Gloria in Excelsis by Johann Sebastian Bach
As the Chorus begins its 30th year of performance, it fittingly turns to Johann Sebastian Bach, who, with a few contemporaries- Handel, Buxtehude, Vivaldi, and Telemann among them- transformed the entire framework of serious music. Curiously, the Chorus’ homage to Bach has been rather scattered; of five, possibly six, performances containing some of his works, three relied on Magnificat , whole or in part, and there have been only two of his cantatas. The work on this concert is a sacred cantata, but it is unique in many respects: It is the only one of Bach’s cantatas (which number more than 200) with a Latin, rather than German, text. Moreover, it has a very murky history; musicologists do not agree on the dates of its composition or its first performance, nor is there consensus on the purpose for its composition. What IS known is that the same music is used, with minor musical revisions, and different texts, in the B Minor Mass- one of the greatest musical works of all time- although the experts also disagree as to which came first.
Bach began the Leipzig portion of his career in May of 1723. He was already a recognized talent on the musical scene of that day, notwithstanding that he was a third (or perhaps fourth or fifth) choice for the Thomasschule’s Kantor position in Leipzig; the title itself was a come-down from the Kapellmeister title he had borne at his previous location in Cothen. He had been married for less than a year and a half to his second wife, Anna Magdalena, following the death of Maria Barbara Bach in 1720, and had already fathered nearly half of his 22 children. In February of 1733, the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I, died, and Bach used the prescribed five-month official mourning period- during which there were no musical performances- to work on a couple of projects: One was the Magnificat ; the second was a “Missa” or short Mass, specifically a Kyrie and a Gloria (the form of the Lutheran Mass included only these two movements). This latter work was presented, apparently as a gift, to the new Elector, Friedrich August II, in Dresden at the end of July, after the official mourning period ended, and may have been performed at that time. It should be noted that Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, had become organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden in June of that year, just before the mourning period ended, so the Bachs had a presence in Dresden. The “Missa” subsequently became part of the B Minor Mass- although that larger work was never heard in Johann Sebastian’s lifetime, and it is not clear exactly what his intentions were for it.
The cantatas used in Lutheran churches at that time were almost all in German, but Latin was occasionally used for celebratory days, e.g., Christmas, Easter, Ascension, etc. Services generally began at 7:00 a.m., and lasted three hours, so that the cantata was expected to occupy no more than a half-hour, a rule that Bach observed carefully. Cantatas normally followed the Gospel reading, preceding recitation of the creed and the sermon; a second cantata, or later movements of a longer cantata, might follow the sermon. This cantata was thus divided, with one movement before, and two after, the sermon. The choir ordinarily would have included about 16 voices, with about 18 instrumentalists accompanying; as only about eight instrumentalists were on the church payroll, the additional positions were probably filled by Bach’s students, and the vocalists were largely from the singing school run by the church. (In those days male voices often did not change until 17 years of age, which meant that there were boy sopranos with as much as ten years of experience!) Works such as the St. Matthew Passion which required more than 40 musicians were rare indeed.
While it appears that the 1733 “Missa” indeed represented the genesis of the subject cantata, it was by no means all of it; the first movement is quite similar to the early composition, but the second and third movements of BWV191 appear as the Domine Deus and the Cum Sancto Spiritu sections of the B Minor Mass. Some musicologists see clues suggesting that the other two movements were composed between 1743 and 1746. The most probable performance date would have been Christmas Day, 1745- one authority suggests that it might have celebrated the Treaty of Dresden at that time- but others have suggested dates even later than 1749, which would have been after the completion of the corresponding B Minor Mass portions. Some see an indication in the Latin text that it was composed for the Catholic court; others point out the use of Latin for Lutheran celebrations.
As far as content goes, such short masses are not really comparable to a full-length Gloria, such as that by Vivaldi- which was more or less contemporaneous- or the 20th-century one by Poulenc. Bach’s text is not only more limited, but different; Vivaldi devotes his first two movements to “gloria in excelsis” and “et in terra pax hominibus”, which text occupies the first movement of Bach’s version; however, the third choral movement of this work has the text “sicut erat in principio, et in saecula saeculorum, et nunc et semper, Amen”, which does not appear in Vivaldi.
Whatever the source and inspiration, this is a lovely and fitting annunciation of the Christmas holiday.
J. R. Fancher, Nov. 2005