It is the 15th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1749.
Recently I was over on 1517's Instagram to take questions about church history for that platform. Unfortunately, I had not yet perfected the art of linking together 15-second clips, and thus I answered each question, to the best of my ability, in 15-second bits… which isn't easy. Hopefully, I will be doing this again soon with more extended answers.
All that to say, one question was too complex to answer in 15 seconds. It was, "what is the best thing the church has given the world artistically?" I thought it was too hard a question to answer in 15 seconds. Until I was falling asleep with the question on my mind, and it came to me: Bach's Mass in B Minor. Questions of aesthetics are based on subjective responses to objective stimuli, so when we say "best," please note that personal opinions will undoubtedly vary. But it's fun to say "the best" and then have others argue in a different direction.
I doubt you know this, but today's date has nothing to do with the Mass in B Minor because I made a mistake! I made the exact same mistake last year on this date and ditched the show. But guess what? It's the last month of season 2, and I'm feeling rebellious. So here we go! he Mass in B Minor, the greatest piece of music ever composed and the church's greatest aesthetic gift to the world. Let's break it down.
The Mass in B Minor is considered by many to be Bach's greatest piece, although he completed it while blind in the last year of his life and only once heard it performed in its entirety.
J.S. Bach, if you aren't familiar with his biography, lived in Northern Germany from 1685 to 1750. He is considered the preeminent Baroque composer. Baroque was a post-Renaissance and Pre-Classical style of music that stressed form and technical skill. Critics claim that emotion and feeling are perhaps lacking from many obsessing over form and skill, but not Bach. In fact, his Mass represents a brilliant hybrid of skill and emotion and the best of Opera with the best of the church Cantata tradition.
Bach was a Lutheran to his core. And so it is often questioned as to why his magnum opus, his last great work, would be a Catholic mass. The easy answer to this query is: Lutherans never eliminated the Mass but rather literally re-formed it by taking out what they found objectionable. So a Lutheran writing a Mass might not be that wild. Except for the Kyrie and Gloria, written almost 20 years prior, were written for a new Catholic sovereign. Augustus II of Saxony had died, and a five-month period of mourning and moratorium on writing music commenced. During this time, Bach spent his time writing the Kyrie and Gloria for the new Elector, the very Catholic Augustus III.
However, according to many, it is a work that threads the needle between the style becoming associated with Roman Catholicism and his Lutheran theology. One musicologist wrote, "it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross."
Unlike Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and St. John's Passion, the Mass in B minor was not commissioned. And this is partially to account for this work's significance. Church leaders, Catholics, and Lutherans especially were concerned with new styles of secular music infiltrating sacred music. Like Handel, Bach was willing to bring in elements of what some dismissed as "ditties" and aspects of the most profane music of all: the Italian Opera.
One music historian has referred to the Mass in B Minor as a "mutant opera" as it borrowed the Italian ritornello style, which is a kind of interlude and refrains that was a precursor to leitmotifs in later classical music.
The Mass in B Minor is a piece out of time. It is Baroque, but at times fiery. It is operatic but sacred. It is a hybrid of compositions and a uniquely singular work. And while, for at least the rest of this month, we will continue to hear Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suite #1 as our theme song here on the show, it is the opinion of this writer that the Dona Nobis Pacem that ends the Mass is the greatest single musical composition of all time. Really. I have already asked that it be the last thing played at my funeral.
Today we remember Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor, which, you know. I'm sure it was played on some the 15th of April since it was completed in 1749.
The reading for today, a short favorite from Richard Crashaw, is his "Two Went Up to the Temple to Pray," based on the parable of Jesus.
Two went to pray? O rather say
One went to brag, th' other to pray:
One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th' other dares not send his eye.
One nearer to God's altar trod,
The other to the altar's God.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a Lutheran not unfamiliar with the Mass, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who is loosening his tie and having some fun at the end of season 2. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.