J. S. Bach is widely considered to be one of the history’s greatest musical composers. You’ve certainly heard his music before, and if you’ve taken piano lessons you’ve probably played pieces from his famous Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of preludes and fugues.
And, like many good seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germans, he was a faithful Lutheran.
Which makes this next fact all the more surprising: perhaps his greatest work, the culmination of his career, considered by some to be the best work of its genre, was a musical setting of the Roman Catholic Mass in Latin.
Born in 1685, Bach spent much of his career writing music for Lutheran churches. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, he worked as the director of music for a collection of Lutheran churches in Leipzig, Germany, where he performed his own original music nearly every Sunday. As a result, he was an extremely prolific composer with well more than a thousand compositions, a number of which have unfortunately been lost.
Then, in 1733, while in that position, an important Catholic ruler died. Five months of official mourning followed, during which time all public musical performances were forbidden.
Temporarily relieved from his normal duties, Bach began work on a peculiar project for a Lutheran music director: he started composing musical settings for a part of the Catholic Latin Mass. It wasn’t a full Mass and the Mass parts he composed were ones Lutherans also could use in their liturgy. But it was in Latin and intended to be used in a Catholic liturgy.
Bach presented the arrangement to the late ruler’s successor, who was also Catholic, with the hopes of becoming one of the new ruler’s court composers. His partial Mass setting was receive with ambivalence, though three years later he was honored with the title “Royal Court Composer.”
So he wrote part of a Catholic Mass setting—a minor religious compromise—to help further his career. He could just move on now, right? Not quite.
He couldn’t forget about his Mass. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, in the latter years of his life, while still working for a Lutheran church, he returned to the work. He began arranging music for the rest of the Mass, including those parts exclusive to the Catholic liturgy, incorporating many of the best musical themes from his whole career. As a result, the Mass was in some ways a summation of his work as a composer.
He finished it in 1749 as his health was declining and then died the following year.
Why would a Lutheran composer finish his brilliant career arranging his best works into a musical setting for a Catholic Latin Mass? Some scholars have suggested he intended it to be used in the inaugural Mass for the new major Catholic church in Dresden, Germany being built around that time. Others have speculated he composed it simply because it had been an important genre of music historically.
Or was there a hidden religious motivation? It’s impossible to know, as he left no public explanation.
Since he died so soon after finishing it, he didn’t even get a chance to lead a performance of it. Unfortunately, it was sort of forgotten for a while, at least to the public. But when it was finally performed publicly in full for the first time more than a century later in 1859, what a reception it had!
The nineteenth-century musical editor Hans Georg Nägeli called it “The Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People.” One of his relatives and archivists titled the work (ordinarily known simply as the “Mass in B Minor”) as the “Great Catholic Mass.”
And musicologist Alberto Basso wrote this about it:
The Mass in B minor is the consecration of a whole life: started in 1733 for “diplomatic” reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach’s life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.
Since the nineteenth century, it has been considered by some not only to be Bach’s greatest work, but also perhaps the greatest musical setting of the Mass ever. Granted, other great composers like Mozart and Haydn also wrote beautiful musical settings for the Mass. At that level, it’s impossible to truly rank them definitively. But Bach’s work is at least universally considered to be one of the best. What an amazing thing, that God would inspire a Protestant musical genius to offer his most beautiful music to adorn his Holy Mass!