How Bach’s Mass in B minor Changed My Life
There was a shirtless guy digging through the dumpster outside of my apartment building the other morning as I pulled my car up along the curb. He poked his head and looked at me like I was crazy. I looked back at him almost as if to say, “No, no, no, that’s not how this is works! You don’t get to call me crazy.” Then he started flailing around, pretending to conduct an imaginary symphony. I realized it was because I had some Bach on in the car and I had been blasting that shit. It wasn’t just any Bach, either. It was the mighty Mass in B minor. A piece of music that is near and dear to me, tattooed on my heart. I turned the music down and let the dumpster guy get back to his business in peace.
I’ve been utterly rapt with the Mass for some time now, almost all of my poor friends and acquaintances can attest to this. If I’m not listening to it, I’m talking about it. I’ve read three books on it and listened to countless recordings, as well as the pieces he had previously written that were later reworked and incorporated into the Mass. Nothing has been able to ameliorate my fascination. I’ve always had a love for Bach. It was that great harpsichord solo towards the end of the first movement in his 5th Brandenburg Concerto that first reached out and grabbed me decades ago. The first time music actually brought tears to my eyes, purely because it was so beautiful, I was listening to the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. The solemn meditations of the Cello Suites, the splendor of the Orchestral Suites, the sheer beauty and symmetry of the Goldberg Variations—especially when transposed for strings—moved me to the core. Still, those big choral works of his—the passions, the oratorios, the cantatas, the masses—all escaped me. I’d always had a reverence for them and I enjoyed them just fine if they were on as background music, but I could never really seem to get them. Above all, the Mass in B minor loomed largest.
The Mass is no light listening. It’s widely considered the crowning achievement of Western Music and one of the greatest works of art ever accomplished. It’s older than the United States—though it wasn’t performed in its entirety until 1859, over a hundred years after its completion. It’s also religious music, which put me off for a long time. It’s a behemoth, to the point where the word, “masterpiece” just sounds trite, almost an insult. On top of that, choral works—or any non-purely instrumental classical music at all, for that matter—never really were my thing. The voices can take a bit for the modern ear to get used to. That put up a barrier for me. It seemed so daunting. Yet, I wanted to get to know it. I really wanted to get the Mass. There was something in there speaking to me, I could tell. I knew intuitively that this was an important piece of music that I should get to know. Over the years, I would put it on periodically while driving or cleaning the apartment or in the shower. Slowly, over time, it grew on me, but I couldn’t find it in me to really sit down with it. It just didn’t touch my heart the way so much of Bach’s other stuff did.
Then, suddenly, it happened. I was caught up in one of those crises we tend to make up for ourselves from time to time. I felt like I’d spent a lifetime in LA on a giant treadmill, running fast and getting nowhere. Those old feelings bubbled to the surface again. Dread, inadequacy, frustration, guilt—all wrapped around me and I became like some kind of anxiety burrito. I was alone on the floor with my thoughts. All these scary stories I had made up to freak myself out for some reason. I sat in total silence for hours as a cacophony of voices and emotions danced around in my brain as I let them pass by. I let the anxiety and the dread and the fear pass over me.
I got to the root of some of my anxiety and made sense of my worries, and something inside of me told me that this would be a good time to put the Mass on. That sounded like a good idea, but there are hundreds of recordings of the thing. It can get difficult to find out which one is the best. I really like and respect Sir John Eliot Gardiner. He’s a great conductor—a master of Bach’s choral music. I found the latest recording he did of the Mass and put it on. The opening hit me with full force, like a giant ray of light beaming right out of another realm. I knew then that this was it. This was the connection I had been waiting for. The opening of the mass poured in through my apartment and my connection to the music would be changed forever. It sounds saccharine and schmaltzy, but I swear it was because I was ready for the thing, emotionally.
Before I go any further with this, I feel that I should try and explain as succinctly as possible what a Mass is in general and a little bit of info on the B minor. It’s sacred music. It’s a tradition that goes back to the middle ages with Gregorian chant, starting at around the seventh century. It’s choral music—the Eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican communions are traditionally sung in Latin, though other languages are sometimes used. The Mass in B minor is what’s called an ordinary mass—used for every celebration—as opposed to a proper mass, which would be used for only certain occasions. Often—as was the case with the B minor—this music wasn’t written to be performed for an actual Mass. The B minor was never performed in its entirety during Bach’s lifetime.
The ordinary Mass is made up of five sections: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The Mass in B minor has 27 separate movements within these sections. The idea of symmetry was prevalent in Baroque architecture as well as the music. In architecture, it was all about the symmetric ground plan. Axial-symmetric buildings with a ground plan that featured a centerpiece flanked by two huge wings became an ideal. Bach was familiar with the design, having worked at the palace of Friedrichsthal, close to Weimar. The palace was constructed following the Baroque model, meant to mirror the beauty of the divine. This was the entire purpose of art at this time. The Mass in B minor reflects this as well. The Kyrie, Gloria and Credo sections of the Mass are framed by grand musical statements at the beginning and end of each section, providing symmetry.
Bach finished the Mass in 1749 as he was going blind, the year before his death. Much of the Mass is made up of stuff that he had been working on as far back as 1714, though everything was extensively revised. The first half of the Mass—the Kyrie and the Gloria—had been completed by 1733. We know this because Bach used it as a kind of job application, sending it out for the position of court composer in Dresden. It turned out to be an unsuccessful bid that time around. He never forgot about it though, and he greatly expanded upon the work during the last years of his life.
There’s a lot of debate as to why he did that, but I think it was because he was going blind. In his day, Bach was more renowned as an organist than as a composer. He was a master organ builder as well, which made total sense to me when I first read it. His music has the feel of math and blueprints, like the architecture of the inner-workings of some great musical instrument. If he were to have gone blind, what would he have done? What kind of life would he have had? I think that’s why he decided to go through with the risky cataract surgery that gave him the infection that, in turn, killed him. I have no doubt that anyone living in the mid-18th century was completely aware of the risk involved with that kind of operation (or any operation in general). Acceptance of germ theory was a hundred years off and people were dying from surgically caused infections all the time.
This leads me to believe that Bach sat down to write this Mass as a summation of his work for posterity. He was the owner of a great music library and understood more than anyone the importance of leaving behind great works for posterity and future generations. It is the grand, artistic, and spiritual statement of a deeply religious, absolute master of his craft. Never in my life have I come across such a perfect, accomplished and realized piece of music. Look, I know that sounds pretty damn heavy-handed. I wouldn’t write something like that if I didn’t have full confidence in that statement.
Bach had a great interest in many of the musical styles of his time and set out to challenge himself by writing in them and mastering them. In the Mass, Bach writes in contemporary fugues (the first Kyrie) wrapped in a polyphonic fabric with early modern Italian-style fugues (the second Kyrie), which in turn act to sandwich in an Operatic-style love duet (Christe eleison) all within the first section of the thing. He juxtaposes ancient Gregorian chant with a contemporary walking bass line. He makes use of concerto grosso, dances and folk music blended into arias, cantatas and oratorios. No movement feels misplaced next to the other, the big grand pieces are buttressed up next to lighter fare, the solemn next to the jubilant. There is an ebb and flow to the thing. It lives and breathes. Trumpets blast and timpanis thud in firey celebration. You can almost hear ribbons of crimson and gold dancing above fire and light, while the angels circle overhead. A choir of what seems like a thousand voices twist and turn and meander their way through your being, telling the human story the way it’s never been told before and in a way it could never be told again.
That night I really got to know the Mass, I sat there with my mouth wide open, marveling at the thing. Tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The music has this unfurling quality to it, like new ferns opening up. It has a living quality to it. It’s also very, very brainy. Other contemporaries of Bach, like Telemann and Handel, make for a pleasant listen. They have their own brainy moments and clever little things here and there. I love Telemann, but he has nothing on Bach. This is something else all together. Something that transcends Baroque musical tradition. I think that’s why his music is still so revered and still stokes so much passion.
Listening to Bach, you get the feeling that there’s more to this music than what you’re hearing on a light listen. I’m only scratching the surface of the technicality involved, but here’s an interesting little thing buried in the Et incarnates est movement. Take a look at the music notation below. Those little intersecting lines drawn through the first and fourth notes and second and third notes show a Kreuz—the Cross, advancing the narrative of Jesus’ suffering. The Kreuz figure shows up again and is intensified later in the piece. I imagine that if you know enough about music and religious symbolism, you could get utterly lost in the Mass, even more that I have. It could be your life’s work just dissecting the thing.
That night, as I was lying there on my back with my head to the speakers, I thought to myself, “I get it now.” A light switch had been flipped on. I thanked myself for having the intuition to get to know this thing. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since. With this kind of music, I find the specific recording to be important. I sat through quite a few lackluster recordings of the B minor. I still can’t find anything that tops John Eliot Gardiner’s 2015 recording. It gave me a new understanding and appreciation for choral music. It also gave me a new understanding of religious music and religion in general. For years, my perception of classic works of religious art was that of artists and composers simply following orders given from the church. I figured that they surely couldn’t be all that religious themselves. But with Bach, you can feel it. You know it. You know that he means all of this from far deep down in his being. He is accessing something deeply spiritual and I can’t do anything but stand in awe of it. I’ve never been a spiritual or religious person and I never will be, but he sure does make me one every time I put the Mass on.
I often find myself getting lost in the detail of the piece, the way a note bends and lingers and the way another rises up to meet it and they intertwine like ivy while the accompanying instruments provide the base on which they grow, but it too is undulating and providing new forms all the time. It’s never static, it always moves and breathes. The music is fractal and psychedelic and has the ability to reach out and grab at you, then pull away. It’s deep and contemplative, contagiously joyous—a celebration of life, a solemn recognition of death, and a deep longing for the hereafter.
Every time I put the Mass on, I feel so fortunate. I feel fortunate that I have access to this music. I feel fortunate that this type of music speaks to me so deeply. I love my rock n’ roll very much, but there is something far deeper and more powerful going on with this. There is a healing and consoling power to it that can’t be topped once your heart has opened up to it. It also taught me that a little work pays off. I deliberately chiseled into the Mass because I saw something in it. It didn’t reward me right away, but I worked at getting to know it and respect it for what it is. Over time, it has become a thing so close to my heart, it’s hard to wrap my head around. It taught me that I should do this with certain people in my life, as well as books, films and other forms of art. Great, rewarding experiences with art, people and other areas of life, often don’t come easy. You really have to do the work sometimes.
The warmth in the music brought out the warmth in me as a person. It’s made me kinder and more thoughtful. There is something very special about listening to great musical masterworks. I marvel at the blood, sweat and tears of the masters, elegantly put to music the way the Mass is. As I was writing this essay today and the sun was setting, I put on the Gratias agimus tibi. It’s a part of the mass with the full chorus going. It’s heavenly and intoxicating, it feels like the angels are singing to you through the firmament. The sky outside became pink and orange as the sun reflected off the clouds. I walked up to the the window to watch it, holding one of the dogs so she could watch it to. The palm trees swayed in the breeze, a plane flew overhead and a cat scurried into the neighbor’s yard as Bach filled the living room. I thought of Bach putting this all together, reaching out beyond time and space. There are a lot of things in my life that I regret doing. Getting to really know that piece of music is definitely not one of them. As the sun went down, I went back to work knowing that the day I finally got the Mass, I knew I’d made a friend for life. One that has been here long before me and will be here long after I’m gone. The greatest artwork of all times and people.
If you’re new to Bach, I put together this Spotify playlist in the link below, just for the purpose of this essay. It features what I consider to be some of the best recordings of his best pieces. Of course, the John Eliot Gardiner recording of the B minor is on there as well.
About Ryan FabianNew England writer and lover of knowledge.
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I truly love your passion and careful wording with great music of the past. Thank you for being such an inquisitive member of the audience. It’s a position that i haven’t made time to sit in for quite some time. Gonna ride that playlist like it’s my bitch lol. Thanks brotha
Hey Daniel! Thanks so much for reading, man! I really appreciate your insight and interest!