Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


The Symbolum Nicenum of the B-Minor Mass and Bach’s Late Choral Ideal

George B. Stauffer

(Rutgers University, USA)

The Symbolum Nicenum stands apart from the other sections of the B-Minor Mass in a number of important ways. Composed in the last years of Bach’s life, it displays an unusually high degree of unity, structural balance, and drama. It also points to a new vocal aesthetic for the composer, one in which chorus writing takes precedence over arias. After Bach’s death, the Symbolum Nicenum, in particular, was championed by Bach’s sons, students, and early followers, with the result that it was disseminated widely as an independent piece. In 1772 C.P.E. Bach apparently presented a copy of the Symbolum to the visiting Charles Burney, who seems to have carried it back to England and later praised it as “one of the most clear, correct, and masterful [Credos] I have ever seen.” In Germany the piece was cited by Kirnberger and Agricola in published discussions of compositional techniques.

The Symbolum Nicenum also became the first section of the B-Minor Mass to be performed publicly after Bach death, first in 1786 by C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg and then in 1828 by Schelble in Frankfurt and Spontini in Berlin. When Beethoven attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the B-Minor Mass in 1810 from Breitkopf & Härtel, he specifically quoted the ground bass from the Symbolum’s “Crucifixus” movement, “which it is said to contain.”

These posthumous traditions, springing initially from Bach’s inner circle, suggest that the composer may have viewed the Symbolum Nicenum with special favor and wished the piece to be performed as a separate work—a practice worthy of emulation today.

Last updated on 22 September 2007