Last night, on the eve of the commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, I listened to Bach's Mass in B minor (which I now seem to be doing with greater frequency). I've become increasingly convinced that it is his finest composition and has few, if any rivals, amongst the works of other composers past or present.
The text itself is quite familiar — the words of the Divine Service that have been sung by Christians for hundreds of years. The same words that have accompanied the travelers of this world as they receive the gifts of God and confess and respond with thanksgiving. The same words where the "now" of earthly life and "not yet" of eternity are joined. Kyrie Eleison. Gloria in Excelsis. Credo. Sanctus.
One of the things you find with Bach is the interconnectedness of words and music. Bach takes these words and through the music provides a theological commentary. For those interested in learning more about Bach's compositional techniques in his Mass and how they enrich the text, you can download Christ's Gifts in the Liturgy: The Theology and Music of the Divine Service (free download) from the Good Shepherd Institute and read Bach and the Divine Service: The B-Minor Mass by Paul W. Hofreiter. The music isn't just background noise to provide cover for the text and neither does the music dominate the text. This is a good reminder for church musicians even today.
It is for these reasons that I'm drawn to the Mass in B minor. While the words are in Latin, I inwardly "know" what is being sung — the music helps to reinforce those words. It is a sung confession in faith of what Christ has done for us. Hofreiter writes that "Bach could proclaim, in unison with Luther and all who have believed and will believe:"
In closing, I'll leave you with two of my favorite selections from Bach's Mass — the Sanctus and Dona nobis pacem. If you watch the Dona nobis pacem, notice what happens at the conclusion — a hushed silence and reverence. Grant us peace. If you don't see the videos, click here and here.