other composers, so some have proposed that it might have been inspired by Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Johann Pachelbel, or André Raison.
More recently musicologists have suggested that the composer might have come from the circle of Ringk’s teacher, Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772), who had close ties with the Bach family. Still others have suggested that it might have been a lost solo violin piece, not a composition for organ at all. Lastly, Christoph Wolff ignores all this and says the problems can be explained if it is an early work that reflects the deficiencies of Sebastian’s Arnstadt organ!
If the never-ending examination of this much-recorded piece does not satisfy the definition of “ridiculous,” the Monty Python film certainly exemplifies the term. So, let us turn to the sublime, a second work that is clearly Sebastian’s—a work that he developed over most of his life, and a work that defines the sublime for many.
In aesthetics the sublime refers to a quality of greatness beyond all possibility of measurement or imitation.
The term is first used by Longinus in the first century CE, but as philosophers debated it throughout the succeeding centuries, the term grew to encompass a quality of greater and higher importance than beauty.
Without explicating that full debate, some of the philosophers’ statements prepare us to consider Sebastian’s capstone work. Edmund Burke (1756) stated that the feeling of the sublime is a more complex emotion than our reaction to beauty, containing elements of both pleasure and pain.
Schopenhauer categorized states of the sublime, saying the “fullest feeling” of the sublime was the observer’s knowledge of the immensity of the Universe’s extent and duration and the feeling of pleasure arising from nothingness and oneness with Nature.
Hegel emphasized the viewer’s response to the sublime as an overwhelming aesthetic sense of awe or astonishment.
Victor Hugo defined the experience of the sublime as involving a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might, and is similar to the experience of the tragic. The “tragic consciousness” is the capacity to gain an exalted state of consciousness from the realization of the unavoidable suffering destined for all men and that there are oppositions in life that can never be resolved, most notably that of the “forgiving generosity of deity” subsumed to "inexorable fate.”
Which brings us to the Mass in B Minor, a musical setting of the complete Latin Mass that Sebastian completed in the year before he died. It gave new form to vocal music he had composed throughout his career. It is quite unusual for a Lutheran to have composed a Latin Mass, and the reasons remain an issue debated by scholars.
The most recent scholarship provides this chronology: in 1724 he composed the Sanctus, later revised, for use in the Christmas service; in 1733 he composed the Kyrie and Gloria following the death of Elector Augustus II and presented them to his successor, Augustus III of Poland; in approximately 1743-46 he used two movements from the Gloria and possibly the Sanctus in a Christmas Day cantata, BWV 191; in the last two or three years of his life he composed the Symbolum Nicenum and the remainder of the work.
Sebastian did not title the work, but filed it in four separate folders. In 1790 it was found in the estate of his deceased son, C.P.E. Bach, titled “the Great Catholic Mass.” It appears under that title as well in the estate of his last heir in 1805. The first publication of the Kyrie and Gloria occurred in 1833, and the first full publication in 1845, titled “The High Mass in B Minor.”
The complete Mass was never performed in Sebastian’s lifetime. he conducted the first version of the Sanctus in 1724 and again in the Christmas service in the 1740s; he may or may not have actually performed it in 1733; C.P.E. Bach performed the Symbolum Nicenum under the title “Credo or Nicene Creed” in 1786 in Hamburg; Carl Friedrich Zelter led read-throughs of the “Great Mass” in 1811 and 1813 at the Berlin Singakademie; the Credo was performed in Frankfurt in March 1828; Karl Riedel conducted the first complete performance in Leipzig in 1859. It was first recorded in 1929.
The Mass is praised as one of the greatest compositions in history:
“I don’t think a greater genius has walked the earth. Of the three great composers Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.” (Douglas Adams)
“Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?”
“This monumental work is . . . the most astounding spiritual encounter between the words of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.” (Alberto Basso)
“The announcement of the greatest music work of all times and all people.” (Hans Georg Nägeli)
And on his entire body of work:
“Not Brook but Ocean should be his name” (Ludwig van Beethoven)
“Study Bach; there you will find everything.” (Johannes Brahms)
“In Bach the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” (Gustav Mahler)
“All modern music owes everything to Bach.” (Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov)