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Like Father, Like Son
By Boyd Pehrson (February 2002)

The subject of Bach's B minor Mass has been detailed here often. Since this work has been called Bach's "opus ultimum" (Dr. Andreas Bomba), and widely recognized as such, perhaps I may credibly indulge in yet another brief essay on one section of Bach's most monumental work. The section is the Domine Deus duet, a soprano & tenor duet from the B minor Mass. Specifically, I would like to focus on how the duet is affected positively by the use of a boy soprano with a tenor, and how perhaps most doubts can be removed that yes, Bach did write this soprano part for a boy soprano. First I pray that you'll indulge me a little background information on this section, and the Mass in general.

I have read that some musicians and scholars believe Bach's B minor Mass to be a reverting to Catholicism due to Bach's use of Latin texts, instead of his usual Cantata text form of German. Bach being a Lutheran, it is said, would have normally shunned the Latin in preference to Luther's Deutsche Messe. Others believe Bach was merely trying to make a more "universal" statement by using the then Universal Language of Latin. Both of these scenarios disregard the fact that, as scholars such as Günther Stiller point out, the Lutheran church did retain the Latin liturgical texts shortly after the Reformation, and a combination of German and Latin were used through Bach's time. In fact, Günther Stiller reports that the Leipzig agendas contained four different Latin Gloria intonations. The choir thus sang responses in Latin, and especially during festival and feast days. Thus, a more "religious" tone was achieved during important church seasons. While German was used in many parts of the service of Word and Sacrament, the choir continued with Latin responses such as the "Gloria in excelsis Deo," "Et in terra pax," and "Et cum sancto spiritu tuo" etc. Also, and most notably, the Lutheran priest was to continue to intone the "Credo in unum Deum" in Latin at the altar. Not until the beginning of the 19th century was this instructed to be performed in the vernacular.

These type of responses and intonations in Latin make up the core of the Liturgical Mass, and these are the very texts that Bach used for his B minor Mass. Bach's use of these Liturgical texts was strict, and no embellishments were made. The entire text for the opening three movements of this great Mass are merely: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison." So, Bach's B minor Mass, though a departure from his usual Cantata in German, still has no un-Lutheran flavour of any kind. Bach's choir and congregation would have been very familiar with all parts of Bach's B minor Mass. I think Bach was doing nothing more than presenting his most religious and respectful posture before God and King in using Latin texts for his Mass.

Part of the Liturgical texts, and of critical importance in Lutheran theology, is the Credo, or the Nicene Creed. This is the ultimate statement of the Christian faith, and it is the laundry list of beliefs, if you will, that all Christians must adhere to to be considered truly Christian. (Both the Eastern and Western church adopt the older Apostles' Creed, and thus all Christian churches are scripturally united) I am uninterested here in the filioque controversy. I wouldn't want to indulge in trying to uncover the mystery of the hypostatic union of the Father and the Son, but I would like rather to focus on the "One Substance with the Father" that is revealed to us, and look at the relationship of the Father and Son as artistically rendered à la Bach.

I have briefly touched on the 'why and how' of the use of Latin in Bach's Lutheran Leipzig because the Latin text is built upon so beautifully by Bach in the Domine Deus duet. Bach's adorning of the Latin text is as masterful as any of his previous German text expressions.

The Domine Deus duet enters the Mass before the text of the Credo- or the Nicene Creed. Bach in true orthodox Lutheran fashion addresses the Domine Deus with regard to the Creed, which is the pivot point of Lutheran Theology and the central focus of the Mass. This Mass can be viewed as the Credo dropped into the exact middle, and concentric liturgical rings spread across the surface. The first rings of the impact reach the outer edges, the beginning of the Mass and the end. Thus, the central point and the beginning become one, and the end of the Mass one with the central point. The Beginning pleads "Kyrie eleison" or "Lord have mercy." The central point of the Mass, 'ground zero' if you will, is the "Crucifixus," the Crucifixion, where sinners accept mercy as Christ works out their salvation with his tears, sweat and blood. The end, "Dona Nobis Pacem" is reference to all preceding work, this work on the cross, and a reminder of the claim given and peace provided to forgiven sinners, who pleaded initially "Kyrie eleison", Lord have mercy.

Bach's musical design of the Domine Deus duet is specifically referenced from the portion of the Creed that expresses the "unity of substance" of God the Father, and Christ the Son (recall the concentric rings). Thus, Bach sets these duet text lines in a transverse structure. The text states simply:



Domine Deus, rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens,
Domine Fili unigenite,
Jesu Christe, altissime,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,
Filius Patris.

Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father almighty,
Oh Lord the only-begotten Son,
Jesus Christ, most High,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
Son of the Father.

Bach's wonderful construction of the music for the duet emphasizes the interrelated nature of his two subjects, God the Father and Christ the Son. Through transverse intertwining of the musical lines, and a trading off of soprano and a tenor texts, the piece opens with a playful flute and violin duet, each instrument taking turn on a playful intertwining theme. Then the tenor enters first singing "Domine Deus," speaking of the Father, then on the second word "Deus" the soprano enters singing "Domine Fili," speaking of the Son. The head start of the tenor speaks to the supreme position of the Father.Bach, at the end of these texts, has the words "Jesu Christie," sung by the soprano, and "Deus Pater," by the tenor, sung together at once, demonstrating the unity of the Father and Son. This establishes the two distinct parts the voices will play during the duet. The two parts continue and pick up the theme introduced by the two instruments, playfully intertwining, taking turns singing both text parts at once. First the Father sings the Son's part, and the Son in turn sings the Father's. Then they return to their original roles. At the very end of the duet the two roles merge and both sing the last parts of the text together: Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris (Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father).

It is clear that Bach is making the statement that God the Father, and Christ the Son are one in substance. This beautiful intertwining and transverse effect of voices and instrument, as the flute too moves along, soul-like among the sung texts, shows Bach's attention to the theological application and primacy of the text; as musical art also forms itself to the words and nature of God and not the other way round.

Our only recorded reference to this work being sung by a boy soprano with tenor is Robert King's 1997 release on Hyperion records. In King's recording we are able to hear the duet sung as it was intended, by a boy and a man. The sheer beauty of the scenario of a boy and a man singing a father and son theme duet contributes so much to the text and music that it is difficult for me to imagine that Bach wrote it with anything other than his Leipzig choir boy forces in mind. The Domine Deus and Domine Fili texts are sung marvellously on the King recording by boy soprano Matthias Ritter from the Tölzer Knabenchor and tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson. The two connect very well, and each anticipate the others' vocal nuances. In this way these two singers also translate the intimacy of Father and Son very well, delightfully fulfilling their vocal roles. This is very fine singing! Whidemonstrates a connection with the music on the part of the boy, where there is absolutely no lack of understanding or maturity in his interpretation. Mr. Johnson also does well at adjusting his own voice to meld better with the delicate nuances of the boy soprano.

Bach's Domine Deus duet is to me another clear example of Bach's use of forces at hand to highlight his texts. It also is shown in the recording by King that boys are still quite very well up to the task of singing Bach the way it was meant to be sung, giving us not only a glimpse of the past, but enlightening us to the importance of the textual meanings. Here is one solitary recording among a sea of others that provides us a unique perspective on how Bach identified with his own compositions.

Written by Boyd Pehrson (February 25, 2002)


Feedback to the Article

Amdreas Burghardt wrote (February 25, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] Thank you very much for your essay.

I think, some parts of the mass in b-minor were written for the royal court of Saxony and dedicated to the King. The King of Saxony was also King of Poland and Roman Catholic. Probably that is the reason why Latin was used.

I have uploaded the "Domine Deus" to the file section in a recording made by Radio Swiss Romande on the 9th of November 2000 in Lausanne. The soloists are Thomas Timmer (from Tölzer Knabenchor) and Markus Schäfer. The Wiener Akademie orchestra is directed by Martin Haselböck:

Boyd Pehrson wrote (February 27, 2002):
[To Andreas Burghardt] Andreas, thank you kindly for uploading the duet! What a nice surprise. So, there are two recordings out there! Though I can probably guess the sad answer is "negative" if I ask if the Thomas Timmer recording is commercially available?

I am intrigued with the Haselböck recording. Did the Wiener Akademie and Martin Haselböck perform the entire Mass? Were boy altos used as well? Regarding boy soprano Thomas Timmer, your file is more evidence of how well boys can handle these parts. While there is nothing subtle about this particular duet performance, the performance pulled me right in half way through. For me, once the music has caught hold and transported me along, we have reached Bach, and he us!

Regarding the Mass in Latin, yes, Bach sent parts of his B minor Mass, the Kyrie and Gloria, to his Catholic King. These were offered, unsolicited, by Bach as examples of Bach's ability to compose. Bach's accompanying letter let the King know he wanted a court composer's position, and that he wanted the protection of the King. Bach states he was looking for more leverage to wield on the Leipzig city council.

Yes, the King was Catholic, and Bach wrote a Kyrie and Gloria that could be played in a Catholic Mass, but the style of Bach's Kyrie and Gloria, musically would have made eyebrows rise in the musical circles of any Catholic chapel. Bach's music would have seemed either brazen or flourid compared to the more "mundane" music of the regular Mass... compare Bach to Pergolesi.

Also, Bach wrote all his other masses in Latin. These masses were all written during his time in Leipzig and most likely used there, as they were short. There were about six, and all but the Mass in F (BWV 233) would have worked in a Catholic church just as well. The Mass in F is different because Bach used a Protestant chorale in it. Bach's Magnificat (BWV 243) was definately written and performed for Leipzig and it is in Latin. His various Sanctus were written in Latin, and most likely used in Leipzig. I don't think the rest of the parts of the B minor Mass that were written after he sent the Kyrie and Gloria to the King were written in Latin necessarily due to the King's religious stance. Bach's remaining Lutheran Church Masses were all in Latin as were his Magnificat, etc. In Bach's instance, Latin doesn't necessarily equate to Catholic. The Catholic Church used Latin at the time to be sure, but the Lutheran Churches used both German and Latin. Also, the older sacred music from other great (Latin) sacred composers was used by Bach and his choir in the Lutheran churches. For the Lutheran Thomas Cantor Bach, it seems, "Mass" always meant "in Latin."

Amdreas Burghardt wrote (February 25, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] in November 2000 the Wiener Akademie and the Tölzer Knabenchor performed the complete mass in b-minor in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna and two days later in Lausanne (Switzerland). Yes, they used boy soloists for both soprano and alto. Unfortunately the recording is not (no longer) commercially available. It was possible to order the recording for some weeks after the broadcast directly from the radio station.

I have uploaded an other example of this recording to the file section, it is the duet "Et in unum Dominum" sung by Ludwig Mittelhammer (soprano) and Tom Amir (alto):

Boyd Pehrson wrote (February 28, 2002):
[To Andreas Burghardt] Thanks so much for the information, and for your great sound file! Where do you find these?! I would like to point out to all others who are interested in hearing a fine example of a boy alto, load and listen to Andreas' file of the two Tölzer Knabenchor boys singing the soprano/alto duet "Et in unum Dominum" from Bach's Mass in B minor. This is as rare as they are, these recordings are extrememly scarce, and even Robert King's 1997 B minor Mass Recording is difficult to have sent once it is ordered. The alto voice of Tom Amir is rich and distinct. If one will allow a food metaphor here; if soprano could be considered the "white sugar" then alto is the "honey", with a richer "amber" tone. Anyway, bad food meatphors aside, take a listen to Andreas' rare recording. By the way, that recording is highly compressed, and therefore lacks the resonance one would normally hear. The compression is for making the signal easier to send over the airwaves. So, much is lost in this recording, as opposed to a CD, Magnetic tape or Vinyl LP. One might use the violins as a guage to "fill in the gaps" of how things should sound. Never-the-less, we are able to hear a rare bit of performance, a real treat!


Mass in B minor BWV 232: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17
Systematic Discussions:
Part 1: Kyrie | Part 2: Gloria | Part 3: Credo | Part 4: Sanctus | Part 5: Agnus Dei | Part 6: Early Recordings | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 232 - C. Abbado | BWV 232 - Anonymous | BWV 232 - G.C. Biller | BWV 232 - F. Brüggen | BWV 232 - J. Butt | BWV 232 - S. Celibidache | BWV 232 - M. Corboz | BWV 232 - A. Eby | BWV 232 - G. Enescu | BWV 232 - E. Ericson | BWV 232 - D. Fasolis | BWV 232 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 232 - C.M. Giulini | BWV 232 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - T. Hengelbrock | BWV 232 - P/ Herreweghe | BWV 232 - R. Hickox | BWV 232 - R. Jacobs | BWV 232 - E. Jochum | BWV 232 - Ifor Jones | BWV 232 - K. Junghänel & Cantus Cölln | BWV 232 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 232 - R. King | BWV 232 - O. Klemperer | BWV 232 - S. Kuijken | BWV 232 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 232 - P. McCreesh | BWV 232 - M. Minkowski | BWV 232 - H. Müller-Bruhl | BWV 232 - S. Ozawa | BWV 232 - M. Pearlman | BWV 232 - K. Richter | BWV 232 - J. Rifkin | BWV 232 - H. Rilling | BWV 232 - H. Scherchen | BWV 232 - P. Schreier | BWV 232 - R. Shaw | BWV 232 - G. Solti | BWV 232 - M. Suzuki | BWV 232 - J. Thomas & ABS | BWV 232 - K. Thomas | BWV 232 - J.v. Veldhoven
Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 [T. Noel Towe] | Bach’s B minor Mass on Period Instruments [D. Satz] | Like Father, Like Son [B. Pehrson]


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