A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Welp.

Hello, my beautiful friends. I send my most heartfelt apologies as I know I was unable to post this past week. I almost wasn’t able to post this morning either! Today marks day one of the final week of summer term, which brings with it exams, essays, and portfolio compilations.

I have been swimming in numerous reading and writing assignments, but TODAY I have found the time to post about something that has been a source of beauty and holiness in this academic crunch time and the wild year that is 2020.

If there is one musical masterpiece which should ever be permitted to pass into heaven from this earth, it should be—apart from Handel’s Messiah, of course—Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

I realize that I’m coming to the Mass in B Minor party a bit late. I’m a classical musician and yet somehow I only just discovered this choral work two months ago. But despite that fact, I cannot find the words to express how fiercely I love this composition. It has, for me, become something of a solace, a light, and a gorgeous balm to the soul in these past few trying (and indubitably busy) months.

I think 2020 has been a really difficult year for so many of us. I, for one, have taken a brick to la cabeza quite a few times, and this splendid piece is something that allows me to clear my mind, envision the perfect goodness at the end of all things which we pursue, and the undeniable worthiness and holiness of our good God.

In my chronic nerdiness, I have listened to the entire (approximately) one hour and forty-eight minute runtime of the Mass, and it fills my soul with Happy Juice™ whenever I am in need of mindful meditation and worship in the mornings.

I suggested in my previous post that I would write more concerning classical music and namely, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which has become a recent obsession of mine, in all sincerity. As one of Bach’s final pieces and something he composed in increments over his lifetime, it serves as a bit of a musical culmination of everything that made Bach what he was.

This piece was written in different stages of his life, and it was only in his later life that he decided to put these parts together to make a mass. Every piece by Bach is related to every other piece by Bach. Compiled as one work, it is a summary of Bach’s production over his career. Everybody has heard music by Bach, but this is the best of the best of what he created.

Ludovic Morlot, Conductor Emeritus of the Seattle Symphony

The twenty-seven movements (and four parts) of the Mass are all constructed around one purpose. The music played is meant to be presented as an offering to Christ—an act of worship.

My personal favorite of the many movements is the Christe Eleison (which means Christ have mercy) for two sopranos. The Christe Eleison is the second of three movements which explicitly asks the Lord for mercy.

The opening is Kyrie Eleison (which means Lord have mercy), then comes Christe Eleison (again, meaning Christ have mercy), and then another Kyrie Eleison (II).

The “easy way out” for Bach would have been to repeat the same music for the second Kyrie that he had used in the first section, but this is not what he does…. the setting is extensive (both in terms of individual movements and the collective Kyrie), using different music for each line of text. This likely reflects the attitude of the Lutherans of Bach’s time toward this Ordinary, which had special significance for them – they, who felt unworthy to approach God, and thus pleaded with the Lord for mercy, which is what the Kyrie is all about.

Bach Choir of Bethlehem

So, then, in singing and listening to these first three movements of the Mass, it is presenting oneself before Christ in humility, understanding His power and His greatness, and asking Him to look upon our infinitesimal selves with mercy and grace.

Our human unworthiness drives us to this plea, even though we are already acknowledging of His grace and sacrifice for us. Despite that, we still feel incredibly small, unworthy, and insignificant, and this drives us to request mercy of our God. But not just mercy alone, but an understanding and comprehension of that mercy upon ourselves.

Then, following the first three movements is the Gloria portion of the Mass. The Gloria comprises nine whole movements and is almost an answer to the previous three movements, which requested favor and mercy. It offers glory to the Lord for his goodness in granting the singers the grace and mercy they have so fervently sought!

We cry out and magnify the Lord’s glory because His grace and mercy is true! Our lives are saved, redeemed, and precious to Him beyond words. When this is realized in us, we sing the Gloria, and it draws us closer to the inevitable mercy, and justice of our good, loving, and all-powerful God.

In meditating on the Mass this week, I was reminded of John Keats’s poem Endymion, particularly a portion from the first book:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

From Endymion, by John Keats

This thing of beauty is Bach’s Mass in B minor. It has been considered as such by musicians and churchgoers and music lovers alike (of which I am all three) since it’s original publication in Leipzig around 1749(ish).

It will continue to be so forevermore, until we are ushered into the glorious and perfectly beautiful presence of the Subject of the Mass’s worship: Christ himself.

I have listened to the Mass repeatedly—literally, countless times—over the course of the last few months, and this is something that confirms to me the Mass’s identity as a real and true thing of beauty. It has not passed into the realm of repetition.

Not that beautiful things can’t get boring, but I’m saying a truly remarkable thing of beauty has a hard time getting boring.

That’s why I still listen to The Shepherd’s Boy literally every day. B-)

ANYWAY.

Bach’s Mass is a joy forever, and for me, it is something which soothes my soul, challenges me to let my spirit sing to Christ for mercy, and to glorify Him endlessly for that mercy which He has so graciously given.

Before I close, allow me to present my absolute favorite recording of the Mass by the Netherlands Bach Society. It’s really such a gem! I added a time stamp in the video notes below, so you can skip to the Christe Eleison and the Gloria if you so wish. But, I would wholeheartedly recommend listening to it in its entirety. As long as it is, it certainly is a balm for the soul. 🙂

Christe Eleison ft. sopranos Hana Blažíková and Anna Reinhold starts at 11:07, and the Gloria starts at 19:43.

Tschüss und bis bald,

Emily 😉

Ooh, and here’s some more great pieces by Bach for your listening pleasure:

And, of course, a (VERY SMALL) list of Bach recommendations wouldn’t be complete without a Hilary Hahn recording. 😉 But seriously, all the partitias are A+ stuff.

2 thoughts on “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor

  1. Bach is a classical music master! I sang Kyrie Eleison with a choir in which I participated in December, and it was the most satisfying to perfect.
    Hillary Hahn blows me away. Just…WOW.

  2. Wow, I loved all this musical nerdery, Emily!!! I confess that I’ve never progressed far enough in my own study of music to be able to attempt playing or singing any of these great pieces, but I still find great enjoyment in listening to them being performed by others. I’m definitely going to be putting all these recommendations in a playlist for listening to, likely while I clean my room up today (somehow it never stays orderly for more than a few days… truly one of the greatest mysteries of this life, how I can spend so much time and energy storing everything away, and the next time I take a look around, clothes are strewn across the floor, yarn scattered from its bin, books in haphazard stacks here and there, and my half-finished sewing projects hanging from the ceiling fan… I’ll never understand it 🤔😂)

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