Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


On the Role and Meaning of the Polonaise in Mass in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach as Exemplified by the Aria “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”

Szymon Paczkowski

(Warsaw University, Poland)

It seems to be clear as to why Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria (entitled Missa in Bach’s MS) from his Mass in B minor. In 1733 Bach sent to the Dresden court the performing parts of the Missa along with his application for the title of Court Composer of the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Thus, the Missa which was given to the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II (who later became King August III of Poland), was intended as proof of Bach’s impeccable credentials for the title.

The Mass in B minor displays many similarities with analogous works composed in the first half of the 18th century for Dresden’s Hofkirche. Considering its addressee (the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland), this particular work of Bach’s should be viewed in the context of the specific style of sacred music then prevalent in Dresden. Among other things, Dresden’s stylistic conventions involved the inclusion of secular elements in sacred music that were mainly associated with the ceremony of the Dresden court, such as a dance like the polonaise and even hunting music. At the time of the Polish-Saxon union (1697-1763), the polonaise was seen in Dresden (and in Saxony as a whole) initially as a musical symbol of the Polish crown, then of royal majesty in general, and finally of the power and might of the Lord of Hosts. This metaphorical use of the polonaise can be frequently found in the rich repertoire of both of Dresden’s court churches (Catholic and Lutheran). Polonaises can be identified in the masses of Heinichen, Zelenka and other Dresden composers. The characteristic polonaise rhythms can also be found in two movements of the Mass in B minor: the aria “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” and the chorus “Et resurrexit”. By comparing the Mass in B minor with selected Dresden masses from the first half of the 18th century we can establish that the use of the polonaise in the Mass in B minor was one of Bach’s ways of alluding to the Dresden model of mass composition. A realization of this fact allows us to gain a better understanding of the composer’s intentions and aims in his Mass in B minor from a hitherto overlooked scholarly viewpoint.

Last updated on 16 October 2007