Reverence + Spirituality
Saturday, April 12, 2014 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church
Seattle Chamber Singers
Clinton Smith, conductor
Catherine Haight, soprano
Melissa Plagemann, mezzo-soprano
Wesley Rogers, tenor
Clayton Brainerd, bass-baritone
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
About the Concert
“I chose Bach’s Mass in B Minor because the work represents Bach at his best, and as a devout Christian, his most reverent praise of God can be heard through the music,” explains Clinton Smith.
Bach completed his Mass in B Minor shortly before his death, drawing upon liturgical music he had composed over the preceding 35 years and assembling these diverse sources into a seamless whole. The work was not performed during Bach’s lifetime, and its true purpose remains something of a mystery, as it is not particularly well suited for performance in either Lutheran or Catholic religious services.
Perhaps, as with the Goldberg Variations and the The Art of the Fugue, Bach intended this late-in-life composition to be a magnum opus, encompassing all he had learned as a composer of religious music. As Bach biographer Karl Geiringer has noted, this monumental mass “belongs to the immortal documents of man’s quest for the eternal truths.”
About the Soloists
Soprano Catherine Haight appears frequently with the region’s most prestigious musical organizations, regularly performing in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carmina Burana and The Nutcracker. Reviewing PNB’s world premiere of Christopher Stowell’s Zaïs, The Seattle Times called her singing “flawless.’ She appears as soprano soloist on the OSSCS recording of Handel’s Messiah, the Seattle Choral Company recording of Carmina Burana, and on many movie and video game soundtracks, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Ghost Rider and World of Warcraft. Last spring she sang Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the orchestra of Seattle Pacific University, where she has served on the voice faculty since 1992.
Mezzo-soprano Melissa Plagemann has been praised by audiences and the press for her “clear, burnished voice” (Tacoma News Tribune) and “attractively expressive mezzo” (Crosscut Seattle). She performs frequently with the finest musical organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest, and is rapidly becoming known for the passion and musical intelligence she brings to performances on opera and concert stages alike. A first-prize winner in competitions of the Ladies’ Musical Club, the Seattle Musical Art Society and the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, she holds degrees from the University of Victoria and Indiana University. Learn more: northwestartists.org
Tenor Wesley Rogers has been hailed by San Francisco Classical Voice as possessing the “kind of tenor that pours forth powerfully, effortlessly, seemingly for any length of time.” During the 2012–2013 season, he sang Belmonte in Die entführung aus dem Serail with L’Opéra National de Montpellier and Opéra de Liège, and—in a debut with Madison Opera—Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Recent performances include an important debut as Belmonte at Semperoper Dresden, the Berlioz Te Deum at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with OSSCS, and a concert appearance as Belmonte at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. Performances with Seattle Opera have included roles in Billy Budd, La Fanciulla del West, Salome and Daron Hagen’s Amelia. Learn more: fletcherartists.com
Bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd has sung leading roles with major orchestras and opera companies around the world under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Charles Dutoit, Robert Shaw, Gerard Schwarz, Jeffery Tate, Jesús López-Cobos and Christoph von Dohnanyi, singing in Les Troyens at Tanglewood, Oedipus Rex with the Boston Symphony and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, and the American premiere of Sophie’s Choice by Nicholas Maw. His versatility extends from Wotan and Gunther in The Ring and roles in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg to many roles in the Italian and French operatic repertoire, including Mephistopheles in The Damnation of Faust. Learn more: claytonbrainerd.com
Johann Sebastian Bach
Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. This work calls for 2 flutes, 3 oboes (2 doubling oboe d’amore), 2 bassoons, horn, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo, plus vocal soloists and chorus.
During his later years, Bach appears to have planned various musical collections as summations for posterity of his compositional skills and his artistic development over some 30 years. Indeed, he produced superlative retrospectives of keyboard works in various forms containing considerable quantities of earlier material carefully reworked with the wisdom of age and experience, including the Klavierübung, Dritter Teil, a collection of organ works to be played in conjunction with the German text of the mass. The monumental Mass in B Minor (called “The Great Catholic Mass” by C.P.E. Bach), whose movements constitute a veritable encyclopedia of the musical styles, techniques, forms and treatments from Bach’s day and preceding generations, was also intended as such a musical legacy, but for choral forces singing the Latin text of the mass.
Bach compiled BWV 232 from two principal sources: a Sanctus composed for use at Christmas 1724 and a Missa (consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria) probably written in 1733. He adapted other sections from arias and choruses of his numerous cantatas (only a few movements seem to have been newly composed). Bach assembled the Mass late in life (between 1745 and 1750) and no evidence survives that it was ever performed in its entirety in any context (sacred or secular) during his lifetime. A complete setting of the Latin text of the mass had a place in the liturgy of Bach’s Lutheran church (St. Thomas’ Church was the “official chapel” of the local university, whose scholars worked in Latin), yet a lengthy setting requiring large and well-trained musical forces would have had little prospect of performance, even though such a grand work might conceivably have been performed on some highly significant occasion, such as the beginning of a university term.
Although portions of the Mass did receive performances during the ensuing decades, it was not until 1859 (more than a century after Bach’s death) that the entire work was heard in a single performance (in Leipzig, with Karl Riedel conducting). Bach seems to have viewed the mass as the most historically enduring of musical forms, which may explain why he invested so much care and energy in order to leave this great work as part of his “last musical will and testament” for his family, for the glory of his maker, and for the edification of future generations.
Bach structured this masterpiece in such a way that both its anthologized nature and its sense of unity are evident. His manuscript splits it into four major groupings: Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria); Symbolum Nicenum (the Credo); Sanctus; and Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem. Each group is further divided to produce 26 independent sections (not counting the repetition of the Osanna). Three stunningly powerful outcries, calling on God for help, open this mighty work, followed by an introspective instrumental interlude that sets in motion a forceful five-part fugal Kyrie, reminiscent of a funeral march. A warm and personal Christe, a love-duet accompanied by decorative violin, leads to a second Kyrie, a four-part fugal chorus in the “old style” of polyphony—one can hear anguished pleas for God’s mercy in the fugue’s tortured, chromatic subject and syncopated entrances.
The contrasting Gloria presents a joyous paean of praise and thanksgiving. After a rollicking “Gloria in excelsis,” gently rocking eighth notes set a mood of peace and comfort in the “Et in terra pax.” In the “Laudamus te,” solo violin and solo soprano compete in seraphic praise, followed by a soprano–tenor duet (“Domine Deus”) featuring solo flute and softened strings. In the pensive “Qui sedes,” solo mezzo-soprano and oboe d’amore (an “alto oboe”) ask for Christ’s mercy, while solo horn and two bassoons accompany the baritone in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Bach adapted the glowing “Gratias agimus,” somber four-part “Qui tollis” and exuberant “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from cantatas that—like all the reworkings in the Mass—he selected and rewrote with such care and skill that in most cases the new work surpasses the original. Two jubilant choruses, the dancing “Gloria” and the effervescent “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” both resplendent with clarino trumpets and timpani, frame the nine-section movement.
Like the Gloria, the Credo (or Symbolum Nicenum) exhibits a self-contained musical architecture, its nine sections arranged symmetrically with the “Crucifixus” at the core. In the “Credo,” five-part chorus and two violin parts develop the first phrase of a Gregorian chant melody, introduced in sustained notes by the tenors and then sung in similar fashion by the other voices. The imitative choral “Patrem” leads to a gentle soprano–alto duet (“Et in unum Dominum”), in which the accompanying oboes d’amore echo and follow one another through the lovely world the Lord created. Then comes the weepingly beautiful “Et incarnatus est” (perhaps the last major musical movement Bach completed), its descending lines illustrating Christ coming down from the heavenly realms to become human. The “Crucifixus,” a heart-rending lament reworked from a 1714 cantata chorus, is cast in the form of a passacaglia, a slow dance in triple meter that consists of variations over a repeated, chromatically descending bass line. The explosively exultant chorus “Et resurrexit” proclaims the triumph of the resurrection with trumpets and timpani, featuring a virtuosic line for the basses of the chorus. In the aria “Et in Spiritum,” oboes d’amore join the bass voice as equal musical partners. The “Confiteor” takes the form of a five-part chorale fantasia in which the slow, meditative music that accompanies the appearance of the text “Et expecto,” with its unsettling, kaleidoscopically shifting harmonies, leads listeners to ponder what the confession of faith in the Creed might indeed lead one to expect. This uncertain transitional passage leads directly into the closing outburst of choral and instrumental jubilation, “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.” Bach employs a trinity of musical motives contrapuntally to express the excitement of anticipation, rejoicing and resurrection to everlasting life.
In the transcendent six-part Sanctus, festooned with trumpets, drums and winds, saints join the heavenly hosts in procession to the throne of the Heavenly King as bass voices—like great chiming bells—proclaim the holiness of the Lord of Hosts. The form of this movement is modeled on that of the church sonata, with its grand and stately opening section followed by a spirited and festive fugue (“Pleni sunt coeli et terra”) as Heaven and Earth are filled with God’s glorious splendor.
The Osanna, repeated after the Benedictus to build a tripartite structure, is the only double-chorus movement. Bach does not specify the instrument that accompanies the tenor in the Benedictus, but a flute usually takes the solo part (as it does this evening). In the pensive Agnus Dei, violins hesitate and sigh as they contemplate, with the alto soloist, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The final chorus, Dona nobis pacem, repeats the music of the “Gratias agimus” in the Gloria, suggesting that this prayer for peace becomes Bach’s own prayer of thanksgiving for the serenity he has found after a lifetime of writing music for God’s glory under very trying circumstances. It forms a most fitting conclusion for this work, the ultimate example of Bach’s genius (called “the perfect synthesis of music and theology” and the “greatest musical composition of all times and peoples”) and Bach’s supreme statement of his profound Christian faith.