The Goldberg Variations - Bach's Mass in Goldberg | JSBachFOA.Org

Bach's Mass in Goldberg

Music from The Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach

Thirty Two Settings From the Traditional (Tridentine) Latin Mass

Arranged by Ed Kotski

Photo by Ed Kotski
View From WTC 1, Looking South

© 2001, 2002, 2003 by Ed Kotski

All Rights Reserved

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How it came about

I ran for my life on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was struck by two hijacked jetliners. I'm an engineer with the Port Authority, and was at my desk on the 74th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit. There was a loud explosion, the building lurched, and burning debris showered down outside the windows. Strangely enough, this disaster, with its overtones of Islamic militancy, led directly to my realization that Bach's Goldberg Variations were inspired by texts from the old Latin Mass, which for centuries had been the centerpiece of Christian worship.

God watches over fools and children. The evacuation order was shouted out, and almost everyone headed for the stairs, but I and one of my colleagues stayed behind to give the stairwells time to empty, and to phone our wives and let them know we were safe.

Rosemary teaches, but the phone system at her school wasn't working when I called, and rather than leave a message with the automated service, I decided to wait a while and try later. When I called again, it still wouldn't go through, but this time I left a message that I was safe and would stay in the building until the smoke cleared. Then I called my son-in-law to let him know I was on top of things. Brian's a volunteer fireman, and I thought he might like a report from the scene. He was watching CNN, and said that the building had been hit by a 767 and looked like it was starting to tip. He told me to get out of there in a hurry, which I passed along to my colleague.

We actually started down about 10 minutes later, well after the second tower had been hit, and were still in the stairwell when the other building collapsed. For the first time I felt a real sense of danger, but after the noise and the shaking stopped, things seemed fine, and I had no idea that the other building had fallen. We finally made it out, a few minutes before ours came down. My cell phone didn't work, and I walked halfway uptown before finding a phone. I wanted to call home to leave a message that I had left the building and was ok, but instead of getting the answering machine, my daughter picked up. I was just as surprised to hear Karen's voice as she was to hear mine. She and Brian had gone to the house to comfort her mother, who had finally gotten my message at school, complete with the fire alarm sounds in the background.

I had the next few weeks to reflect on my close escape, while the Port Authority looked for new offices. I was so sore from climbing down the stairs, then running from the collapsing building, and finally making the long trek uptown, that I couldn't even walk without shuffling straight-legged across the floor. I also got one of the worst colds of my life, from breathing the dust. All I could do was sit in a chair and sniffle, so having earlier found a few of the more obvious Goldberg settings, I decided to take a serious look at the rest.

My Background

I'm an amateur musician, and was the organist and choir director at St. Ann's Church (RC) in Lenox, Massachusetts, a small town in the Berkshires, from late 1960's until the mid 1970's when my daughter was born and I no longer had time for two careers.

I'm also a Roman Catholic, and was an altar boy when the Church still was still using the traditional Mass. We had to memorize several simple responses in Latin, and I've never since felt it to be a foreign language. I had the good fortune to go to a Jesuit high school, where I had a few years Latin, taught by exceptionally talented men who could speak it conversationally. One of my teachers, a Boston Irishman named Jack Rahilly, also turned out to be a superb pianist, and he introduced me to the music of Bach. I didn't believe him when he predicted that while I would soon tire of Chopin, Bach would be forever, but of course, that's what happened.

Latin Today

There are two kinds of Latin, real Latin and the other kind. I had wondered for years how there could be two strikingly different pronunciations for one language, until I ran across the answer in one of Winston Churchill's books. His explanation sounds a lot better than one I had seen in a Latin grammer, which claimed that theoretical considerations had allowed the experts to deduce how a Roman voice had sounded two thousand years ago, while ignoring how it had sounded when it was spoken throughout Europe. This auditory archaeology seems to me the equivalent of reconstructing, theoretically, the look of a human skeleton while ignoring our stockpile of bones. The result is today's "Piltdown Latin".

Churchill gets right to the point. The following wonderful quote is from his autobiography My Early Life (sometimes titled A Roving Commission or Young Winston), which not only gives his opinion of the "other" pronunciation, but also implies a time frame for its introduction. The quote is found early on, when his teachers were trying to convince him of the utility of Latin, evidently no easy task. Here it is.

"I was fain to admit a practical value. But now even this has been swept away. The foreigners and the Scotch have joined together to introduce a pronunciation of Latin which divorces it finally from the English tongue. They tell us to pronounce 'audience' 'owdience'; and 'civil' 'keyweel'. They have distorted one of my most serviceable and impressive quotations into the ridiculous booby 'Wainy, Weedy, Weeky'. Punishment should be reserved for those who have spread this evil."

My personal opinion is that the Latin of Bach probably sounded like the Latin I learned, and which for the most part is the Latin used in good recordings. The problem with secular Latin is that it's not taught by people who speak or hear it on a daily basis except in their classrooms, and I suspect that the modern pronunciation was introduced as a reaction to the influence of the clergy. In any event, the reader who wants to explore the language, as it applies to music, should buy a good "Church Latin" dictionary, such as Stelten's Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin. Besides having a full liturgical vocabulary, it also features all the letters. My own middle initial is "J", and I was especially distressed to find that it's recently been banished. Even Stelten spells a few words with "i" instead of "j" (majestatis). The modern trend, besides making Latin unreadable as well as unspeakable, could also eventually make it unsingable.

A grammar is indispensable for review and for first time readers. I found Wilson's Latin, Essentials of Grammar to be concise and portable, especially as a refresher. For self-teaching, Wheelock's Latin is superior, although the pronunciation guidelines are inappropriate and it won't fit in your pocket.

When singing Latin, try to avoid sounding silly. The Golden Rule is "Would I be embarrassed to be heard talking like this?" Occasionally "c" sounds like the "ch" in "church" (eg: coeli), "g" is sometimes soft, as in "regem angelorum", "v" sounds like, well, "v", as in video, and occasionally I yield to temptation and pronounce "j" like a soft "g" (majestatis), although my conscience bothers me. We would like to approximate the sounds that Bach knew, and he neither lived in Scotland nor in the time of the Caesars. Of course, spoken pronunciation is sometimes fine-tuned when singing (eg: excelsis to egg-shell-sis).

The Tridentine Latin Mass

This was the Mass I grew up with, and which few today have ever heard. It dated back to the Council of Trent in the 1500's, and contained a multiplicity of texts, some of which were used as a fundamental core, while others augmented or modified this core as liturgical season or circumstance directed. Today's musician knows settings for the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, but these are just its basic parts.

The Tridentine Mass was retired in the mid 1900's, after almost 400 years. Requiescat in pace, as they used to say.

The Goldberg Mass

The Goldberg Variations continue to puzzle scholars after all this time. It amazes me that so many eminently qualified musicians, for example Landowska and Schweitzer, have written about the vocal quality of the variations without asking themselves the obvious question "well, if there are words, what might they be?"

Although I knew that a few of the variations were suitable settings for parts of the Mass, I didn't grasp the scope of Bach's plan. I just assumed that he took his inspiration where he found it, and that several of the pieces were probably little improvisations which he drew upon to bulk up his collection. Needless to say, this was foolish and an insult to his greatness, and I humbly apologize.

One of the advantages of being an old Roman Catholic is that I have an old Roman Missal, and with it I was able to look for parts of the Mass which agreed in sequence with the Variations already identified. This worked well until the Mass ran out of parts before the Variations ran out of music, but with guesswork and a little serendipity, I found the rest.

I recently bought Peter Williams's very interesting book Bach - The Goldberg Variations, and I was curious to see if any one else had solved the puzzle. I was pleased to see no mention of the Mass, but there's a great portrait of Bach on the cover, by Haussmann, from the Scheide Collection at Princeton, which shows Bach looking out at the reader. I was drawn to his eyes. They're shifty, as if he's keeping something to himself, something which he knows would be of great interest to me and to you.

Professor Williams mentions that the Goldbergs form the largest single work to be published for a keyboard instrument during the eighteenth century. My suspicion is that they were also intended to be the most comprehensive Mass ever written, in terms of the number of settings contained. By comparison, the B Minor Mass is a mere Missa Brevis, with only the five basic parts.

The Translations

I have gone through all the Latin texts, word for word, and have tried to use traditional, well established English renderings where possible, except that I have deliberately sacrificed style and poetry where they do not coexist with a literal translation from the Latin. In the process, I've been reminded how vivid and graphic Latin can be. I've also found so many of my errors, that I'm sure some remain.

The Variations

The Goldberg Mass occurs in its natural order, with a few additions. The "Sub Tuum Praesidium", the "Nunc Dimmitis", and the "Te Deum" were not used every day, but were sung on special occasions, and I've taken Bach's word for it that they belong where he put them. I don't remember hearing them in church, although I might have been too young.

The Aria

The "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy) is Greek, and is the only part of the Mass not in Latin. The phrases were spoken alternately by the priest and the server, three Kyrie Eleisons, three Christe Eleisons, and three more Kyrie Eleisons. Today, it is done with three groups of two, and in the vernacular.

Knowing the words gives sense to the music. Instrumentally, the appoggiaturas seem strange and intruding on the melody, but when sung, they sound completely natural and appropriate. Incidentally, throughout the variations, many of the ornaments seem to fall on God's name.

Variation 1

It didn't occur to me until I had worked out several variations that Bach had a grand scheme in mind, and I initially thought this one might make a nice Gloria Patri, with the instrumental accompaniment acting as an obbligato to an unwritten choral part. An Enigma Variation, so to speak, with the listener supplying an unwritten vocal line. When, after several false starts, I finally realized that the next variation was a perfect setting for "Et in terra pax", the problem was solved. "Gloria", stretched out a little, and "in excelsis Deo" (Glory to God in the highest). The key signature is "G", but there are a lot of C-sharps in there, and my ear leans towards D, with trumpets and timpani.

Variation 2

When I was a boy, my grandfather explained to me that one of the major differences between Catholicism and Protestantism was in the translation of "Et in terra pax" (And on earth, peace).

The Catholics, he said, believed in "peace on earth to men of good will", while the Protestants took the more lenient view of "peace on earth, good will towards men". He told me that the Catholic version was the true one, because the Latin said "bonae voluntatis". Much later, I found that both versions go back several hundred years.

The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible makes no bones about it. If you want peace, you have to show some good will. The King James Bible, on the other hand, seems to offer peace to all men, whether or not they deserve it. My grandfather was Irish, his father having fled to America to keep from being hanged for killing an English soldier, and this might have influenced his reasoning. Bach follows the Catholic, probably for him the Lutheran, version.

The trouble with trying to fit words to music is that there are lots of possible combinations. The notes of Variation Two go quite well with "All we like sheep", the base line conjuring up little sheep-feet wandering across the fields. I'd already noticed that Variation 4 makes a pretty good "Glory of the Lord", and I was starting to wonder who might have borrowed from whom. Fortunately, "et in terra pax" worked perfectly, so I let the matter drop. The sound of sheep might not be an accident, when you recall that the first men to hear these words were shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night.

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