Bach's Requiem Mass | JSBachFOA.Org

Bach's Requiem Mass


"Come to her (Maria's) aid, O Saints of God". This was the opening prayer of the old funeral service, sung while the coffin was brought from the rear of the church, up the aisle to the sanctuary, and it fits the music of the little Prelude in G Minor.

The Little G Minor Prelude (from the Eight)

The notes are set to the Subvenite. The chords at the beginning of the little G Minor Prelude always puzzled me, and it's only now, more than thirty years later, that I think I understand them: they represent the tolling of the church bell as the coffin is brought into the church. "Bong .... Come to her aid .... Bong .... O Saints of God .... Bong .... ".

The Fugue sets both the Absolve Quaesumus and the In Paradisum.

Absolve Quaesumus

The Absolve Quaesumus is not the "Absolve Domine", the better known Tract, which occurs early in the Mass. Instead, it is used when a body is not present, near the end, following the miscellaneous versicles and responses of the Libera Me (qqv see the Great Fugue in G Minor), and before the In Paradisum.

With its opening line "Free the soul of your servant, (Maria), we beg you O Lord", the celebrant personalizes the Mass by including the name of the deceased, in this case Bach's first wife Maria.

In Paradisum

I had given up my Church job and moved away several years before my own mother died, but our friends from St. Ann's came to her funeral and sang the In Paradisum, "May the angels take you into Paradise". It's a beautiful prayer set to an equally beautiful Gregorian melody, and was sung near the end of the funeral. Today it's place has been taken by more accessible music, and if the trend continues, by the time my own funeral comes around there won't be any singing at all. Instead, someone will simply beat on my coffin with sticks.

I always liked this fugue. It starts off stately enough, but then develops an exuberance and a sense of its own destiny, as if the young composer were being swept along by his emerging powers, without yet having developed the discipline to keep his creation under control.

Lux Aeterna

Lux Aeterna, May Eternal Light Shine Upon Them, O Lord, is another beautiful piece, similar in mood and music to the In Paradisum.

The Little E Minor Prelude (from the Eight)

The E minor Little Prelude is based on the Lux Aeterna.

The Little E Minor Fugue (from the Eight)

The matching Fugue, which was my favorite of the set, combines a second setting of the In Paradisum (see above) with the Ego Sum Resurrectio (see below). I always thought this fugue was the most mature of the eight.

The Little A Minor Prelude (from the Eight)

The A minor Little Prelude sets the first half of the Domine Jesu Christe, Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory. This is the Offertory prayer, sung as the the Bread and Wine were being prepared to be offered up, before their consecration.

The Little A Minor Fugue (from the Eight)

The A minor Little Fugue sets the remaining lines of the Offertory, beginning with the Hostias et preces tibi, We bring you, O Lord, offerings and prayers of praise.

Domine Jesu Christe

The Offertory prayer was normally said shortly after the Credo, but because the Credo was not said in the Requiem Mass, the Offertory came a little earlier. We used to do the Offertory, "Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory", on a Psalm Tone, because years earlier someone in the choir had done it like that, which by the way was perfectly acceptable, and no one had ever bothered to change. The Psalm Tones are simple melodic formulae, with most of the notes the same, so they are easy to learn, easy to play, and easy to sing.

The Great Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor

Bach derived the Fantasia from the Requiem Aeternam and from the Kyrie Eleison which immediately follows it. The melody uses the Gregorian chant notes as a hidden counterpoint for both prayers. I've placed the Gregorian notes on whichever staff they would fit, because I didn't know they should be there until after I had finished writing out the piece.

The Fugue sets the prayers which are said during the Absolution of the Corpse, of which the most famiar is the Libera Me. It begins with the Non Intres, continues with the Libera Me, then a few versicles and responses, next with the Pater Noster (the Our Father, or the Lord's Prayer), and finally with the Ego Sum Resurrectio.

The Fantasia in G Minor, like the actual Mass itself, begins with the Requiem Aeternam and continues with the Kyrie.

Requiem Aeternam
Kyrie Eleison

The Requiem Aeternam is sung at the beginning of Mass when the coffin has been brought to the front of the church. It asks that eternal rest be given to all those who have died, and leads into the Kyrie Eleison, Lord Have Mercy. Both prayers were usually sung to distinctive, beautiful, and somber Gregorian melodies.

Non Intres in Judicium
Libera Me Domine

One of my favorite organ pieces is the Great Fugue in G Minor, and it gave me special pleasure to find that Bach composed it based on the words of the old burial rite, for reasons I'll explain below. It sets the rites of Absolution, at the end of the Funeral Mass, where the priest, in black vestments, and with incense, holy water, and candles, prayed over the coffin.

The Fugue begins with the Non Intres in Judicium, Enter not into Judgement with Your Servant, O Lord, and continues with the Libera Me Domine, and then with the Pater Noster and a few versicles and responses. The Libera Me is probably familiar to most music lovers through the concert requiems. It's not a prayer for the fainthearted.

My wife Rosemary had chosen the Fantasia and Fugue, without, of course, knowing its significance, as a prelude for our wedding, and Andy Clarke was the organist. He was both my organ teacher and the director of his own concert choir, in which both Rosemary and I, and some of our choir, sang. On this day, with Andy at the organ, Bach sounded even better than usual, while Rosemary waited to march down the aisle.

Rosemary has had fond memories of the piece ever since, so you can imagine my surprise when she didn't like my putting words to it, especially the words which Bach himself had apparently chosen.

The "Libera Me, Domine" isn't ordinarily considered a wedding piece. "Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that awful day", "a day of wrath, of calamity and misery", "a day of exceeding bitterness". After finding the words, these years later, I thoroughly enjoyed this little joke at my wife's expense, naturally assuming that they described my plight. Until last night, that is, when it occurred to me that they applied equally well to Rosemary, and that maybe the joke was on me. Still, we have just celebrated our thirty-second anniversary, so there might be something to it, this getting the "day of wrath" stuff over with, right at the beginning. [Rosemary died from a pulmonary embolism on January 5, 2009 and I miss her greatly. EK]

It also rained like the dickens on our wedding day, but Father Hanrahan, our pastor and friend, now dead these many years, assured us that the rain was a good sign. It taught us right at the beginning, he said, that things were not always going to go the way we wanted.

Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie Pater Noster

Following the Libera Me, the priest continued with a single Lord have mercy, a Christ have mercy, and a Lord have mercy. Then he began the Pater Noster (Our Father who art in Heaven, The Lords Prayer) speaking the first few words audibly, and continuing the prayer silently while presenting incense and sprinkling holy water on the casket. When he reached Et ne nos Inducas in Tentationem, And lead us not into Temptation, he again spoke those words and the words that followed, audibly.

Bach's music follows the loud, soft, loud pattern, and it's easy to tell where the audible recitation resumes, even without following the score.

Versicles and Responses

Several more short versicles and responses follow the Pater Noster. From the Gate of Hell, Rescue his (her) Soul O Lord. Even today, some of the Latin sounds familiar, so often did we hear it. Requiescat in pace. Amen. May he (she) rest in peace. Amen. Domine exaudi orationem meam. O Lord, hear my prayer. Et clamor meus ad te veniat. And let my cry come unto thee (come to you, these days). And the most familiar of them all, Dominus Vobiscum, and its response, Et cum spiritu tuo. Any man of my age who was an alter boy will remember this one, probably after he has forgotten everything else. The Lord be with you, And with your spirit.

The Ego Sum Resurrectio

"I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me, even though he has died, lives. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." The Ego Sum Resurrectio was recited at the grave, and summarized the Christian belief in life after death. We can read about Bach's faith and we can talk about it, but I'm don't think we can truly understand it unless we've faced the same disasters which overtook Bach. He must often have thought of the trials of Job when he lost Maria Barbara and so many of his children.

When our own daughter was only a few months old, she woke us one night, wheezing with croup. I've never felt so helpless as when we held her and listened to her struggling to breathe. Our first instinct, though, was to call the doctor. It wasn't to get down on our knees to pray, and I wonder if Bach would have such a strong faith or be able to write such wonderful music today, in the age of penicillin.

Notes and References

A note on the translations. I've combined traditional translations with my own in several places to give a literal rendering of the Latin, even to the point of awkwardness. Perhaps, like me, you've heard many of these prayers in standard English translations for so long that it will come as a shock to experience the vividness of the original Latin. The poetry and style are in the Latin.

I took the cover photo at the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001 while waiting for rescue workers to clear a path through the rubble of the collapsed South Tower, minutes before the North Tower also came down. I was in the North Tower on the Seventy Fourth floor at the time the buildings were struck, and I was fortunate to escape. I've explained, in Bach's Mass in Goldberg, the surprising relationship between the terror attacks and my discovery of Bach's secret use of Latin texts.

Job - As I was writing this, it occured to me that Bach must have thought long and hard about Job. Then I thought about Archibald McLeish and his twentieth century Job, "JB", and I realized the irony of Bach's initials, JB or JoB. Bach and Job each lost ten children, but Bach also lost his wife. Mrs. Job apparently survived, although with her fishwife's tongue, she might have been one of her husbands lesser trials, perhaps an innoculation to prepare him for the big ones.

Psittacism - How often does a word get its own citation? This one should, if only in memory of Father Thomas Grogan, an erudite Jesuit with a dry sense of humor, who tried to teach us a little history. It must have been one of his own favorites, because he wanted us to learn it, and learn it we did. I've neither seen nor heard it since, but I just looked it up in my Unabridged, and sure enough, there it was, begging to be let out to stretch its wings. The word means the mechanical repetition of something without thought, or as Fr. Grogan put it, "mere parroting" (from the Latin psittacus, a parrot).

He himself was no parrot, although there was at least one time in his life that he probably wished he were. All his students were "Doctor". "Doctor Kotski" he might say, "explain escheat", and to my great surprise just now, after all these years, that was an exact quote and I could hear his voice. Father Grogan had come to our high school from a nearby Jesuit seminary, Shadowbrook, which had burned to the ground a year or so earlier, during a raging, middle of the night fire which killed several Jesuits and severly injured seveal others. Shadowbrook had been Andrew Carnegie's old summer home, and was a huge, sprawling, wooden structure which went up like kindling.

Some of our other teachers had been there during the fire, and I found out how Fr. Grogan had behaved, trapped on an upper floor with the flames closing in. Leaning out his window to breathe, he noticed a volunteer firemen on the ground below. "I say, Doctor", he called out. "When you get a minute, could you bring a ladder?"

Some of the following books are in the bookstores. Others can be found on-line or in a good library.

The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg, W.W. Norton & Company, New York Third Edition, 1997. Schonberg, who died recently, was a great writer. His music biographies are well known, but I was surprised by his ability to write equally well about chess masters.

The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach by Klaus Eidam, English Translation by Hoyt Rogers, published by Basic Books, New York, 2000. An interesting book with a different take on Bach.

Bach by Malcolm Boyd, Oxford University Press, New York, Third Edition, 2000.

Johann Sebastian Bach by Philipp Spitta, English Translation by Bell and Fuller-Maitland, Dover's re-publication of the original 1889 edition. Almost the first, and still the finest.

J. S. Bach by Albert Schweitzer, English Translation by Ernest Newman, Dover's re-publication of the original 1911 edition. I have a great respect for Schweitzer, and would like to be around when some of his insights are proven to be correct after all.

Landowska on Music, Collected, Edited, and Translated by Denise Restott, Assisted by Robert Hawkins, published by Stein and Day, New York, 1964. Contains Wanda Landowska's essays, insights, and speculations.

The Liber Usualis, With Introduction and Rubrics in English, Edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes, published by St. Bonaventure Publications, Great Falls, Montana, 1997. Originally published by Desclee and Co., Tournai, Belgium, 1953.

The St. Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir Book, Compiled, Edited, and Arranged by Montani, published by the St. Gregory Guild, Inc., Philadelphia, 1940.

The New Roman Missal, by Rev. F. X. Lasance and Rev. Francis Augustine Walsh, published by the Benziger Brothers, Inc., New York, 1937. My source for the traditional Latin texts of the Mass for the Dead.

Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Willi Apel, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. in 1972.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Complete Preludes and Fugues for Organ, Dover's 1985 reproduction of the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Toccatas, Fantasias, Passacaglia and Other Works for Organ, Dover's 1987 reproduction of the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition.

Oeuvres Completes pour Orgue de J. S. Bach annotees et doigtees par Marcel Dupre, published by S. Bronemann, Paris, in 1941.

Wheelock's Latin, Frederic M. Wheelock, Revised by Richard A. LaFleur, 6th Edition, published by Harper-Collins, New York, in 2000.

Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin, Leo F. Stelten, published by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Peabody, Mass., in 1995. An excellent dictionary.

Latin - Essentials of Grammar, W. Michael Wilson, published by Passport Books, Lincolnwood, Ill., in 1996. It’s a good pocket reference, although it's not indexed as well as it could be.

Latin Resources on the Web - The University of Notre Dame has a very helpful site, named "Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid". It contains several good links, one of which, "William Whitaker's Words", I found particularly useful. To find them both, use Google's advanced search, locating "all" of the words (Notre Dame Latin), and from Notre Dame go to Whitaker.

I have an additional reference, my wife Rosemary, who has a keener eye for a misspelled word than anyone I know. She pointed out that I had gotten JS Bach's name wrong (Johann has two, not one, n's) on the cover of my "Bach's Mass in Goldberg", but not, unfortunately, before it ended up in the Library of Congress. Not learning from my mistake, I've again made a few changes after she looked this manuscript over, and any strange looking words which remain are my doing, not hers.

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