Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


How ‘Catholic’ is Bach’s ‘Lutheran’ Mass?

Robin A. Leaver

(Westminster Choir College of Rider University, USA)

In the Verzeichniß des Musikalischen Nachlasses des verstorbenen Capellmeisters Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, published in Hamburg in 1790, the works of his father owned by C. P. E. Bach are listed in detail. Under the heading “Singstücke” the four sections of the B minor Mass are collected together under the heading “Die große catholische Messe.”

The first part of this paper examines the possible meanings of this statement against the background of the Lutheran-Catholic tensions of the Saxon court in Dresden in the second half of the seventeenth century, and the first decades of the eighteenth century. The situation was to a large extent brought about by the significant numbers of Italian Catholic musicians in the Elector’s Kapelle, and the confessional tensions intensified after 1697 when Elector August the Strong converted to Roman Catholicism in order to secure the Polish crown as Augustus II. Confessional conflict continued in the early years of the following century. In 1708 Saxon Lutherans were affronted when their ruler converted the former opera house in Dresden into a Catholic church, and in 1717 the Elector-King attempted to minimize the effect of the celebrations of the bicentenary of the Lutheran Reformation. These antithetical sensitivities were still active sixteen years later when the Lutheran Bach presented the Kyrie and Gloria (BWV 232I) to the Catholic Elector-King, Augustus III, who had recently acceded as the dual ruler on the death of his father in February 1733. Although in one sense BWV 232I was a Lutheran Missa, there was no problem regarding its use in a celebration of a Catholic Mass in the Dresden court chapel.

Towards the end of his life Bach created what we know as the B minor Mass by bringing together settings of all of five parts of the Ordinary of Mass, apparently reflecting more of Catholic rather than Lutheran tradition. Thus the second part of this paper examines the significance of this “große catholische Messe” against the background of the Lutheran understanding of the Ordinary of the Mass as expounded by, for example, Michael Praetorius, who uses Catholic sources to explain the details of the Lutheran understanding of the Mass in the first volume of his Syntagma musicum.

Last updated on 24 June 2007