Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bach's Other Mass Settings

Having spent last night enjoying yet another performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting of the Mass text in B minor, this time by Philharmonia Baroque, I found myself curious this morning about Bach’s other settings of that text.  In Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog there are four such settings listed after BWV 232 with catalog numbers from 233 to 236.  While BWV 232 is a tota (complete) setting, the other four are brevis (short), consisting of only the Kyrie and Gloria sections.

As I mentioned in my review, all of the sections of BWV 232 were not composed at the same time.  Rather, the entirety accumulated its material between 1733 and 1747.  The four brevis settings, on the other hand, were believed to have been composed between 1738 and 1739.  These are sometimes called “Lutheran” masses;  but the text is in Latin.  One theory is that they were written for Count Franz Anton von Sporck, who, as a loyal subject of the Hapsburg dynasty, was probably a devout Catholic (or at least expected to be, since, according to his Wikipedia entry, his intellectual interests seemed to drift towards the heretical).

It is a bit unfortunate that these shorter works tend to get short-changed in the current repertoire.  I certainly would not want to detract attention from BWV 232;  but these four brevis settings are perfectly respectable examples of “Bach the musician at work.”  The fact is that our understanding of Bach should not be limited to what others (not always particularly well informed) judge to be “masterpieces.”

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