Bach to basics

Why “Lutheran Mass” is not
a contradiction in terms

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

When the words “Bach” and “mass” appear in proximity, the subject at hand is usually the magisterial Mass in B Minor. Composed during the last two years of his life as the last great project of his musical career, the Mass in B Minor is an aural textbook of forms of musical expression that Johann Sebastian Bach had explored and mastered for decades. Bach scholar and biographer Christoph Wolff has observed that, “just as theological doctrine survived over the centuries in the words of the Mass, so Bach’s mighty setting preserved the musical and artistic creed of its creator for posterity.” But this monumental work was not the only Mass setting bequeathed by Bach.

Many modern Protestants do not realize that the liturgical reforms begun by Luther in the 1520s resulted in the transformation rather that the abolition of the Mass. The emerging Protestant movement had no real theological objections to the content of the Ordinary of the Mass in its traditional sequence (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), so first-generation Lutheran churches continued to use pre-Reformation musical settings of these texts, in both plainchant and harmonized forms. Very soon, however, German settings of the Nicene Creed (the Credo of the traditional Mass) were regularly sung by congregations, and vernacular hymns with the texts of the Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei were (optionally) sung during communion.

In 1530, Martin Luther declared: “I believe that many hymns were included and retained in the Mass which deal with thanking and praising God in a wonderful and excellent way, as for example, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Alleluia, the Creed, the Preface, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. In these various parts you find nothing about a sacrifice but only praise and thanks. Therefore, we have also kept them in our Mass. Particularly the Agnus Dei, above all songs, serves well for the sacrament, for it clearly sings about and praises Christ for having borne our sins and in beautiful, brief words powerfully and sweetly teaches the remembrance of Christ.”

The Kyrie and the Gloria remained a fixed presence in eucharistic services and, in larger urban churches, were often sung in Greek and Latin by a choir, followed by the congregational singing of a hymnic version of the Gloria. A unified musical setting of the Kyrie and Gloria came to be known as a Kurzmesse (“short mass”), Kleine Messe (“small mass”), or (in Latin) missa brevis. Such settings were also dubbed “Lutheran masses,” and, sometime in the decade after 1737, Bach composed four such settings which are today most commonly referred to by this wonderfully ecumenical (if sometimes confusing) term.

The Musical Richness of the Masses

Each of these four masses (one each in the keys of A major, F major, G major, and G minor) has the same structure of six sections. The opening movement in all four presents the Kyrie (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), and the text to the Gloria is then divided up in each Mass into five separate movements. Bach’s delight in musical symmetry is evident: the central movement of all five is an aria, framed by two arias and two choruses.

Unlike the Mass in B Minor, the music in these works has an intimacy and at times a delicacy that becomes most evident in performances that use very small ensembles. Two recent CDs of these works sung by The Sixteen under the direction of Harry Christophers feature only two voices per part on the choruses; an earlier recording featuring the Purcell Quartet on the instrumental parts had only a single voice per part, each a sensitive and intelligent soloist and together a well-balanced and coherent quartet.

Bach adapted most of the music in these four Masses from movements of earlier cantatas; such creative recycling was not uncommon for him, but his attention to the meaning of the text never flags.* This repurposing actually creates some interesting resonance between the works. For example, a confident bass aria from Cantata 187 echoes the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore you should not be anxious nor say: ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink, with what shall we clothe ourselves?’” In the Mass in G Minor (BWV 235), Bach adapts this music to accompany lines from the Gloria that affirm gratitude for God’s greatest gift: Gratias agimus tibi propter magnum gloriam tuam: “We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory . . .”

The next aria in the Mass contains the text affirming the only begotten Son, the Lamb of God, Son of the Father, “Thou that takest away the sins of the world.” The music (again borrowed from Cantata 187) originally presented the text: “Oil and blessing trickle on your footsteps, and it is through your grace that good is done for everyone.” Given Bach’s theological and musical attentiveness, we can be sure that he was conscious of a juxtaposition that subtly identifies the sacrificial Lamb with the Shepherd setting a bountiful and blessed table.

Most of Bach’s cantatas concluded with a chorale, which had the effect of summarizing the theology of the whole work and the practical application thereof in a musical form familiar to the congregations that heard them as part of the liturgy. While these four Lutheran Masses reset musical resources from the cantatas, none of them ends with a chorale. Instead, the final movement in each is a setting of the last phrase of the Gloria: “With the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father, Amen.” In the Mass in B Minor, this section of the Gloria is, quite fittingly, the most glorious portion of the movement: brass, tympani, elaborate interweaving of voices in complex counterpoint.

The four Lutheran Masses display a comparable richness at this point, but each of them has a different flavor, an instructive lesson in how Bach could achieve similar ends with disparate means. The Mass in F Major is the only one of these four that was scored with brass, so it sounds the closest to its grander B Minor counterpart, with choral parts that are a bit more restrained if no less confident. In the Mass in A Major, this final section commences with a quiet and somber affirmation of the presence of the Holy Ghost (“cum Sancto Spiritu,” the score marked “Grave”) before changing tempo and breaking into a dance-like fugue in triple meter (perichoresis!). As each voice enters the dance on the words “in gloria Dei Patris,” the singers ornament the first syllable of gloria with a delighted trill, imparting to “glory” an appropriate glistening.

Beckoning Works

The four Lutheran Masses are gems in Bach’s catalog, and are surprisingly little known even to many lovers of Bach’s choral music. For those who have yet to take the plunge in exploring the rich theological and musical variety of his cantatas — perhaps put off by the unfamiliarity of the German texts, or by the daunting presence of over 200 works — these short masses offer a more approachable entryway into this magnificent choral treasure house. With texts as old as the Church itself, and with recent recordings that capture the delicate yet profound character of these works, Bach’s Lutheran Masses are beckoning novice and veteran alike.

* A table illustrating all of the “borrowings“ from cantatas that are present in the four Lutheran Masses is available at the Bach Cantatas Website.

Bach’s Mass in G Major (BWV 236) is sung here
by the Estonian choir, Voces Musicales,
with the State Academic Chamber Orchestra of Russia,
conducted by Andres Mustonen.


[Author’s note: In addition to the two recordings of these masses mentioned in this article, mention should be made of the recordings from the early 1990s by the Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, (These recordings were my introduction to these works.) In 2007, Cantus Cölln, directed by Konrad Junghänel, also released performances of all four masses, identified in the packaging with the older nomenclature: “Missae Breves,” Since this article was written, the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, also released recordings of the Lutheran Masses on two CDs and in digital files. Each of these ensembles feature larger choirs than on the two recordings mentioned in the article.]